November 15, 2012

Designated: Daiso Japan

I’ve always found the concept of “value” to be an especially slippery one.

The Haul ($13.50 Total)

It’s a word whose meaning is almost completely customizable, depending on the situation in which it’s applied. When it comes to consumer products, most people assume something to be of “good value” if it’s priced below the acceptable going rate. It’s a bit of a different story in the arena of “durable” goods, like cars or appliances, for which any average consumer is willing to do a little cost/benefit/lifespan analysis. The point that many overlook is that objects of high “value”, as an intuitive measure of cost, utility, aesthetics, durability, and emotional resonance, exist in equally rare distribution across the price spectrum.

As a student of Industrial Design (though not much of a practitioner), I was trained to appreciate the hard-working luxury of designer furniture, and to look upon the majority of consumer products cranked out by huge retailers like Ikea with a skeptical eye. These prejudices notwithstanding, I am, and always have been a pretty frugal dude. I buy almost everything second-hand, and can’t resist the allure of a dollar store. While by and large the Chinese-made merchandise is admittedly junk, the pleasant surprise of any object that costs so little lasting even 6 months is undeniable.

So, it was with great curiosity that I stopped into downtown Berkeley’s newest dollar store, Daiso Japan. Obviously, the “Japan” suffix implies a certain cache that “China” never will (though of course the vast majority of the products they sell are made there). I roamed the store’s isles of exuberant stationary, glazed sake cups, paper lanterns, and bath mats, and hand-selected the best $1.50 items (the store’s flat rate) I could find. Unique aesthetics, unique function, and quality of manufacturing were of highest import. Here’s what I found:

1. Stainless Steel Ashtray Super-normal in all the best ways. Shallow cylinder, 3 indents, no frills. Guaranteed to last forever. Not exactly expertly machined, but satisfyingly precise. B

2. Black Rubber Doorstop Dense, grippy, not huge. Covered with little bumps. It’s got an almost ‘high tech’ style, and actually looks kind of cool just standing on a table. B

3. Steel Bicycle Tire Levers Many people that I talk to about bikes shun the idea of a metal tire lever, worried that they might mar their rims, but after destroying probably 5-6 of the plastic ones over the years (not cheap ones, either), I was excited to find a legitimate metal alternative. 50 cents each retail. A-

4. Plastic & Steel Mini-Chisel I liked the idea of a hobby knife that was set up with a chisel head. It’s got a nicely patterned handle that feels adequately dense, but the blade is almost comically dull, and non-replaceable. Might be useful for removing stickers from thrift store objects. C-

5. “Thin” Water Glass This glass was made in Poland, which is a pretty huge sign of quality, and unusual for a dollar store. The walls of the glass are super-thin, making it incredibly light, and surprisingly satisfying to drink out of. It almost feels like a hard plastic party cup when it’s full. Seriously impressive craftsmanship going on here, with ZERO embellishment. Jasper Morrison would be proud. Unfortunately, I will probably break this. A

6. Enameled Steel Bookends I’ve actually been looking for a cheap, interesting bookend for a while, and these are without a doubt the best I’ve found. First of all, they look like they were designed by Michael Graves or Michele di Lucchi, but painted a nice mid-century yellow. They’re the load-bearing type, with a tongue that extends under the books, and vertical pleats for rigidity. A perfect example of when things go inexplicably right in some shadowy foreign manufacturing plant. A+

7. Stainless Steel Soap Pellet (not pictured) I half expected this little 2″ diameter nugget of stainless steel to be hollow and/or completely useless. I was pleasantly surprised at its ability to soak up weird kitchen smells from my hands. Can’t go wrong. B+

8. Plain White Poly/Cotton T-shirt (not pictured) The extreme thinness of this shirt is actually a selling point to me. The material feels substantial, but has the “burnt out” look of a cheaply made ploy-cotton shirt from the 1970s. The collar is a little puffy. If it survives a wash, I might head back for more. B (Provisional)