June 6, 2024 - By

In a youtube interview with Jerry Seinfeld I heard him quote a book on “Quintessence” – the quality an object has, to be perfect in itself. He gave Bic Pens and Levi 501s as examples. I find this idea fascinating. Some quotes from the short book that I borrowed from archive.org:

Screenshots from Archive.org of examples that resonated with me – including Hershey’s Kiss, VW Bug, Slinky, Brown paper bags, Kleenex, Coke, Oreo, and “honey bear” squeeze bottles for honey

  • In a roundabout way the book defined quintessence as an object that is satisfying, pleasant, iconic; “the thing is the thing”. It is perfectly appropriate in form and function. “A quintessential object can’t be made more quintessential; it is or it isn’t. Tampering with it may ruin everything” (lol at the extreme wording! – the subtext there is a consumer can be made to feel that they own the thing in the sense that changing it can offend. I first noticed this when working on the Tim Hortons website – this piece of Canadiana is prized almost at an identity level by the citizens of that brand’s Facebook community)
  • The opposite is “trash and trifles… soulless“, materialism for its own sake, compromises, possibly designs that optimize for multi-use (although Swiss Army Knives are one notable exception in this book)
  • These objects are examples that characterize their category or era – but need not be necessarily the best in their class. “A VW bug isn’t the most quintessential car, but it is quintessential.”
  • The term ‘satisfying’ was flushed out a bit later in the introduction: “The idea of choice is easily debased if one forgets the aim is to have chosen successfully, not to be endlessly choosing” – I think this speaks of contentment, but also a product being good enough. A Bic Pen may not be the finest writing experience, but reliably gets the job done
  • “This book is not a list of what’s best. Worrying about what is the best of anything is ‘thingism’ at its most delusory since inevitably the best of today is bettered tomorrow… A life defined by having the best is a life of endless choosing and endless letdowns… ‘best’ is a judgment based on statistics, not taste and instinct. In a world of constant technological innovation and furious competition, being the best of anything is usually a short term occupation. Quintessential things are blissfully beyond that. They are faithful and durable… sublime; it’s here today, and here tomorrow.”

My Summary: Good Design is wonderful, for its own sake. Materialism and decision-making can be endless battles, and at the cost of contentment, and a deep, creative life. I think the Fender Precision Bass is another example (it hasn’t needed to change since the late 1950s; is basically the first mass produced electric bass guitar).


Fender Pbass meme – it hasn’t changed in 80 years (there are many examples of it changing in reality – like the addition of a Jazz Bass bridge pickup – but purists still just want the classic)


This book got me thinking about quintessential things in my life – and things that are only so in the context of my life; like rugged metal pens and beat up pocket sized Moleskin Cahiers.

Overall the book was a bit stuffy, opinionated, and pompous – and I loved it.

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This post was written by Arley