Grove iPhone 5 case: When a better product makes one nostalgic for an older product more given to decay
Although “green” may have peaked as a consumer trend, muxing into the background radiation of purchasing factors, there's a foreseen effect we're now able to appreciate after years of living with our biodegradable gear, perhaps more fully than we'd sometimes desire: decay.
One of the benefits of making products from wood or bamboo or some green-age polymer that looks like plastic but is woven of sustainably harvested termite kidneys is that when they break down–and they're gonna break down, as everything must eventually–is that they'll do so in ways that make them more attractive, not shabbier. Wood, especially, has a special relationship with aging; what is once dense, fibrous, and wet with sap is dried and cured into something that is–at least at first process–less appealing than its source material. (*I think that I shall never see / a lumber yard as lovely as a tree.*)
But slap a bit of stain and oil on that sucker (after giving it sanding to emulate the smoothing effects of time and friction) and it's one of the most appealing materials of all, simultaneously reflecting the order of industry and craft but still enticing you to come up and see its etchings. Consider how lovely it is that the proper way to oil a pipe bowl is to rub it in the clefts of your nose; a disgusting little ditch of glandular tailings made perfectly useful when slathered on thirsty wood.
(Imagine if plastic could tell the story of its growth after processing, each piece of Tupperware embossed with the transparent imprint of Carboniferous algae and zooplankton.)
Anyway, wood is neat. And while the bamboo used by Grove, the iPhone accessory maker in Portland, picks up its own patina over time, it also does something else that wood is wont to do: break apart.
The case above is my old Grove case which lived on my iPhone 4 (and 4S) for over a year before I gave it to my girlfriend. When I handed it off, a small piece of the front lip–a sort of thin soffit that sits flush with the glass front of the phone–had caught on something and started to pull up. I told her I'd “have to fix that up for her soon,” but before I got around to doing it, it had already folded up and cracked off. Not a big loss–it's mostly aesthetic.
Then she kept using the Grove case. Like a case. Like a case you'd put around a phone before you handed it over to an orang-utan. Thrown everywhere. Into her purse. Onto her desk. At her keeper when I came to hose out her cage at night.
So it started to chip apart. She kept using it, because 3⁄4 of a case is still better than no case at all. (And because she's beyond pretension and enjoyed the added character. She's a nice lady and not ape-like at all, except that she's stronger than me.)
That's what you get with wooden things. They're going to come apart–often more quickly than a synthetic analog might. And that's what makes them actually wonderful. They fall apart. They age. They add a tactile contrast to the (also appealing) crysknife smoothness of an aluminum and glass slab. Like peanut butter and chocolate, if chocolate were honed from a black plinth of quantumly perfect black cacao.
if you can ignore the relatively expensive price–$70; and I'm going to ignore it for now, although it's certainly a point in a broader conversation–and are willing to watch your purchase decay before your eyes, it's a tidy little metaphor for a digital life: the body decays, but the soul is eternal. (Until September 12th, at least.)
Grove has a prototype case for iPhone 5 available for pre-order and it uses a new “ plant fiber composite core” to hold the phone in place instead of the raw bamboo and felt grips of the previous models. I bet it's a lot more durable, but a little part of me will lament the loss of the all-bamboo predecessor: its decay was interesting to behold and its imperfections gave my idle fingers something to worry.
(None of this is meant as impugnment of Grove's design, which I think was incredibly considered and engineered, right down to their choice of bamboo over hardwood, which performed a sleight-of-hand I've been able to verify with others who have held a naked iPhone in one palm and an iPhone in a Grove case in the other: somehow the one in the bamboo case feels lighter.)
Update: Grove co-founder Joe Mansfield shared a little about the new material via email:
We don't want to reveal the exact material we've discovered due to the number of knockoffs we constantly see in our industry, but I'll tell you as much as I can about the material: We're combining a plant fiber composite layer with the bamboo to re-enforce the whole case. This new material is 50% recycled paper combined with 50% bamboo fiber and it's compressed together with a water-based resin. It's FSC certified and contains no Urea, formaldehyde, VOC's, or benzene. The material is incredibly dense and strong and feels very similar to ceramic to the touch. The material will be available in white and black and is super scratch and stain resistant.
Ceramic! But not dyeable, it seems.
And I guess I'll have to add my own urea. Typical.