The use of pure copper, a metal with high thermal conductivity, presents a technical improvement to Sherman L. Kelly’s famous aluminium ice cream scoop design dating from 1935. However, due to the difficulty of casting pure copper by the lost-wax method, the scoop comes out of the mould damaged and imperfect. The scoop is restored to functional use with tin and resin. This technique of pre-consumer repair advocates for the greater use of repair as a transformative process in the design, production and consumption of domestic objects.
Photography by Dean McCartney
This project developed from a study of the classic Zeroll ice cream scoop designed by Sherman L. Kelly, and the many copies produced by other manufacturers, which are all made from cast aluminium. This material choice is presumably a compromise between various economic and technical concerns, primarily thermoconductivity (aluminium has quite good thermoconductive properties), casting and material properties, but also cost (aluminium casts at quite low temperature with good resolution, is strong and light, not expensive and can be endlessly recycled). But there are other materials which have better thermoconductivity, so alumnium as a compromise choice cannot be said to technically optimal for the function purpose of scooping ice cream, in which heat from the hand is conducted to the scoop blade via a heat transfer fluid (water and propylene glycol, a food safe antifreeze) contained in the handle.
There was a technical imperative to swapping out the commonly used metal for some other material. Other than pure silver, pure copper is the most thermoconductive metal, and while much cheaper than silver, it is also much more expensive than aluminium. Changing an expected material for something unexpected while leaving all other properties unchanged is a long-standing creative technique for drawing or re-drawing attention to an object. The technique was perhaps first exploited fully by the Surrealist movement, but more recently by Italian Radicals and many Dutch conceptual designers. From my experience on other projects, such as my silver toilet brush and gold and rhodium cocktail straws, I found that such a change is often also accompanied by interesting and unexpected contingencies. For this project, I was initially keen to test an ancient philosophical argument.
Telos was the word the ancient greek philosopher Aristotle used to describe the purpose of an object. A shoe is to be worn, a vase holds water, and the telos of an ice-cream scoop is to scoop ice-cream as efficiently as possible. He objected to the use of money in the exchange of goods, because, unlike barter, money placed a secondary function on the purpose of an object: to make profit. Since that time, we see the effects of this secondary function on every marketable product. As cost seems so obviously a factor for the choice of aluminium for Kelly’s design, it could be argued that the design is a construct of secondary concerns and not a product of pure telos. However, the light weight of aluminium is certainly a utilitarian feature for a hand held device. In any case, changing the material to pure copper was a method to test these positions and hopefully provoke the unexpected to stir from the design.
Contacting manufacturers to assist me with production soon made me realise that this was not going to be simple as perhaps imagined. In fact, I began to realise I was experiencing a productive inflection point (after Deleuze & Guattari, and Bernard Cache) – the trajectory of my project was changing. Mainly this concerned the difficulty of casting pure copper – no manufacturer had experience nor wanted to do it. Alloys of bronze (copper and tin) or brass (copper and zinc) would be fine and are commonly cast, but the addition of these extra metals changes the thermoconductivity dramatically for the worse. Machining the copper was an obvious solution – suitable and more cost efficient at the volumes I typically produce. Incidentally, copper is a wonderful metal to machine, soft and yeilding to the tool, yet strong and structurally sound – when drilled or milled its swarf flows out in long lustrious whorls. Yet, my intent was to change the most mininum production criteria. Aluminium ice cream scoops are cast, so should this copper scoop. And by this point I was recognising the inflection point; the more manufacturers said they wouldn’t do it, the more a conceptual reason existed for me to make it happen. With persistence I found an casting engineer pleasantly willing to try, with no promise of success.
It should be self-evident from the image of the scoops as they was returned to me why pure copper is not cast. Pure molten copper is unstable and unpredicatble. It flows thick, oxideises and off gases at temperature and must be melted under a layer of flux. As a result in this case, the metal does not flow freely into the mould and the cast comes out collapsed and imperfect. Yet perfect as a starting point for my repair practise and as a methodological critique of industrial models of production and consumption, as explained in the introductory paragraph above. For me, the point is that the process necessitates repair, and so produces a beautiful object with interesting and contradictory aesthetics.
In terms of function, the scoops work very well.