We own two knives in the household. We own more of course — kitchen knives, steak knives, butter knives. We own two tool knives. They are utility knives, not to be thought of as weapons or instruments of harm. They can do damage but not the kind of damage one would associate, or perhaps should associate with ill to another.
Knives are tools. At least two-and-a-half-million years ago, if not older, the knife was mankind’s first tool. We used it in many ways to further our worldview. It’s one of the oldest items we’ve ever designed. Born out of utility and a need to make things happen.
The two knives we own are different in nature. One is a divers knife that Jen has had with her for years now and as a diver, has occasionally carried with her. There is a purpose to it. In case of an emergency or for exploratory purposes, it’s there, provided in a pocket knife, with a clip on the back, a handle of rubberized plastic for grip and a serrated blade of girth and business. A spring lever inside the handle holds the blade locked in place when open and pushing on that lever releases it back into its handle. It has a weight to it, purposeful and wieldy. While a tool, it has a feeling of intent dashed with menace. It feels military-like. It has no name, no identifying brand.
The other knife is mine, a recent acquisition. It’s far less modern. It’s a classic. The design is simply made of a beechwood handle and in this instance, a stainless steel blade for rust corrosion and easy care. It also comes in a carbon steel blade version which is sharper and perhaps more purist, but is prone to rust and a level of maintenance is required. The blade opens and is locked into position with a clever metal band at the base of the blade that when turned locks the blade into position. The same band locks the blade when not in use. It’s light, very light, as if it were air itself. It feels more like a tool from a romanticized time. It’s look gives it a debonair swashbuckling feel. It’s undeniably sexy. It’s swooshy. The brand is Opinel, a French knife maker who’s been producing these knives since the 1890s in the same way and in two basic designs.
I haven’t used the former knife. It has lost its edge and half an hour with a stone has honed it some but the hardest part is the serrated edge. Almost impossible to sharpen, the knife now has a limited lifespan. It’s been almost rendered useless by design. While it’s likely more useful underwater where a serrated edge would be an appropriate opponent against a tough cord or rope or rubber hose, it has to be retired at some point. It’s design and materials lend some of it to being recycled but the handle is likely headed for the trash heap. A non-sustainable knife.
The Opinel has been used for a variety of things thus far: cutting fruit, cheese and even a bit of wood whittling. The beechwood, like any wood, will be prone to discolouration, warping and will wear and conform to the users hand as it ages. Treating it with mineral oil will help prolong that use. The blade, lacking a serrated edge, can be infinitely sharpened until it’s end. The parts can be broken down into metals and wood, recycled and reused in some form. The cycle of its life doesn’t end abruptly.
There is a resurgence in discovering or rediscovering heritage brands of late — the craftspeople who create items in what’s considered old-fashioned methods: by hand with simpler tools as old as the business itself and with materials that respect the world in which they inhabit.
This is good design.
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