words Sam Jacob
This shaving gel is poetry and alchemy. It’s modernism in a can.
It’s so functional it’s absurd.
Beauty products are the living end of design. They exist in a place where products are formless and ephemeral, yet incredibly refined. As though they are almost too perfect for this world, they vanish as we use them. They are not so much physical things as abstract experiences embodied into matter. Or sensations boiled down into viscous liquids, then bottled.
I’m thinking these things while squirting a fresh can of Gillette’s new Mach 3 Nitro Gel shaving foam into a hotel basin. The translucent coils of green gel melt into one another in slow motion. The can goes cold in my hands as the valve releases the pressure on the propellant inside, which boils to force the product out of the can.
The pile, foaming at the edges, seems like a cross between some bodily, biological fluid and something engineered – and perhaps also antiseptic. The colour says chemistry, the translucency says ectoplasm. It might be the wet patch on the sheets after a wild orgy involving a Hummer, an MRI scanner and an alien biological entity.
Shaving foam is a restrictive medium, its design the equivalent of a haiku. The differences between one brand of shaving cream and another are small: adjustments in the proportions of ingredients (emulsifiers, perfumes etc) and their processing method (longer or shorter heating times, storage of the finished product, and so on). Also important is the choice of aerosol propellant. Some mixtures contain more than one propellant; most common are butane, isobutane, and propane. Although the ingredients are well known, playing with the combinations is the designer’s alchemical artistry. Mach 3 Nitro Gel is a highly tailored material. It’s chemistry as an artform. Combinations of solvents and resins affect the stability of the emulsion and foam. Polytetrafluoroethylene – an extremely slippery, chemically inert polymer also known as Teflon – helps lubricate the shave. Aloe Barbadensis leaf juice is there to soothe and heal the skin. It’s a chemical wedding presided over by the marketing department. It combines engineering technology and alternative medicine: a baby-boomer soup combining the space race with Woodstock. It makes you feel as important as a machine and as natural as a tribesman.
The gel is an ambiguous substance, what chemists call a colloid – a term describing mixtures that do not easily fit into categories. In fact, its state shifts from liquid to solid to gas: a solid that melts into air. Of course, it’s beautiful, like liquid emerald, but as soon as you try to feel it, it foams up into something else. The foam is stiff, and grips you as it moulds to your form. After you have shaved, it leaves a residual film over your jaw that feels faintly as though it has plasticized your flesh.
With the Nitro Gel and the accompanying vibrating Mach 3 Turbo Razor, Gillette is redesigning the prosaic act of shaving. There is a functionalism here so specialised that it has become an obscure branch of poetry. Here, form has followed function so far beyond any logical need that it’s absurd.
The bathroom was perhaps the most significant territory in the history of modernism. It demonstrated how design could deliver progress and social reform, replacing the filthy, disease-ridden slums of the late 19th-century city with light, white-tiled sanitation. Think of Adolf Loos’ hymn to English plumbing, or the bathroom in the Villa Savoye. Gillette’s Nitro Gel – along with all those other bottles and tubes in your bathroom cabinet – amplify and miniaturize these sentiments like a liquefied Unité d’Habitation. They are significant statements about design’s ambition. As Corb might have said: “The best an industrial artisan can get.”
Mach 3 Nitro Gel, £3.49