On the outside, little about the 122-year-old Swiss Army knife has changed. But on the inside, the Victorinox@work has been updated with the 21st-century user in mind, performing not only utilitarian cutting tasks but also serving as a USB digital storage device. The diminutive tool, wrapped in its signature red case, redefines work for a contemporary user, whether they are camping in the backwoods or storing an important work presentation. Karl Elsener, a Swiss cutler, more or less invented this multi-tool in 1891 when he modified the Swiss military’s existing model, which had been produced by a German manufacturer. Elsener’s first metal-and-wood-clad Swiss Army knife, from 1891, featured a steel blade, a reamer, a can opener and a screwdriver. He further improved on the design in 1896 when he developed a way to integrate tools on either side of the handle by implementing an inventive spring mechanism that held instruments in place when opened. Elsener’s innovative thinking became the template for subsequent designs. The iconic red cladding was adopted in 1897 and by 1908, the Swiss federal cross inside a shield was embossed on official Swiss Army knives. Today, only Victorinox and Wenger are permitted to produce these knives.
The Victorinox@work owes much to its original maker, but has been updated to reflect contemporary tastes. Its translucent red cladding and detachable Universal Serial Bus (USB) “thumb” drive are perhaps the most noticeable updates. But inside, there’s more to behold: the stainless-steel housing contains multiple traditional instruments, including a blade, a combination nail file and screwdriver, scissors, a key ring, tweezers, and a retractable pen. Like today’s mobile touchscreen devices, including Apple’s iPhone, this multi-tool attempts to give the user everything they may need to get the job done, extending our reach from office to mountaintop and everything in between.
The Victorinox@work and other tools appear in the exhibition Tools: Extending Our Reach, beginning December 12, 2014.
Andrew Gardner is currently a graduate student intern and a former summer 2014 Peter Krueger curatorial intern at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. He is pursuing a master’s in Design History from the Bard Graduate Center, expected 2015.