Dustin Smith loved DJing at his friends' parties, but his MP3-filled computer just wasn't rugged or portable enough to haul across town. When Smith found a vintage OshKosh makeup case, a light went off. After buying a bunch of electronics components and making a zillion trips to the hardware store, he was done: Smith had crammed an entire computer inside the retro case. "There's a real design aesthetic to it," he says, "but I also wanted something really functional."
When I first saw Smith's tricked-out machine, I immediately wanted one to call my own. The makeup-case computer is an example of a "casemod," a modification of an interesting shell—a coffee maker, a typewriter, a chrome box—so that a computer fits inside. It used to be that people didn't design their own everyday stuff—particularly not work-related tools like computers. When was the last time you trimmed goose quills to make a pen? The genius idea of industrialism was the concept of the Model T: In exchange for something cheap and well-made, we'd forgo unique, lovely design.
But the Model T is old news. Nowadays, people want consumer goods to have serious aesthetic appeal. If they can't find what they want in stores, they'll build it themselves. You could call it "grass-roots industrial design."
It's not surprising that computers were the first to go under the knife—of all the gadgets we interact with every day, they're the ugliest. (Air conditioners are a close second.) Plus, computer components have become cheap to buy and easy to snap together: There are huge online stores devoted to providing casemodders with chips, boards, and computer fans. It's more than just computers, though. One Star Wars freak recently completed a three-year-long project to redesign his 1995 Honda Civic del Sol Si into a replica of an A-wing fighter *—complete with a plasma-ball side cannon, U-shaped steering wheel, and "talking" R2-D2 head mounted on the back hood. (Now that takes commitment.)
But meticulously built spaceship cars are just the start. Do-it-yourself design will get really interesting when inventors are able to sketch something out and then hold the thing in their hands within a matter of minutes. Today, rapid-prototyping technology—that is, 3-D printers that can instantly crank out a physical copy of anything you design on a computer—is available only to elite design firms. It'll get cheaper within years. Meanwhile, "original design manufacturing" companies overseas are becoming expert at quickly and cheaply cranking out MP3 players and laptops to specs set by brand-name firms like Virgin or Sony. Put those trends together, and it's easy to envision an offshore service that will take my personal design for a music player and crank out 10 copies. Presto: the Clive brand MP3 player! Think of it as vanity electronics—casemodding on a superfast, global scale.
In her book The Substance of Style, economics pundit Virginia Postrel sort of predicts this trend. Customization is, she thinks, an inevitable result of the increasing durability of the products we buy. Since we need no longer shop for quality, we focus on design and style. There's also the Martha Stewart factor. America has always had tinkerers, including just about any teenager who ever hot-rodded a Camaro. But with the ascendancy of the home-renovation TV show, do-it-yourselfism has gone mainstream. Middle-class America is thoroughly bathed in the idea that everyone should architect their surroundings. We rip out walls, build decks, and terraform our backyards into Kubla Khanian gardens. In fact, one of the reasons The Simsbecame the top-selling video game of all time is that it allows players to design homes, down to the pattern of the kitchen tiles.
In the low-tech world, there's already a booming trade in customizing everyday goods. Online stores like CafePress.com and PhotoStamps.com are making a mint from customers who send in artwork to be printed on personalized messenger bags, lunchboxes, or postage stamps. Still, slapping a picture on a coffee mug is one thing; designing your own TV from scratch is quite another. You could scoff that mass customization will never be a big trend. Anyone can mail off a picture of their dog to put on a mouse pad, but conceptualizing an entire electronic device takes, y'know, work. Nor do we always want things custom-made. Often, we crave some new gadget precisely because it isn't personalized. I lust after iPods or Mini Coopers not because they're unique, but because they've been so artfully made that I couldn't imagine doing it better myself. And there's also something fun about owning the exact same gadget as millions of other people. It makes you part of a tribe.
But maybe there'll soon be a new tribe: People who can't resist the fun of tinkering—and are armed with the technology to tinker cheaper, faster, and better than ever before. When Dustin Smith brought his OshKosh computer through airport security a while ago, a guard stopped him short. "A computer? Why'd you do that?" he wondered. Before Smith could say anything, the guard realized the answer: "Because you could, right?"