Literature Review

by guy keulemans on December 8, 2008

My research thus far has drawn upon a fairly broad range of sources, and so this literature review will likewise cover a wide area. But first, let me introduce a triangle; a three pointed analogical construct that maps the boundary of my topic.

The first point is Scale. The basis of my research, it is also the frame or method; most of my investigation starts with a search of use and application of scale within design and society. It is a tool by which I can analyse, and subsequently, apply.

The second point is the notion of the Long-lasting Object; a subject I also address as the Survivability of Objects. This is a somewhat personal viewpoint I have formed about the value and righteousness of objects. It is a reaction to built-in obsolescence, and excessive consumption; in a world moving faster and faster it is the guiding principle that tries to do the opposite.

The third point is a blurry dot that expresses the nature of Wonder, the Sublime, and the Sacred; and by definition, their opposite; the Profane. For me, this is the purpose, or goal, a desire to make objects that achieve a positive and wondrous response in the people in which they interact.

These 3 points create a triangle whose interior landscape will be partially mapped by this literature review.

My early research looked at scaling in design, both as used conceptually by practitioners such as Front design (also Studio Job, Claes Oldenburg, Jeff Koons and many others), and as a technical process , such as when applied to systems that must be scaled up and down as part of their function e.g typefaces, architectural models, toys and dollhouses. I attempted to establish that society’s recent ability to encode objects as digital information somewhat removes the the traditional obstacles to scaling i.e specific types of digital information can be scaled up or down without loss of data integrity. However, just because information in objects is present, does not mean it can be comprehended immediately; it depends on perceptual scale, and I illustrated this idea with photography of zoanthid corals in Okinawa. It can also be seen in the artwork of Tara Donovan, whose majestic sculptures at distance hide the secret of their tiny and ordinary elemental unit. Likewise, it is used as a technical quality in many printing and display systems i.e the blurring in our eyes of CMYK rosettes to produce full color images

Scale can also be discussed on an technological level. French theorist Paul Virilio, discusses Scale in the context of the information society, notably regarding locality; Virilio believes we have created a “pollution of distances”. This relates to our loss of of the human scale in technology; the ability to access distant places immediately via telecommunication technologies in-substantiates the very value of their distance.

The perception of scale in an object is often based on an expected formal language; buildings are large and monolithic, jewellery is small and intricate. To paraphrase Rem Koolhaas, all architecture is monument. In stories for children, we often see this manipulated for effect. In Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice shrinks down to the a size where she can perceive a mushroom as a item of furniture for a caterpillar. In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the qualities of the larger items are exaggerated to become monstrous (the giant and cold chair) and the qualities of smaller items are likewise exaggerated to become precious and fragile (the tiny chair Goldilocks breaks.) The respect required by objects of different scales is something that must be learnt by children, as evidenced by the numerous references in S,M,L,XL of scale models being destroyed by childrens, and architects playing as children. Therefore, it is a behaviour programmed into adults, mostly unconsciously. When we tear down old buildings in order to resurrect the new, as seen in Singapore since the 1950’s (Koolhaas) are we not merely playing as children impatient with their building blocks?

The Survivability of Objects
The notion of destroying things in order to reproduce connects the idea of the long-lasting object. The human tendency is to discard and remake commensurate with our abilities to re-make, hence the attraction of the tabula rasa, the blank slate, to modernists (Koolhaas). In fact, it forms the basis of popular production and recycling ethics (McDonough and Braungart). Yet despite these tendencies, some objects still manage to last for centuries, even millenia. Why?
Starting with those objects of extreme age from the archaeological record, I discovered that many objects whose value is regarded highest are those with ambiguous or unclear origins; it is the potential for what they may mean that creates their worth. For example, the Venus of Willendorf is identified as both a possible fertility totem, or a self-portrait of a pregnant women (Witcombe). Or the Scottish Carved Stone Balls; metal working tools, or religious artifacts?(Soloman). The Voynich Manuscript, an enigmatic encyclopedia written in un-decipherable code, or flamboyant hoax? (Landini). The modern day Codex Seraphinius, a mysterious text produced by a designer unwilling to ever discuss it, likewise attracts a equally modern cult of followers who obsess about it on the internet boards (Taylor). From these examples I deduce that it can be an objects ability to perplex that sustains its existence. Such a factor may have very little to do with aesthetics, although perplexing aesthetics, such as those of the Willendorf statue, add to the sensation of mystery. They are anomalous objects. A modern proponent of this idea is the architect Junya Ishigami, who uses scale manipulation as a core concept in his desgn, but strives to weaken the concept as the design develops, in order to produce a more ambiguous final feeling; expressed as a concept in Japanese as aimai (Nuijsink).

From the history of furniture design, it can be seen that of examples from pre-history to a just prior to the Renaissance, the forms and shapes are mostly highly divergent (Smith). However, almost all are examples from religious or royal context. From this we can see that aesthetics appear less important than context or cultural significance. When aesthetic repeat and solidify into an archetype, such as the folding x-type stools for pre-history which evolved into modern forms, it could be argued that the popularity is began by functional and aesthetic qualities, but sustained by the value of its traditional origins (Lohmann) e.g. the Barcelona ottoman is not just an expression of clean and fluid modernism, but rather an embodiment of furniture design history stretching back thousands of years into the past. This is an example of an object’s design surviving, but no the necessarily object itself. Yet, this is the basis for design tradition. An extreme example is the ancient Greek klismos chairs, hardly known to the world until they were rediscovered as depictions on pottery from the ruins of Pompeii, and then rebuilt for contemporary use (Smith). A unique example is the Ise Jingu in Japan; rebuilt every 20 years since the 7th century; possessing a facade of the contemporary skinned
over the impossibly old.

The Sublime, Sacred and Profane

And finally we come to the third point of the triangle, the intent, a description of the effect I want to achieve. My investigation of this theme began with Susan Stewert’s book, On Longing, which examines the aesthetics of the miniature and the giant. While the monolithic giant is often considered to be a sacred expression of man’s creative ability (or god(s), via the conduit of man), the giant can also have profane aspects; common urban mega structures such as highways, prisons or ghettos (Koolhaas), or in myth as giants that unintentionally or not destroy the relatively delicate and small things around them (Gulliver’s Travel, The Nasca Giants). Likewise, the miniature can be expressed in terms of the sacred (jewellery, atoms and quarks) but also the profane (bacteria, virii). An finally, as discussed by Stewert, miniature writing is a sacred act of devotion to God, except as when a symptom of mental-illness induced psychosis (such as the example of R.Crumb’s brother.)

The description of the sacred and profane expresses much about notions of value and respect, but can be weighed down by religious overtone. However, the word sublime, although having origins in Christian ideology, has been divorced from this origin and is now used solely in terms of aesthetics. Often the word is used in relation to the complexity of nature. As such complexity can be programmed into design of objects and even cities to create natural tapestries of meaning, what Metabolist theory labels group form (Koolhaas). Jean Francois Lyotard describes the Sublime as the precipice before our reasoning fails; aesthetics that draw us close to knowing everything and nothing concurrently. Perplexing. As such it is able to express some of the feelings which the terms sacred and profane cannot express about aesthetics, and is a word highly suitable to a discussion of anomalous objects which perplex.

Web references:
De Jong, Gilbert “Nasca” accessed from

Lohmann, Birgit The Illustrated History of Folding Chairs, compiled by, (a thesis publication, july 1988, revised in june 2003) © designboom, accessed from

Virilio, Paul The Art of the Motor, tranlated by Julie Rose, The Art of the Motor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), pp. 133-156.

Donovan, Tara Text from her exhibition at the Hammer Gallery, UCLA, accessed from

Witcombe, Christopher, L.C.E Women in Prehistory, the Venus of Willendorf, accessed from

“Soloman” contribution on Scottish Carved Balls, accessed from

Landini, Gabriel Evidence of linguistic structure in the Voynich manuscript using spectral analysis, Cryptologia, Oct 2001, accessed from

Taylor, Justin The Codex Serphinianus, accessed from

Huhn, Thomas Jean-Francois Lyotard, Lessens on the Analytic of the Sublime, accessed from

Anthony David Lyotard on the Kantian Sublime, accessed from

Stewert, Susan, A. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Duke University Press, 2003.

Koolhaas, Rem & Mau, Bruce S,M,L,XL, 010 Publishers, The Netherlands, 1995

Carroll, Lewis Alice in Wonderland, Project Gutenberg, electronic version released 2008.

Braungart, Michael & McDonough, William Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, North Point Press, 2001

Swift, Jonathan Gulliver’s Travels, Project Gutenberg electronic version released 1997

Lucie-Smith, Edward Furniture, A Concise History, 1979 & 1993, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London.

Cozzi , Ponte, Sasone, Griffe & Sciola Furniture, from Rococo to Art Deco, 2000, Taschen GmbH, Hohnezoolenring, Koln


Nuijsink, Cathelijne ‘Changing the Scale Changes the Atmosphere’, Interview with Junya Ishigami, Mark Magazine issue #14, The Netherlands.

“Crumb” directed by Terry Zwigoff, 1995, USA.

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