Finland Calling

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Supermodels of a certain age may recall the days when no bender was complete without a rock star on one arm and a Nokia cell phone in hand. So utterly fashion-forward were these Finnish exports that they showed up regularly on Paris runways like celebrities. By the time a spring-loaded prototype made a cameo in The Matrix, Nokias had ceased to be mere gadgets and were the stuff of drooling fantasies.

But that was in the 20th century, before the very trend that Nokia set—turning cell phones into fashion statements—became an industry standard. Interchangeable faceplates, slimmed-down curves, and easy navigation keys were widely imitated and widely improved. Nokia, meanwhile, seemed stuck on the monobrick form-factor as rivals such as Sony Ericsson and Motorola trotted out sexier shapes and sizes, including a sea of clamshell designs with pearl-size cameras. Suddenly, the arbiter of cell phone chic looked as stodgy and clunky as a fat-screen television. By the time The Matrix sequels rolled around, Neo had upgraded to a Samsung.

In an effort to reclaim its design perch (and market share), Nokia introduced a new Fashion Collection in September at a mock runway show in Shanghai dubbed “Totally Fashion.” The line was inspired by 1920s Art Deco glamour, but unlike most fashion shows, this one had only a trinity of products, the most radical being the Nokia 7280. (The other two phones, the 7260 and 7270, are more conventional clamshell and brick shapes.)

Under the direction of its longtime chief designer, Frank Nuovo, Nokia threw out the monobrick—or at least shrunk it down to the size of a carb-free PowerBar, flattened it lengthwise to form an oblong parallelogram, and dipped the entire baton in high-gloss black lacquer. In keeping with its understated look, the company’s logo is consigned to a stitch of textile, like a Kate Spade label. The result resembles an eye-shadow case designed by Shiseido more than it does a $600 communications tool, which is to say the 7280 is more likely to end up in a purse than a briefcase.

The user interface is equally unorthodox. All the elements we have come to associate with cell phones are stripped away or buried under design flourishes. The color 104×208-pixel LCD screen is concealed behind a one-way mirror, lending it an objet d’art quality when idle. When lit, the phone is read sideways like a thermometer. Incoming calls are answered by sliding the phone open like a telescope, and hung up by retracting it. And instead of a numeric keypad, there is something called a Navispinner, a thumb-driven scroll-wheel that might invite lawsuits from the folks behind the iPod. The four-button menu pioneered by Nokia is still there, but the buttons have been swallowed by a zigzag of white racing stripes.

Making outgoing calls is a cinch, provided that the number has been preprogrammed by your tech-savvy personal assistant. Otherwise, you have to enter each letter by thumbing through the entire alphabet set, which can quickly feel like a dull game of hangman. (Or, you could pop in a SIM card from another phone.) Dialing numbers is especially cumbersome: Instead of pressing a “1” key, you have to swivel the Navispinner between the 4 and 5 o’clock positions, select “Number entry” from the menu, scroll to “1,” and then hit select again. And that’s only for the first digit.

Although the 7280 pushes no technological boundaries (wouldn’t it be nice if you could simply speak each digit rather than hard dial it?), it does offer a new twist on the term “conversation piece.” On a recent bar-hopping expedition around New York City, before the 7280 was officially released, the shiny phone elicited a chorus of oohs and aahs from total strangers. Too bad it was so difficult to capture their digits.


Nokia 7270 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Price: $350

After missing the clamshell boat, Nokia is now playing catch-up with a half-dozen models that come complete with the requisite camera. The 7270 (another Fashion Collection phone) evokes the supergraphics vocabulary of 1960s wallpaper but is otherwise a standard-issue flip phone. The all-black plastic body is sandwiched between stainless-steel plates etched with groovy squares and abstract vectors. The design theme is carried inside, from the perfectly square keys to the geometric screensaver. Instead of candy-colored faceplates, the phone can be personalized with soft leather wraps that snap on like a loincloth. Can Gucci-emblazoned knockoffs be far behind?

Nokia 7610 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Price: $399

The 7610 shares a similar bulk with the early Nokia monobricks, but the resemblance ends there. Despite its unassumingly low-tech presence, the 7610 is the smartest one in the Fashion Collection (it replaces the 7260 in the U.S. market). The full-color LCD display occupies nearly half the phone, the better to view the surprisingly sharp, one-megapixel photos and 10-minute videos. Web pages, emails, and video games are no longer confined to a few truncated lines. But that also means that the keypad is scrunched below, in a swooping pattern that echoes the phone’s chrome contours. Text messaging requires the fingers of a surgeon, which might explain why all the cool kids are now clamoring for the big, souped-up bricks.

Denny Lee writes about travel and design for The New York Times. He reviewed the Virgin Pulse product line in the March/April 2004 I.D.