The serving jug that became a design classic
What makes an icon?
Why do some products continue to grab attention while others fall by the wayside? When SAS started using a new, ergonomically designed serving jug in the mid-1980s, it signified a design revolution and a glimpse of the future: a familiar object transformed for the specific needs of an airplane cabin, with a design focused entirely on the user. It was black, with an austere elegance typical of the day – but it seems to have been strangely unaffected by the passage of time.
About the jug:
Weight empty: 465g
Weight filled: 1,950g
Volume: 1.7 liters (about 12 cups)
Today, almost 500,000 units of the jug have been sold, it is used by more than 30 different airlines (the black version is still reserved for SAS, however), it has been showered with design awards, and it’s featured in the permanent collection of the MoMA Museum of Modern Art.
For 30 years, SAS’s passenger cabins have been taking an idea out to the world, a Swedish-made design truth, if you will – ergonomically conceived design doesn’t have to mean boring.
Like all groundbreaking design, the serving jug was the response to a clearly- defined problem. SAS cabin crew were experiencing problems with their wrists and shoulders, sometimes to such an extent that they needed surgery. The reason turned out to be the jug’s predecessor – an elegant, squat cylinder made from stainless steel and designed by silversmith Folke Arström, creator of the Focus cutlery range. The older jug worked really well in environments less challenging than aircraft cabins. But it was too heavy for someone who needed to stretch across two seats to pour coffee. The handle sticking out from the side meant that the jug’s center of gravity was far away from the hand, pulling at the wrists and arms.
The task of developing a more suitable jug was given to Maria Bengtzon and Sven-Eric Juhlin of Ergonomidesign, now Veryday. The company was one of the first to examine the needs of the user in detail and base the design around them. SAS must have seen just how far this could lead when it began by considering the need for a jug at all.
“There were so many requirements that had to be met, it was a real challenge,” Bengtzon recalls. “The weight had to be reduced and the handle had to sit closer to the jug’s center of gravity. It had to be drip-free, durable, able to withstand large temperature differences, to stand firmly upside down and a certain number of them had to fit into a box.”
Bengtzon and Juhlin began by exploring different handle options on wooden blocks, then moved on to plastic models, and finally produced three prototypes, two of which didn’t have a separate spout. The spout, they were then told, was non negotiable.
“We tried lots of different spouts,” Bengtzon says. “The spout had to be quite sharp so that it cut off the flow and didn’t drip, but that made it more fragile. The solution was to put a stainless steel tube in the end of the spout.”
Slowly, the jug took on its final shape. The volume was reduced to bring down the weight. The handle design was more wrist-friendly. Attaching the spout close to the bottom of the container allowed the crew to pour out the last drops without having to tilt the jug as much. An easily extended elliptical shape increased reach.
Functional requirements took precedence over aesthetic considerations, but there was still some leeway with regard to the angle of the container against the handle and the color, for example. Bengtzon and Juhlin made the jug black and gave it a stainless steel lid (on some newer versions the lid is plastic). A discreet marker on the hinge of the lid indicates the contents of the jug – red for coffee, white for tea.
“We wanted to give it quite an austere expression, appealing and suitable for a serving implement,” Bengtzon says.
To say that the jug was a success is an under-statement. The trade union actually required crew members to use the new jug. In some ways, this answers the question of what makes an icon. It has to be original. It has to have a fundamental concept. And above all, it has to be loved. Bengtzon laughs at a memory.
“I was flying once, after the jug had started being used, and when I mentioned that I had helped to design it, the crew came out with champagne. That was great!”
Text: Anders Bergmark
Published: August 26, 2016