Mach 3 Nitro Gel - Design that's foaming at the mouth.


Beauty products are the living end of design. They exist in place where products are formless, ephemeral, yet incredibly refined. As though teetering on the edge being too perfect for this world, they vanish as we use them. They are materials which aren’t so much physical things as abstract experiences embodied into matter. Or sensations boiled down to viscous liquids, then bottled.

I’m thinking these things while mindlessly squirting a fresh can of Gillette’s new shaving Mach 3 Nitro Gel foam into a hotel basin. Squirting from the jet shaped nozzle, its coils melt into one another in slow motion, viscous ropes of translucent green gel looping into a slow motion avalanche. The can goes cold in my hands as the valve releases the pressure on the propellant inside. It boils, and forces the product out of the can.

The pile, foaming at the edges is a substance that 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.

The design of shaving foam is a restrictive medium, the physical 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. Though the ingredients are well known, playing with the combinations is the designers alchemic artistry. Mach 3 Nitro Gel is a highly tailored material. Its 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 of solid, liquid, or gas. In fact, its state shifts from liquid to solid to gas: a solid that melts into air. Of course, it’s beautiful and attractive, like liquid emerald. But as soon as you try to feel it, it foams up into something else. The foam is stiff, and grips tight to your skin. You can feel it moulding to your form. After you have shaved, it leaves a residual film over your skin that feels faintly as though it has plasticized your flesh.

With the Nitro Gel and the accompanying vibrating Mach 3 Turbo Razors, Gillette are redesigning the prosaic act of shaving into an all-encompassing sensation. It is a functionalism that is so specialised and targeted that it has become an obscure branch of poetry. Here, form follows function on a magical mystery tour of the recesses of cultural unconsciousness.

The bathroom has perhaps been the most significant territory in the history of Modernism - the vanguard of hygiene and health. 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. Gillettes Nitro Gel – along with all those other bottles and tubes in your bathroom cabinet – amplify and miniaturize these sentiments like liquefied Unite d’Habitations. They are significant statements about designs ambition. As Corb might have said: “The best an industrial artisan can get.”


Posted by sam at February 28, 2006 4:53 PM



Posted by: joseph on December 1, 2006 1:46 PM

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