These days retro design is quite the thing, especially in cameras, such as superb examples from Fujifilm (X100 series, X-T1), and more clumsy ones like the Nikon Df. In the automotive field the standouts are the VW Beetle and the MINI. Long before any of these, however, were the Nissan Be-1 microcar in 1987, and the Olympus O-Product camera in 1988, launched to mark Olympus' 70th year of existence.
What the Nissan and the Olympus have in common is that they were designed by Naoki Sakai and his studio, Water Design. Sakai was an early proponent of retro-futurism, an approach to design that blends references to past products but treating them in a contemporary style. J Mays - the co-designer of the VW New Beetle in 1997 - became arguably the most famous practitioner of this approach in the following years.
The O-Product is a 35mm film camera, based around the internals of one of Olympus' then-popular point-and-shoot Infinity Jr. cameras. It was mass-produced but in a limited run of 20,000 units. Like the Be-1, the O-Product is vaguely retro, but it doesn't reference a specific product or model, as is the case with the Beetle or the MINI. The most explicit visual reference is with the flash unit, which looks like the old flash guns on press cameras wielded by Weegee and the like.
(Click any image to enlarge)
Whether you pick up on its retro references or not, this is a fun product that puts a smile on the faces even of people who've never used a film camera. It's a satisfying size, and manages to walk a fine line between being precious and un-intimidating. It's expressive and toy-like in its form, but the metal body gives it some seriousness.
In an interview for the Japan Times, Sakai describes how he wanted to avoid creating another forgettable point-and-shoot which the Japanese manufacturers were churning out at an impressive rate:
"What is good for the manufacturer is bad for the consumer. Before I came up with the design concept for the O-Product camera for Olympus, cameras were made of black plastic. It was efficient and easy on the makers, but didn’t provide any aesthetic value."
Unlike the organically-shaped plastic Infinitys, the O-Product is an all-aluminum study in primitive shapes. The main almost-square housing is formed from aluminum and bead-blasted to a satin finish. A polished machined aluminum cylinder appears to intersect the block, and stands proud about 10mm off the front surface. As a result of all this metal, it's heftier in the hand than one expects, and is pleasantly cool to the touch. Exposed miniature screws are unabashedly present on the corners of the front and rear. On the back, text is stamped into the surface: "Aluminum body, A.D. 1988 Tokyo Japan". Below that is the serial number, this sample is 07391 out of the 20,000 made.
The flash unit is detachable, mounting with a screw and a cable. Unfortunately the flash body is plastic and rather lets down the overall feel. From the front it looks the part, but when handled more fully it looks more like an after-thought, clearly done to keep the price manageable. To my knowledge the flash was always sold with the camera, so it's a shame that the build quality and materials could not have been kept more consistent throughout.
Controls are minimal. On the front surface is a cylindrical metal lever that's turned clockwise 45 degrees to open the lens cover and switch on the camera, and it moves back and forth with the addictive feel of a weighted cam and a lovely snick sound. Also on the front, strangely, is the shutter button, which is the flush circle to the left of the lens. Having to feel around the front to press the shutter is odd, and I do wonder how many people got their finger tips in photos with it being so close to the moderately wide-angle lens.
There's no zoom, aperture or shutter control (indeed no way of adjusting focus or exposure at all). The tiny viewfinder is pretty horrendous, giving a small, dim and distorted view, useful only for very approximate framing.
Once you've got your view roughly framed, push the shutter button and there is a satisfying clunk and the whine of a motor moving the film along by a frame. On the top are the self-timer button, and a tiny button (intended to be pressed with a pen tip) to rewind the film back into its canister in case you need to remove it for processing before finishing the roll.
On the right hand side is the catch to open the rear door to access the film. When you swing open the door (which rotates on a tiny piano hinge) you are greeted with text on the inside in the style of English that Japanese manufacturers in that period loved to apply:
"A new concept in product design. Olympus O-Product. Functional imperatives molded to artistic form. A camera shaped with simple lines, elegant contours."
About the Designer
Designer Sakai, born in 1947, himself sounds like quite a character. A profile in the December 1989 issue of Popular Photography magazine says:
Sakai has little love for the clients that seek to engage him. In the Popular Photography interview he argued:
"Japanese companies say they think about the consumer. They're liars. They only think about their competitors. Olympus thinks only about Canon or Nikon. Nissan thinks only about Toyota or Honda. I think about people. I am a consumer."
Olympus must have liked him well enough however; after the O-Product, Sakai was retained to create the follow-on, the Ecru, in 1991, also a limited edition camera that appears to have been Japanese-market only.
But the O-Product remains far more famous, and it's easy to see why: it's simple (but interesting), it feels good in the hand, and it doesn't take itself too seriously.