One of the saddest things about tech is that unlike other fashionable things, the aesthetic trend that might dictate what gadgets look like for a few years never gets a chance to come back into style. The most we ever get is the chance to be nostalgic about the look of an old gadget, not to fall in love with the aesthetic behind its design all over again, as if new.
For example, debatably thanks to AMC’s period drama Mad Men, Danish mid-century design has really come back into style. A whole new generation of people have come to discover and love a design trend that a mere two years ago, all but a few people would have, at best, only known by a couple musty old relics collecting dust and mouldering in their grandparents’ garage. Watching Don Draper slip into an Eames lounge chair, or pour himself a drink from a gorgeous teak sideboard, or turn on a tulip lamp designed by Eero Sarinen, though, rejuvenates these items by allowing us to see them as they were meant to be used and experienced. It removes real, living objects from the obscurity of textbooks and turns them into fresh ideas, ready to be used again.
It’s for this reason that I love seeing wood in a gadget. It takes a trend that was ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, when home electronics were big and bulky enough to be mostly considered a kind of furniture, and presents it as a refreshing anecdote to a modern trend in tech design that puts the emphasis on more impersonal and space-age materials like plastic and metal, silicon and glass.
For me, wood can imply an intimacy — a device is yours, it was made for you — that makes it a perfect material for a smartphone: a device that is, by definition, the gadget with which most of us have our most personal relationship. And while Apple understandably doesn’t make iPhones out of wood, I’m delighted that a company like Monolith does, by offering a stunning line of natural wood backs for the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S that are as practical as they are beautiful.
Made out of a variety of solid hardwoods including walnut, teak and oak (with more exotic woods incoming) and finished with natural oils to protect the wood, Monolith’s backs replace the Gorilla Glass back panel on your iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S. In other words, these aren’t just wood stickers, affixed to your iPhone with a bonding agent. They add no thickness to your iPhone.
Installation is an absolute breeze. Inside each kit, Monolith include a screwdriver that can unscrew the two proprietary 5-point torx screws keeping the back of your device on. All you do is turn off your device, slip your iPhone into silent mode, and then push up on the back of your iPhone until the existing plate lifts off. Reverse the process to install Monolith’s wood back. It’s easy enough for an maladroit slob with no DIY skills to manage: this reviewer is case in point.
Once installed, Monolith’s backs just look gorgeous. My white iPhone went from being pretty much identical to every other iPhone out there to a handset that provoked compliments whenever I fished it out of my back pocket.
It also feels great. After installing the Monolith, I simply stopped putting my iPhone in a case. For one thing, the wood back proved less likely to get cracked if I dropped my phone, and what’s the point of covering something like this up? Plus it just feels great in the hand: textured and less slippery and more alive. It’s just a joy to touch.
There’s really not much I can ding Monolith for here. Their packaging is exquisite: beautifully designed and eco-friendly. The price is also great, at just $55 a panel. About the worst I could possibly say about this product is that there’s a protective sticker over the camera lens and flash that needs to be removed before installing, which I didn’t do the first time I installed it (in accidental defiance of the kit’s clear instructions).
Ultimately, what it comes down to is aesthetics. If you’re the kind of person who scrunches up your nose in disgust at the very concept of wood in a gadget, well, fair enough. But if you would like to personalize your iPhone with a beautiful and unique natural grain that not only makes it more durable and pleasant to hold, but turns your device into a conversation piece, I can’t recommend Monolith’s backs more highly. On my part, the only way I’d consider replacing my iPhone’s teak back plate with its original Gorilla Glass one is if I had to get it serviced by Apple.
Pros: Stunning and beautiful. Great construction. Protects your iPhone while adding now thickness to the device. Feels great in the hand. Easy to install. Excellent price and great packaging.
Cons: None, except if you hate wood.
Verdict: This is what Don Draper’s iPhone would look like.