The OM-1 is a legendary 35mm SLR camera by Olympus launched in 1972. Though it isn’t quite of the standard as equivalent Nikon or Leicas, it still has historical significance. The OM-1 was originally named “M-1” but Olympus renamed it after Leica made the complaint that its name could be confused with the Leica M series products. An interesting start no doubt. This camera was designed by the same team that had worked on the Pen. It sports the classic SLR look; a body composed of faux leather sandwiched by beautiful metal caps. Being an SLR, it has a pyramid shaped viewfinder that houses the prism.
Recently, Olympus announced their new flagship Four Thirds camera, the OM-D. I immediately felt a bit uneasy about the design. I love fine materials. I love attention to detail. And I love quality manufacturing. The OM-D has all of these things. But what the OM-D also has is a dishonest design that imitates a camera from four decades ago. I hold the belief that we must always move forward by reflecting and learning from history. We must however not simply imitate history like the OM-D. What really gets me is that it has a prism shaped viewfinder despite it having a digital viewfinder. Completely backwards. This is skeuomorphism in the industrial design world.
When I say that we should reflect and learn from history instead of imitating it, this is what I mean. This is the Nikon V1. A camera quite similar to the OM-D but with a very different approach. Like older cameras, the Nikon V1 has a metal (magnesium alloy) body. It also has a similar shooting style to traditional cameras with a familiar location of viewfinder. It however does not have a purely nostalgic retro design. It is a camera that has learned from history. It has taken a critical look at what was successful and implemented those elements.
This race to produce retro cameras was probably sparked by the Leica cameras and the Fuji X100. I have no problems with the Leica. It’s a company that is founded on hand crafted cameras for a niche market. The Fuji X100 is simply an imitation of the Leica. This is when things started to go bad. The success of the X100 created a domino effect. Everyone wanted to look outdated.
One of the really outrageous examples is the Pentax K-5 (top). There isn’t really anything fundamentally bad about the camera. It’s just a vanilla camera. But then Pentax decided to produce this limited edition version with a silver paint finish to make it look more retro. This is wrong on so many levels. Silver paint on a plastic camera just so it can look like a film camera that it isn’t. Wow. It’s also particularly insulting because the limited edition package comes with a 40mm lens that was designed by Marc Newson for his K-01 (bottom).
Some people give Apple a hard time about having a similar design language from Braun products from the 60s. The thing is, Apple isn’t simply copying visual cues from the past like Olympus or Pentax. Apple is taking what Dieter Rams has learned from Braun and implementing those philosophies into a modern product with a modern approach. Through this process, Apple is not only producing beautiful products but is also pushing the boundaries of materials, like aluminum and glass. Great artists steal. Stealing isn't the same as copying. The OM-D’s equivalent in Apple’s world would be the next iMac looking like the first generation Bondi Blue iMac just for nostalgia sake.
I’ll end this post with an automotive metaphor. The OM-D is a VW Beetle. It doesn’t make sense because it no longer has the same motivations of being the “people’s car” and tries to look like something it’s not. The VW Up! Is where we want to be in the camera world. The Up! (despite the ridiculous name) is fulfilling the original mission of the Beetle in a modern context and is pushing boundaries of what a car in its segment can be.