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Anyoji, transformative reuse

| June 26th, 2019

Earlier this year I was contacted by friend and colleague, Japan-based Aussie designer Liam Mugavin, with some interesting news: he had discovered an abandoned Buddhist temple in the Shinano region of Niigata, and the local council had flagged it for demolition for health and safety reasons.

This presents a great number of interesting issues from a research perspective. There is no doubt its representative of a larger problem in Japan. Increasing secularism and movement into cities has led to a large number of empty temples. More broadly, construction and demolition waste is a problem for Japan as much as it is a problem for the rest of the world. Globally, demolition and construction waste accounts for around half of the solid waste generated each year and is one of largest single components of landfill, forecast to double by 2025. As a developed nation, Japan is right up there in terms of waste generation, though they do have better systems than other countries for sorting and compacting waste to minimise landfill and maximise its utility for other purposes, notably artificial land reclamation.

Increased secularism is a global phenomena also, and while its seems that religious buildings are typical conserved, I’m not sure that’s actually true. More pertinently, if religious buildings are not conserved, what happens to them? Churches in Australia are I think, at least occasionally de-consecrated and converted into apartments or other purposes. I remember going to an excellent Cradle to Cradle workshop in a Venlo church in the late 2000s, and I know now its become a library.

Such an architectural adaptive reuse will not happen with Anyoji, the temple in Shinano, Niigata. The building, absent a monk to maintain it, has suffered though years of snow and storm damage. The land will be cleared.

What remains is an intriguing question: what can happen to the temple materials, and how can a transformative reuse be cultural sensitive, locally relevant, but globally significant? The temple itself is said to be more than 300 years old, locally valued and in possession of amazingly thick timber post and beams, amongst other materials, far too good and useful to end up in landfill.

During my visit to the temple in May, and prepared with a UNSW ethics approval for human research, I began the task of interviewing local residents to find out more on the temple’s history. At the same time, I documented the temple in video and photography, in order to later build a photogrammetry model that both captures the state of the temple prior to its demolition and catalogs the super-abundance of interesting materials, furnishings, components and junk inside the temple: objects of sacred and non-sacred importance, items of ritual, prayer and craft.

Prior to my Anyoji visit, I had experimented with photogrammetry with Josh Harle, director of the Tactical Space Lab in Sydney, and produced a photogrammetry model of an abandoned warehouse, that we could then experience in virtual reality.

While acting as a technical proof of concept, this process poses questions and perplexities around the use of scanning and immersive visualisation technologies to capture cultural data. Especially, as Josh himself writes, photogrammetry arose as a military technology correspondent to very Western conceptions of scientific knowledge capture and reductionism.

And yet, the potential for scanning and visualisation technologies to aid the cultures of repair and reuse are obvious. Materials and component can be captured and transformed virtually with less effort and energy, computed aided transformations can feed into robotic fabrication workflows, just as they have for linear production modes, and virtual repairs and reuse can be undertaken remotely, by international designers without need to transport actual materials at carbon cost. Indeed, the potential for emerging technologies to invigorate circular economies fo repair and reuse, just as they have for linear economy production, is massively under-researched.

The use of such technologies in a trans-national, cross-cultural capacity is likewise important, equally or more so under-researched, and intrinsically complementary.

I have taken an interest in, as Mathew Keim (2013) describes it, the ‘transformative potential of craft’ as a result of conducting field research on creative forms of repair at two galleries hosting the exhibition of my previous project Object Therapy. These are Noosa Regional Gallery and Design Tasmania. These galleries and their communities of users and designers  have enthusiastically taken up the spirit of the research, understanding that creative forms of repair are different from ‘business as usual’ design and craft. Some have taken inspiration from its challenge, some have found it fulfils a desire to care for others or the environment, and some have found it strangely familiar –a new twist on existing forms of ‘make-do’ and bush-craft culture.

My co-investigator Nik Rubenis and I will be writing up this research in the coming months. In the meantime I have come to the conclusion that regional galleries can and do play an important role in creating cultural shifts that might transition Australia to a more sustainable and less resource/energy intense society.

Which leads me to ask: what kinds of galleries are best suited to propel such transitions, and how many of them are there?

The first part of the question can be answered basically by noting some of the characteristics of Noosa Regional Gallery and Design Tasmania:

  • they are in regional areas*,
  • they are well connected with their communities of practitioners and audience/clientele,
  • they exhibit national and state touring exhibitions,
  • they are small-to-medium sized organisations that foster the industries of visual arts, craft and design, and
  • they are able to scales across a method or means of sustainable practice to their communities

In other words, they mediate and engage in the production and consumption of material objects and culture. Loosely speaking, I would say these are these are key attributes required to make a change to material culture, use and consumerism in regional Australia.

Actually, the regional aspect by itself is not that important, because metro galleries too can and should play a part in sustainable transitions, so to answer the second part of the question I also consider those metro galleries and organisations, like the Australian Design Centre and JamFactory Craft and Design, that engage with regional galleries as hosts and partners of touring shows, though their number is relatively smaller.

Firstly, Margaret Rich writing for the National Museum of Australia in 2011, noted the number of regional galleries rose from 29 in 1971 to 52 in 1995, indicating an upwards trajectory to the present. This corresponds to the figure from the National Touring Survey Report, that included 95 galleries Australia-wide, including metro galleries, not including those organisations contacted that didn’t respond to the survey.  In 2017, NAVA identified 254 galleries as a key number of small to medium visual arts organisations in each state and territory for their 2017 SM2 economics report, though this includes some kinds of galleries that fall outside the criteria I propose above, namely, service organisations and Artist Run Initiatives (ARIs). Removing these obtains a figure of around 156 to 170 galleries Australia-wide (NAVA, 2017: 37). Wanting to check that figure and potentially exclude other organisations and galleries that fall outside my criteria, I did a quick count of galleries using state-based sources, taking care to exclude larger state- or national-level organisations, as well as ARIs, technology and history museums, and galleries specialising in one particular artist, movement or genre (such as indigenous art galleries), but keeping some galleries (such as timber craft galleries), that are intrinsically connected to design or craft based material culture.

My sources were:

This comes to a total of around 170 to 200 Australia wide, so roughly, but perhaps slightly larger, than the equivalent number calculated by NAVA. For a small country, population-wise, I think this means there is great potential and lots of scope for working with these kinds of galleries and organisations for local and sustainable transitions in material culture, production, consumption and use.


  • Kiem, M., (2011) “Theorising a transformative agenda for craft”, craft + design enquiry, vol. 3.
  • National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), Rod Campbell, Cameron Murray, Sam Brennan, Jordie Pettit (2017) S2M: The economics of Australia’s small-to-medium visual arts sector, NAVA:
  • Rich, M (2011) “Regional Museums”, in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), 2011, Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, published online at

* Design Tasmania is, as it sounds, a state-level gallery, but is based in Launceston which is a regional area according to the Modified Monash Model (MMM2) used to define organisations applicable for Regional Arts funding.

I wrote this post sometime ago and kept it as draft in order not to ruin a surprise purchase for my wife. Find out what was at the end!

Last year I presented a paper on Object Therapy at the second Product Lifetimes And The Environment (PLATE) conference in Delft. One of the other presentations was by Michael Luchs on Consumer Wisdom, a framework for understanding and recognising wise consumption, in contrast to dominant modes of consumption in the developed world that can be very wasteful.

I had a chance to reflect on this in terms of two perplexing purchases I should make.

First, I need a new toilet seat. That this should be a perplexing choice says something: there are dozens you can buy around the corner at the local hardware store and, as I found out, thousands online, not to mention many more at speciality bathroom suppliers. In this case being perplexed is more a case of my obsession with durability than it is with scatology, though, as my wife says, I did design a toilet brush once, so there is something to that too.

But durability is the main thing. First of all I don’t want to buy a plastic seat as I’m trying to reduce my consumption of plastic products for both ethical and aesthetical reasons. Metals are strong and durable, but damn cold to sit on. This mainly leaves me with wood as a material choice, which is actually pretty nice to sit on.

Unfortunately, toilet seat hardware is rarely described in these wooden seats, in anything than the vaguest terms: “chromed” “brass-look” etc, if at all. Sometimes is specified the hardware is a steel alloy with a nickel-chrome or nickel-brass plating, sometimes being listed as PVD-plating, a kind of vacuum plating that is, more or less I’ve read, somewhat resistant to tarnishing.

I’m generally opposed to plating. Why hide the material? Some forms of plating make sense to some degree, chrome plating for example because it can very durable, if done well, but that is offset by the environmental effects of the process, which are poor. Other forms of plating make little sense, even if they provide some form of protection, because they are will eventually break down, and they complicate the business of maintenance.

For historical comparison, the Victorians of the 19th Century, for example, loved solid brass hardware and lovingly polished into several times a year to keep it in good condition, and when it was neglected it simply tarnished in an appealing way, needing nothing more than some abrasive polishing compound and a bit of work to make shiny again, if you wanted that.

Some forms of hardware were kept shiny by touch, door handles for examples, visually communicating their human use. This is an expression of transparent materials and use.

Today’s consumers mostly seem afraid and dismissive of maintenance. They somehow expect brass fittings to remain shiny without effort, and as a result, manufacturers often lacquer the brass to prevent the tarnishing by oxidation.  But the lacquer, usually a petrochemical polymer like epoxy or urethane, eventually breaks down in ugly patches, creating splotchy tarnishing, a poor cousin to use-based tarnishing patterns. For example this is my bike bell:

To fix this, you need to strip back the lacquer with an abrasive. I could and probably will do this to this bike bell because its solid brass, but the danger with many bathroom fittings is that the brass is only microns deep, and exposing the steel or nickel underneath may result in further oxidation or lead to material failure.

What are the timeframes I’m talking about for these kinds of products and their treatments? Its hard to say for sure, but from experience and some superficial reading, a lacquer can break down in 6 months to 3 years. A PVD plating, lacquered or not, is claimed to last up to 20 years or so. But I don’t think this is long enough, and I kind of doubt it anyway. Given that solid brass can last thousands of years, and is less disposed to corrosion than steel, or even stainless steel.

For poor durability at the low end of the market, the feedback on cheap sold wooden seats on Amazon, even the ones with PVD plating, indicate some seats are breaking or in disrepair after less than a year. The consistency of quality is a concern, it varies widely, and one can also wonder about the kind of industry these seats comes from e.g poorly managed forests and unethical labour conditions in Asia. My review didn’t include ‘wood-look’ seats with veneer placed over MDF or ply –presumably even less durable and with worse environmental impact. It amazes me how much companies are engaged in the practice of scamming consumers into buying cheaply made, quickly breaking products.

There are, however, some worse toilet seats on Amazon. 

My favourite scapegoat for everything that is wrong with contemporary production and consumption, IKEA, has a wooden toilet seat, the NÖMMEN, that encapsulates this problem. Its wooden, stained and lacquered black, and its hardware is not described. Its the only wooden seat they sell. Why? I’m going to make some presumptions to answer that. Its stained black because its made from pine, a cheap, light wood, that will split easily from water damage and every day wear. Staining it black doesn’t improve it, but it hides the affective materialities of pine as a cheap wood, so it affectively reduces this cheapness and lack of durability being sensed by IKEA customers.

Sorry I can’t go into much further detail on this, but read my doctoral thesis Affect and the experimental design of  domestic products for more information on the framework I use to make this claim, if you like.

I’m also betting the lacquer used, probably a urethane or epoxy, is very thin to reduce manufacturing costs. And for sure, the hardware will be a combination of cheap polymer and mild steel with a a very thin nickel or, if lucky, chrome finish. Almost certainly nickel. For a large manufacturer that claims they are concerned about environmental impacts, IKEA make absolutely shitty bathroom products that don’t last, because they rely on repeat business from transient customers that aren’t bothered by lifespans of only a few years.  If they did, they wouldn’t keep selling the IMMELN shower caddy, whose mild-steel sub-structure rusts and breaks open its powder coating soon after purchase. Its is a material choice completely and irresponsibly unsuitable for a shower environment.

So back to toilet seats. Its clear to me I want a toilet seat with raw, solid brass hardware. To be honest, I won’t ever polish it, but I like to know that I could, and I would enjoy seeing its tarnish patterns develop over the years.

But finding a wooden toilet seat with raw, solid, unlacquered brass hardware is a bit of a challenge, The two contenders are both British. Perrin and Rowe, and Tosca and Willoughby. The latter have a clear institutional concern for durability, though the former seems to be of equal quality. Either way, I’m looking at around $700 Australian.

Is this justified? Tosca and Willoughby suggest their seats will last for up to 3 or 4 decades with care, and maybe longer. They don’t repair seats (hygiene reasons!) but will advise on maintenance. With wooden toilet seats, you have to be careful of water damage from over-powerful flushes for example, and the seat may need to be re-lacquered at some point.

(I don’t want to get into the wood lacquer issue right now, but thats also a a perplexity. Tosca and Willoughby supply un-lacquered seats though, and this would enable me to use a non-petrochemical lacquer of my own choosing, albeit with a higher burden of maintenance.)

Lets do some simple maths, taking the lower figure as an expected lifespan. If I use the seat once per day for 300 days of the year, times 30 years, I have a use rate of 9000 times. Used to divide $700 I obtain a rough figure of less than 8 cents per use. I’m not going into details of use (sorrynotsorry!) that doesn’t consider use by friends and family. Not too bad, but its a big outlay in one go, and my wife, who actually thinks I’m only considering to spend $200 or $300 based on some cautious conversational probing, is not too thrilled about it.

Speaking of my wife, the other purchase I am considering, is a Karl Fritcsh ring for her xmas present and kind of re-engagement ring. We’ve been married in Japan, but not legally in Australia. I once said we wouldn’t until our gay friends can marry, so now the time is up.

My interest in this ring, despite its cost at $2000, is that despite my almost complete failure at choosing jewellery that my wife likes in the past, I’m pretty sure she will like this ring, at least because she is a big fan of Karl Fritcsh, whose work I think is pretty cool too.

I can’t do any maths to justify this expense, I don’t know how often she’ll wear it and you can’t put a price on that anyway. In truth, she just deserves something nice for raising our kids and being a gorgeous wife and partner in life.

There are some durability issues though. I imagine the polished silver detail will tarnish and need repolishing, easily done by my wife as she is a jeweller, and lifewise the blackened silver ring section will de-black from rubbing on the skin and become shiny. But she knows how to re-black silver, or otherwise we could even send it back to Karl Fritsch for restoration. With no mechanical parts, the ring is pretty much durable over a massive timescale.

I should mention that this is, for now, an either/or purchase, I can’t afford both – perhaps more for psychological reasons than financial ones.

So, I refer back to Dr Luch’s paper and consider whether, or which, choice is a wise purchase. He lists 5 factors that define consumer wisdom:

Contemplation: evidence of reasoning and reflection across time. Check for both. Doing that by writing this post.

Intentionality: a connection between choices made in the present and their long term ramifications as a component of realising a lifestyle. Check for both. I can imagine myself using the toilet seat with pleasure every morning, and occasionally maintaining it, provided that wasn’t too often. The ring is a little more abstract, but the potential for wifefriend pleasure, contributing to our together-realised lifestyle, is strong.

Emotional Mastery: understanding the emotions behind consumptions. Check for the toilet seat – I’m attempting to apply my understanding of materialities and product design to the choice as much like an automaton as possible. I’m not especially sold on the aspirational marketing of Perrin & Rowe or Tosca & Willoughby, though I imagine many of their customers are. But I acknowledge this market position is relational to producing extremely high quality products, similar to other aspiration brands like Rolls Royce, or Bang & Olufsen. For the ring, I just want to please my wife, but if anything the trouble with this factor of emotional mastery is that I may not be accomodating her desire for frugality. I’m pretty sure she’ll get over that with the ring, but the toilet seat may be an everyday reminder of needless expense, that she’ll use to hector me on an everyday basis. I can, however, manage that.

Openness: this concerns consumer openness to consumerist processes, such as repair and reuse. Not really relevant, as I’m already an outlier in that regard.

Transcendence: concerning how consumption has consequences beyond the personal, with contingencies that impact inter-personal relations and relations with the natural world. Check for the toilet seat – I don’t think I’d be writing this overly self-indulging post in the first place if I wasn’t extremely interested, and troubled, by the human/nature existential relationship. Not sure about the ring.

So, in a way, the toilet seat is a better fit to these factors as a potential action of wise consumption. However, with the big caveat that the toilet seat, as much as I’ll enjoy the expensive purchase, may have negative consequences for my wife, for whom years may pass before she appreciates its presence in her home. On the other hand, the ring is a kind of a win-win.

UPDATE: I bought the Karl Fritsch ring for my wife, though she later swapped it at the gallery for a different one by Karl that she preferred. Interestingly, this ring is likely to need less maintenance, something my wife recognised.

View this post on Instagram

No words. ?? #karlfritsch #galleryfunaki #bestpresentever

A post shared by Kyoko Hashimoto (@studio_kyoko_hashimoto) on

We still require a new toilet seat.






Kyoko Hashimoto and I collaborated again for the group show ‘Artefacts’ at Melbourne Design Week 2018, contributing our collection of works Ritual Objects for the Time of Fossil Capital.

Catalogue, and full concept text.

Phillipa Barr wrote about in Domus (thanks Phillipa).

Thank you to the curators and additionally to Simone and Ewan from the National Gallery of Victoria, the sponsoring organisation.


Object Therapy, my transformative repair research project with ANU and Hotel Hotel has completed its first stop of its Australian tour at the Australian Design Centre (ADC). Its now packed away and on route to Noosa Regional Gallery for exhibition in December.

While it was at the ADC, I was on a panel with designers and Object Therapy repairers Henry Wilson, Naomi Taplin, the jeweller Bridget Kennedy and ABC’s Simon Marnie. We had a lively discussion with the audience including contributions from Kasi Albert – a conservator whose paper on historical ceramic repair using metal staples and rivets I had recently re-read in preparation for a collaborative repair work with Trent Jansen and Kyoko Hashimoto, now exhibited at Nishi Gallery in Canberra. This was one of Trent’s Jugaad plates that broke en route from India to Australia – Kyoko and I repaired it with sterling silver rivets we sourced from a old Georgian serving spoon. I’m going to write more about this project in another post, but here is a preview of it at Nishi Gallery.

Kyoko and I also did a panel talk with ADC director Lisa Cahill at the City of Sydney’s Surry Hills library. Though we had some technical problems with slides and video, it was great to obtain feedback from the Surry Hills locals. I think many were expecting a more traditional repair workshop talk, and were surprised at some of the artistic depth and human research put into Object Therapy.

Design journalist and critic Penny Craswell has written about my and Kyoko’s other recent repair collaboration for Object Therapy, Elizabeth’s Knitting Needle, in which I discuss some of the theoretical aspects of transformative repair and its potential for improving sustainability. With co-authors Nik Rubenis and Andy Marks, I’m currently preparing a paper on this for the Product Lifetimes And The Environment Conference later this year in Deflt, NL.

UNSW’s Media Room also did a feature on the Knitting Needle transformation, which also links to the video explainer I did with UNSW and Fairfax. This was my first time using a teleprompter – a bit weird. The video features works from Object Therapy, some of my own transformative repair works, plus an interesting bowl I purchased in Taiwan, repaired with metal rivets by Lai Ji-Xian of Old Jiu Fen Street, probably Taiwan’s only ceramic rivet repair practitioner.

And just recently, UNSW external relations have released some promo videos with me, my colleagues and students discussing design at UNSW Art & Design. The videos do quite well to explain the particular kind of conceptual x craft focus we provide at our Paddington campus.

In June and September of 2016, myself, as chief investigator, with Niklavs Rubenis and Andy Marks as co-investigators, interviewed 30 or so participants in the human research project Object Therapy. This research was conducted under UNSW ethics approval HC16145 – Object Therapy: an investigation into the consumer culture of broken objects and their repair by design.

The interview process was designed using a hybrid semi-structured/in-depth interview methodology to facilitate the Reissman model of narrative-based analysis. Practically this concerns using semi-structured questions, but allowing interviewees time to free-associate their experiences in-depth, in ways that may develop previously non-conscious understandings of their possessions and their relations.

The Stage 1 interview questions were sequenced:

1 How did you come to acquire this object?
2 How long have you owned or used it, and how did it break?
3 How long have you kept it since it broke?
4 Is your relationship with this object linked to any particular aspect in your life?
5 When the object broke, how did you feel, or what were your first thoughts?
6 Have you changed these thoughts since?
7 In regard to consumer products breaking, how do you regard the differing responsibilities of people such as the designer, the manufacturer, the seller, the consumer, or anyone else?
8 In what way would you like to see it repaired?

The Stage 2 interview questions were sequenced:

1. Since we last saw you, did you experience any feelings or concerns about how object may be repaired? (Or from not being in possession of it?)
2. What do you think of the repaired object now? (How different is it from your expectation?)
3. How would you now value this object?
4. Would you sell it, if you had the opportunity? Do you think you could put a cash price on it?
5. Would you repeat the process (and if so, would you prefer it done differently in anyway?)
6. Did participating in this process change the way you think about other broken objects you own or have owned? (Or change the way you think about products, consumption, waste or repair in general?)

To facilitate in-depth conversation and narrative flow the research investigators added questions as necessary and ignored questions if the answer had been provided in response to a previous question. As can be seen from the full interviews and their excerpts, much of the interviews were accordingly free-ranging and reflective by design.

The full interviews can be accessed at this link. (Please note that 1st stage interviews are categorised by the name of the repairer selected for that interviewee’s object. 2nd stage interviews are in their own subfolder.)

Interview excerpts can be viewed courtesy of Hotel Hotel’s Vimeo channel for Object Therapy. That page can be accessed directly, but I recommend using individual interview links from either the online Object Therapy catalogue or the downloadable PDF version.


Riessman, Catherine K..2001. “Analysis of Personal Narratives”. In Gubrium, J. F., & In Holstein, J. A. (2002). Handbook of interview research: Context & method. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications, pp. 695–7.


On Thursday 16th March the Sophie Gannon Gallery is opening Design Works 01 as part of Melbourne Design Week.

Kyoko Hashimoto and I have collaborated on two new works for this show: Two & One White Cubes, a new iteration of Slashboxes, and Terra Rings, which develops from Kyoko’s use of industrial components in jewellery.

The works are conceptually linked. Both works explore the role of material in design, and specifically the tension within ‘hylomorphic‘ expressions of form, in which material is subjected and diminished by formal properties (such as straight edges, flat surfaces, glossy mouldings and ‘perfect’ forms).

As a result, both works feature the industrially informed, manufactured look, contrasted with a ‘messy’, complex and ‘natural’ materiality. Of course, materials for both expressions are extracted from the same sources, and as indicated in this, rather extensive, materials description, often petrochemical and/or animal in origin.

Separate concept and materials documents are available for the Terra Rings and the White Cubes.

I’m also contributing to another Melbourne Design Week event, 26 Original Fakes, developed by Friends & Associates in which I explore similar concepts, but in the context of replica furniture.

Both events are discussed in this article by Stephen Todd of the Australian Financial Review.

Further Details:


14 MARCH – 1 APRIL 2017

 Presented as part of the NGV’s Melbourne Design Week, Designwork 01 at Sophie Gannon Gallery will be the first exhibition in an ongoing series dedicated to presenting the best contemporary Australian design.

Designwork 01 will feature the best designers practicing in Australia, many of whom contribute to the design field on a global scale, designing commercial products for major design firms including Cappelini and Mooi. These designers practice through an inquiry or set of ideas, much like artists. Participating designers include:

Ash Allen

Adam Goodrum

Dale Hardiman

Trent Jansen

Guy Keulemans and Kyoko Hashimoto

Ben Landau and Lucile Sciallano

David Mutch

Elliat Rich

Object Therapy to tour

| February 13th, 2017

Amy and ANU’s broken Fred Ward chair

Much of my 2016 was spent developing Object Therapy, a human research and participatory design project in collaboration with Andy Marks of Hotel Hotel’s Fix and Make program, with assistance from co-curators Niklavs Rubenis (Australian National University) and Dan Honey (Hotel Hotel), with photographer  Lee Grant (Hotel Hotel).

We invited members of the general public to come in for an interview and hand over broken objects to us, that we then distributed to 30 national and international artists and designers. We held at exhibition of these works at Hotel Hotel in October last year.

We are very pleased to announce that the project has now been funded to tour around Australia courtesy of a Visions of Australia grant application we developed with the Australian Design Centre (ADC). The first stage of the tour is at the ADC in Sydney, opening 23rd of March 2017.

Here is a link to the PDF catalogue:

Object Therapy is a Hotel Hotel project curated by Guy Keulemans, Andy Marks, Niklavs Rubenis and Dan Honey.

Project designers
Guy Keulemans and Andy Marks

Research investigators
Guy Keulemans, Andy Marks and Niklavs Rubenis

Lee Grant

In addition to develop Object Therapy, I also contributed two works, here and here, and I’ll be discussing these works and the project in general on April 29th at the event Design on Show: Object Therapy at the  City of Sydney Library in Surry Hills.

Including the ADC, the exhibition will visit:

Australian Design Centre, Sydney: 23 March – 17 May 2017
Noosa Regional Gallery: 30 Nov 2017 – 22 Jan 2018
South Australian School of Art Gallery, Adelaide: 13 Feb – 17 Mar 2018
Alcoa Mandurah Art Gallery, WA: 4 May – 23 June 2018
Design Tasmania, Launceston: 7 Jul – 10 Oct 2018
Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, Newcastle: 26 Oct – 2 Dec 2018
Lismore Regional Gallery: 13 Jul – 8 Sept 2019
Tamworth Regional Gallery: 20 Sept – 17 Nov 2019

Details on the public program to come.

In the past month or so I’ve been on radio and television.

For my human research project on repair, Object Therapy, I was interviewed on the 24th May byGenevieve Jacobs for ABC 666 Canberra. Then, on June 25th the day of our first stage interviews, ABC National News interviewed Andy Marks and I, and that when out on television that night, Australia wide. Subsequently, AJ+, the culture wing of Al Jazeera news, took it up for global distribution.

Object Therapy has now entered its second stage, in which broken objects obtained from participants are distributed to designers, artists  and other specialists, for transformative repair.

In June I wrote an article for the Conversation, based on my paper from the Unmaking Waste conference last year, about the problem of steel reinforced concrete. This was later republished on I Fucking Love Science, and last Tuesday 5th July I spoke to Kathryn Ryan for Radio NZ  and then with Sonya Feldhoff for 891 ABC Adelaide, about the article.

Generally, these radio interviews focussed on the technical aspects of reinforced concrete, which is not my area and not actually the focus of the article, which instead concerned the the way we sense and perceive reinforced concrete, via aesthetic theory. However, the very basic and non-original facts about the inherent non-sustainability of reinforced concrete from material and construction  science, that I used to simply ground my theorisation, appears novel and even controversial to the general public. Unfortunately, this just seems to reflect the absence of scrutiny and self-reflection on the use of reinforced concrete by the construction industries and disciplines.

Files from the Illustrator workshop of Tuesday 12th April 2016 can be downloaded from this link:

KEULEMANS, Archaeologic photo by Sharyn Cairns copy

Last year I was pleased to be invited by Karen McCartney to contribute to her new book ‘Perfect Imperfect’.  Subsequently my works Copper Ice Cream Scoops and Archaeologic Vases were beautifully shot by Melbourne photographer Sharyn Cairns.

I’m delighted to say the book is now out, and my works will be exhibited at the book launch on the 27th April till 8 May, at the Nishi Gallery in Canberra, alongside works by some really great designers.

Above and below are photos by Sharyn, and below that are details and copy.

KEULEMANS Copper Ice Cream Scoops, image by Sharyn Cairns copy

‘Perfect Imperfect’ is an exhibition of perfectly imperfect objects collected from around the world; curated by Karen McCartney, Sharyn Cairns and Glen Proebstel in collaboration with Hotel Hotel.

The exhibition features local and international designers and artisans whose work best exemplifies the theme including UNSW Art & Design’s Guy Keulemans, as well as Don Cameron, Martyn Thompson, Alison Coates, Lucy McCrae and Jacqui Fink.

‘Perfect Imperfect’ springs from the pages of a new book by the same name by editor and author Karen McCartney, with photography by Sharyn Cairns and styling by Glen Proebstel. The book and exhibition are a celebration of accident, curation, collection, hesitation, collaboration, reuse and reimagining; and brings together contemporary design with well-worn objects to explore the established aesthetic of wabi-sabi in a new way. The exhibition is firmly sited in the now – where digital technologies and handmade processes are being merged to produce original objects and ideas.

Nishi Gallery
New Acton Precinct
17 Kendal Lane, Canberra,
April 28 – May 8
Mon – Fri: 11:00 am – 3:00 pm
Sat – Sun: 11:00 am – 4:00 pm

Opening Wednesday 27th April at the Nishi Gallery, 6 – 8pm.
RSVP to by 20th April.
… and you can buy the book too

Perfect Imperfect Exhibition invite

Profile in Wood Planet

| March 7th, 2016


This month I’ve been profiled in a Korean magazine “Wood Planet”. The editor was interested in my CNC-milled bamboo chest of drawers/hidden bookshelf ‘LKBP’.

Yes I did point out that bamboo is actually a grass and not a wood.

If you read Korean, here is an online version.


The art of Sho-o’s hammer

| December 16th, 2015

Sho-o was once going to a Cha-no-yu with Rikyu when he caught sight of a flower vase with two handles in a curio shop. He thought he would go in and buy it on his way back and did so only to find that Rikyu had forestalled him. Being invited to a Tea some while after by Rikyu it occurred to him that this vase would be used, and so it turned out, for there it stood in the Tokonoma, but it had one of its handles broken off. ‘Ah,’ he said ‘then I shall have no need of the hammer I brought in my sleeve to knock it off, for I could not bear the idea of it being used with both.’

– from Tsutsui, ‘The role of anecdotes in the transmission of tea traditions’, pp. 44–5., cited in Tim Cross’ Ideologies of Japanese Tea, p. 238.

I wish I could take a hammer to some of that Ikea/replica/mass-market furniture I see in my friend’s homes. Not that its the same thing.

Its amazing to imagine a culture where Sho-o’s intent might be acceptable. Perhaps we need to embrace damage as an aesthetic expression to better value our possessions?

Last month, my partner dropped her iPhone and broke its screen. I have previously seen many, many iPhones with broken screens. They seem to be fairly common among university students, who maybe lack the resources or time to repair them, or are otherwise content to use the phones, as is, while they still function.

Its interesting to me because of something Jonathan Ive, their designer, once said about product design:

“A complex product being made is like one of those films of a glass smashing that they play backwards – all the bits come together in the right place at exactly the right time to be assembled into this thing – it’s amazing.”
– Jonathan Ive, quoted in Thomas Thwaites’ The Toaster Project (2011)

To me it seems, when the literal glass of a complex product breaks, the figurative glass in that analogy also starts to shatter, and we become a little more aware of the many complex things, conditions and relations involved in the design and manufacturing of consumer electronic products. A glimpse of an interior screw or circuit hints at the many dozens or hundreds of metals and materials used in a design, some of them sourced from African conflict zones or processed from petrochemical products. We may even intuit the action of the hands and fingers that assembled the many tiny parts together. At the least, the broken screen conveys an expression of the product as waste, pulling us closer to the consideration of the demise of the product and its future in landfill, perhaps aggressively stripped and pyrochemically processed for its more valuable materials first.

Using some broken iPhones sourced from friends, I produced these images to investigate this concept.

The content of larger or bolded text are former iPhone slogans. The content of the smaller text has been widely reported from news articles, such as those linked above, also, concerning blood metals, here and here, concerning wage slavery in Asia, here and here, and concerning difficulties of reuse, repair, obsolescence and waste, here, here, here and here. Among dozens of other similar articles. There are other aspects of iPhone production I have not addressed in the text – for example the huge amounts of water their manufacturing requires. On the other hand, its important to understand the problem wholistically too. For example, the suicides at Foxconn have been a hot button issue, but I’ve heard it said that the suicide rate among Foxconn employees is lower the Chinese national average. Yet, this doesn’t ameliorate the problem that Foxconn and other Apple suppliers still demand their employees work far longer and cheaper than tolerated in developed countries. My point though is not to pick on Apple – the same issues concern almost all electronic manufacturers and a great number of manufacturers in general. In some regards, Apple is far better than other manufacturers. But are they good enough?

Apple’s financial worth and corporate power are monumental. Their aspirational values for design are massively influential. I believe those capacities should be matched by a stronger concern for the poor and the polluted. It seems to me that Apple, perhaps more than any other corporation, is capable of properly valuing the energy and time it takes – in material and human conditions and as measured in carbon, water and life – required to make their products.

The photo set on the lock screen of the second iPhone 4 is a photo of Foxconn workers in Shenzhen, taken by by Kin Cheung/AP.

A note on the repair/replacement of iPhone screens:

After taking these photos I repaired the black iPhone 4 with the clear packing tape over the screen. Or rather, I replaced the broken screen, which is not strictly repair.

My partner had put the packing tape on to hold the screen together and prevent hurting her finger in use. Its just as well the packing tape was there, because I read only later that once all the tiny internal screws are undone and the screen comes free from the body, the screen is liable to explode little fragments of glass into the air. Eye protection is advised, and apply packing tape beforehand if its not there already.

I had previously repaired or modded Macbooks and other laptops computers, but the scale of the iPhone and its tiny, compacted components presented a challenge. It took time and required more care and precision than I expected. Each screw seemed to get smaller and smaller as I delved into the insect-like guts of the phone, testing the limits of my eyesight and hand control. Tweezers were used. I tried to not touch anything with my fingers, because little smears of skin oil can interfere with the signal antennae that conducts through the body of the device.

Care also needs to be taken in returning components to their location in the same order as they were removed, complicated by little screws, washers and rubber spacers popping out unexpectedly. I made a mistake and needed to repeat a few steps. For anyone following the iFixit instructions, I recommend reading the comments attached to each instruction before following that instruction, and re-read them on re-assembly. The instructions by themselves are not complete.

In the picture above, the open iPhone sits on the table adjacent to a sticky, colour-coded mat. The mat came with the replacement screen, along with some tools. As you remove the screws you stick them on the mat’s coloured dots, referencing their position inside the phone. Its a nice solution for keeping track of the screws.

When I was done I reflected on the task, and I wondered about the workers that assembled the phone in the first place. This phone was no doubt just one of hundreds or thousands assembled during their days and weeks of work.

A few days ago Michelle N. Meyer and Christopher Chabris wrote an article in The New York Times titled “Please, Corporations, Experiment on Us.” The article raises the issue of corporations conducting experiments on their customers, users and employees – as seen last year when Facebook admitted to manipulating its data feeds to elicit emotional responses from a group of its users, in comparison to other Facebook users. The dating site Ok Cupid conducted a similar experiment on a small group of its users, manipulating its compatibility algorithm to test that algorithms usefulness. The article makes the case that while such corporate experiments were condemned, they can nonetheless be useful and should be encouraged. I find that argument problematic, perhaps even dangerous, though to be fair it not suggested that corporate experimentation should be done without ethical standards, and this is discussed more explicitly in the linked academic paper written by Meyer. However, what I think is most interesting about the article is that it has another implication, which is that ethical standards need to be asserted for a broader range of corporate activities, and specifically the production of consumer goods.

The authors set up the premise that corporate experiments like Facebook’s or Ok Cupid’s are ‘A/B’ type experiments (comparing one set of user/consumer effects ‘A’ with another set ‘B’, the control). But corporate activities, such as releasing a product or making system-wide changes to software algorithms also produce effects on user/consumers in the form of A “imposed by itself”, that is, not compared to anything properly known, quantified or assessed (i.e there is no control).

The authors don’t define that latter practice, but I’m going to call it ‘A/{ }’, where { } means an empty set, though the existing set of conditions to which it refers are not actually empty, just unknown.

The claim of the article is that because we readily accept products into the market in the form of A/{ } (and without the level of consent or ethical standard required in scientific studies), we should also accept the practice of producers manipulating a product for one group in comparison to another in the form of A/B, as a means to gain better experimental data.

I think the mistake in the article is that the significance of this is not that the first practice A/{ } legitimises the second practice A/B. Rather, A/B exposes a problem with A/{ }, and that is the problem of consent and disclosure.

In regard to this, the article notes that the ethical problem with the Ok Cupid and Facebook studies are that they did not disclose the experiments, obtain consent or provide a way for users to give consent. Users were not informed to the extent they could opt out and be in the ‘control’ group, or leave the platforms altogether.

This guides us to consider the issue of consent for A/{ } activities. Consumers and users should, in theory, have such consent because they can choose, or choose not, to buy or use a product. The problem with this consent, however, is that it is not truly informed consent, because producers do not disclose all the information about their products that consumers, arguably, need to know. There are a very many standards that already apply to consumer goods – standards of safety, for example, so that electronic products don’t shock or explode, or so chairs don’t collapse. But what is not disclosed? With increasing levels of blackboxing, consumers may not know how to access, modify or repair some products. Furthermore, there is much information about supply chains and their social or environmental relations that are not disclosed. For example, we don’t know very well how many blood metals from Congolese warzones are in our Apple phones, or how many Chinese factory workers killed themselves are a result of producing it, or how difficult and polluting the phone is to discard or recycle. Likewise, we don’t know the intricacies and effects of Facebook’s sharing algorithms on our mental health or consumer behaviour. This is because these corporations choose not to disclose it. It may be what they consider unpublished intellectual property or it may be competitive business information unappealing to customers.

Its possible that manufacturers don’t disclose some information because they don’t know it themselves, but historically there are famous cases in which very useful information was deliberately suppressed or hidden from consumers. The health risks of tobacco and high-sugar diet foods are two notable examples.

With better transparency, consumers should be better able to choose to stop smoking or reduce their sugar intake, or buy more ethically produced phones or use an alternative, less manipulative social media platform.

Transparency and consent concerns employment also. In the hypothetical example the authors give, a CEO implements an action to bolster employee savings. Its an interesting hypothetical because the action is itself the disclosure of that action (the release of information regarding the saving behaviour of their peers). This complicates consent and the capacity for an employee to opt out within the same corporation. However, if that action is fully disclosed to all employees and likewise, but different, actions are fully disclosed at another corporation, then the employee can use that information to consider the benefits of changing employers. In turn, market effects should provide the corporation with information needed to create beneficial employment practices and attract better employees. If we set the goal as not achieving just the corporation wants directly, but achieving that which helps individuals, societies and corporations together. (Further to that, it could be asked, who is making the claim that it is beneficial for employees to save more income anyway, and why? I would be suspicious of a CEO that claims a policy is for an employee’s benefit, but feels that the policy possibly shouldn’t be disclosed in order for them to benefit – even if that’s an unknown at the time of non-disclosure.)

The article argues that corporations should be encouraged to experiment more. This doesn’t necessarily imply they can do so without ethical standard, and the linked academic paper makes it clear that this is not the case, but the danger is that the article may be interpreted that way.

It makes sense to argue that it is ok for corporations or producers to conduct such A/B studies, but only if they are are subjected to well established ethical standards or for research, such as those used by universities. In the US and Australia, these are rigorous.

The subsequent and more compelling extension of that argument is, however, that ethical standards should apply to the manufacture or modification of all products – the A/{ } experiments. What I believe we should be considering is how ethical standards of transparency, disclosure and consent can apply to the design, manufacturing and marketing of products across the broader realms of production and consumption, so that consumers have a better quality of informed consent in general.

Its readily accepted that the specific health-related information and effects of tobacco and food should be disclosed to consumers at the point of sale and as packaging information. Why not the specific socio-environmental related information and effects of consumer goods?

Cover design and internal typesetting for the English translation of Masakazu Ikeda’s Contempory Clinical Foundations of the Classics, a Japanese textbook concerned with interpreting the ancient Chinese texts on acupuncture.

Typeset in Bembo, Futura and Mincho.

The kanji on the cover is printed in PMS 874, a pinkish gold spot color that doesn’t show up too well here.

Last year I was invited by Andrea Eckersley, the art editor of the Deleuze Studies Journal to contribute a cover. Conventionally, this means sending an image that is slotted into a pre-designed template that makes Deleuze Studies Journal covers look consistent. In Deleuze-speak, this could be called a stratified or striated design system. But Deleuzians are often interested in those forces, whether social, political, or creative, that can break down or destabilise stratified systems. So I thought it interesting to consider how I could mess with the existing template system, short of actually redesigning it.

This cover plays with the processes of copying, repetition, transformation and distortion possible within print-ready output from vector-based graphic design software. I attempted to include elements that had the potential to be aesthetically challenging, such graphic distortions, a missing glyph character and a typo. More significantly, I included technically challenging details for the printer, such as hairlines, inconsistent overprinting, non-expanded vector graphic effects and, probably the worst, over-saturated CMYK inks for rich greys and blacks. These latter effects are prone to smudging on the press or even flooding the paper with ink to the point it warps.

I noticed a few of these features subtly changed during the proofing phases, probably due the vagaries of pre-press software and probably unnoticed by the printer. In conventional print design projects such changes can bother clients and infuriate designers. But in the end, the printer did a very good job managing my intentionally ‘bad’ design – and that suggests they may have also intentionally tweaked some of my ‘mistakes’ in the pre-press phase. The final printed cover looks good.

During February and March of this year, Kyoko Hashimoto and I ran a workshop for JamFactory Metal Design Studio associates. The workshop addressed the design of rings, in the context of history and contemporary needs, loosely framed by the commercial goals of JamFactory for establishing a custom ring design service.
Focus was given to the development of experimental and reflective practice, self-directed research and conceptual thinking. Through presentations, and group and individual discussions, the associates developed the design of rings that responded to their research. These rings were subsequently finished and photographed in April.

A PDF catalog of the workshop outcomes can be downloaded by clicking the first image or the following link.

Ring Workshop – JamFactory 2015 – Keulemans & Hashimoto

Angela Giuliani, Sylvia Nevistic, Davide Spinoni, Emma Field & Zoe Grigoris

with Christian Hall (creative director) & Alice Potter (production manager) of the Metal Design Studio

Photos and text by Guy Keulemans and Kyoko Hashimoto

The material properties of copper, its conductivity and its effects on other metals as an alloy, make it a core technological material of history and civilisation. Copper is very active metallurgically, and found in many organic and inorganic ecologies, and even in our blood, though direct sensory experience of such copper ecologies is rare. Typically, the day to day encounter with copper is in applications that are physically small, such as copper wiring or other electronic components. The era of tinkering and tin lined copper kitchenware is almost gone – the winding down of an ancient relationship begun in the alloys of the Bronze Age.

This design combines cast pure copper and cast tin as married metals. Pure copper is a tricky, reactive metal when cast. It wants to spit and react with air, so imperfections and cavities can result. Such tendencies may be controlled in industrial practice with the use of a flux layer and other techniques, but in this proposal, as in my previous work Copper Ice Cream Scoops, the copper is imperfectly cast. The cast is then flipped and repaired with molten tin, poured in from the other side of the mould.

This materiality, in the ancient, archetypal form of a vessel, expresses the active vibrancy of copper as a metal and its historical significance when alloyed with tin.

The computer drawings are only diagrammatic. The manufacturing process is generative and each vessel is unique. The display of multiple vessels makes this feature intuitive.

These processes were developed for my previous work Copper Ice Cream Scoops (2012), in which I reproduced the classic Zeroll style aluminium scoop in copper and tin by the lost wax method. The simpler shape of these vessels makes sand casting suitable.

Tommorow, the exhibition Unmaking Waste will open at UniSA’s SASA Gallery in Adelaide.

On Saturday, I’ll be presenting my peer-reviewed paper “Mixed Up: Re-thinking the sensibility of reinforced concrete” at the Unmaking Waste conference. The paper concerns the problematic obsolescence of steel reinforcement used in concrete as a composite material – a ‘monstrous hybrid’, as McDonough and Braungart would say. This concept is illustrated through a discussion of my previous work Gilded Concrete Low Table. In may paper I contrast the failures and costs of many 2oth century structures, and the future obsolescence of many more, with the two millennia year old Pantheon in Rome. I draw content from Robert Courland’s excellent book Concrete Planet, but use my analysis to indicate strategies for designers to firstly understand material ecologies as active and vibrant, with all the anthropocentrism that curtails, and secondly to use ‘maintenance’ as technique drawing attention to improper material use.

For the associated Unmaking Waste exhibition, I contributed a number of works – a table, a slab, an object made from reconfigured construction site markers and a chalk wall drawing. These all address, in different ways, the problem of steel oxidation (rust) inside concrete and the resulting spalling, when the concrete is literally forced apart by the rust-driven expansion of the steel.

Details and images of my practical works below.

Exhibition launch

6pm Thursday 21 May 2015

Exhibition open

Tuesday 5 – Friday 29 May 2015

11am – 5pm Monday – Friday


Level 2, Kaurna Building,
City West Campus,
UniSA Cnr Fenn Place & Hindley Street,
08 8302 9274

Charles Anderson, Singh Intrachooto, Guy Keulemans, Mandi King, Kirsty Máté, Kerstin Thompson, John Quan, Peter Walker, Stuart Walker and Andrew Whittaker

An exhibition developed by Zero Waste SA Research Centre in conjunction with the Unmaking Waste Conference.

Photos here by Steve Wilson.

Last week I had the chance to get into the photostudio at JamFactory, where I am currently resident artist, to take some photos of a new collection of Archaeologic vases.

More images are now uploaded, here.

Belle Magazine November 2014

| November 28th, 2014

This month I was included in Belle Magazine’s “Generation Next” review of significant Australian designers.

I think the photographer did a pretty good job capturing my beard :D. He had a bigger one himself.

For the last few years I have been teaching in the final year program for Bachelor of Design students at the College of Fine Arts. This program gives students the opportunity to propose and develop their own conceptual projects and I have been lucky enough to teach many talented students and supervise many excellent projects. Last year, two students stood out for the quality of their work and the relationship of their ideas to my own research in product design concerning the factors of production which express, or don’t express, within the experience of consumption.

Emily Yeung is a young fashion designer tackling a big ethical issue within the fashion industry – the exploitation of garment workers in developing countries where they are subjected to low wages and unsafe working conditions. This issue can be perplexing for designers wishing to do the right thing, but faced with that fact that Australian companies produce the vast majority of their clothing overseas, complicit in the economic forces which create the problem. There are arguments to be made that producers need to be both more aware of this situation and intervene directly to make sure that garment workers are not exploited. Yeung’s project Eight Storeys addresses the importance of raising awareness within the fashion design industry in a novel and provocative way.

Starting with her research on the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh and inspired in part by my project Smash Repair, Yeung developed an exceptionally designed video and range of garments which powerfully express the tragedy of such events and at the same time makes a proposal for a local, autonomous and alternative production system which, while highly conceptual, steps away from the moral quagmire of mass-production systems. As Yeung states, this proposal addresses “the demise of local manufacturing and emphasises the need for transparency in supply chains.”

The video is well worth a look: 

Eight Storeys from Emily Yeung on Vimeo.

Yeung’s project was first exhibited at the 2013 COFA Annual Graduation Galleries and awarded the Design for Social Activism prize.

It was later awarded the Dia Gotya Nomination from the Design Institute of Australia (2014) and the Hatched Award Nomination from PICA | Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (2014).

Lyly Lao is another Bachelor of Design graduate interested in the manufacturing conditions of products and materials – in her case, leather. Her research began with a visit to one of the few remaining tanneries in Sydney and the observation that the very complex process of tanning leather (and many chemical ingredients used, often poisonous and environmentally destructive) are almost completely hidden to the consumer within the experience of leather products, such as shoes and bags. Noting the evidence in the archaeological record that the earliest human societies had more ‘organic’ methods of tanning leather using animal waste products such as brain, blood and urine (methods still used in some places, such as the infamous tanneries of Morocco), Lao developed her own DIY techniques for cleaning and tanning pig skin she obtained from a local butcher. An interest in the properties of skin lead her the art of tattooing, which she incorporated into her final design: a self-tanned pair of Men’s shoes with tattooed logos.

Leather tanning at a Sydney tannery:

Lyly’s own process involved cleaning the fat off the pigskin she was able to obtain:

Tattoo experiments on pig skin:

Lao’s shoes are not necessarily commercially attractive (though personally I think they are beautiful) but rather the point of Lao’s project is expose the materiality of the product and draw its origins and production conditions closer to the consumption experience. Her shoes, which retain the hair and ink branding from the pig, are far more animalistic than typical leather shoes, and raise the association of pig skin to human skin, accentuated by the visual device of the tattoo. The project asks whether we should be consuming leather at all, but at the same time evidences the possibility of alternative, non-industrial leather production without the need for chemicals and processes of risk to human heath and the environment.

Lyly Lao’s project was exhibited and awarded the sustainability prize at the 2013 COFA Annual Graduation Galleries.

Last year I was invited by Jackson Tan (BLACK) and Justin Zhuang (In Plain Words) to contribute images of my work to their Creative Cities exhibition in Taiwan. The very well designed exhibition has now opened and is running until the 12th January 2014.

In the images here you can see photos of my work amidst that of other designers from Sydney (including Trent Jansen & Henry Wilson) and designers from other Asian cities including Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, Taiwan and Beijing.

More images can be found on the Creative Cities and Kaohsiung Design Festival links below.

Congrats to the Creative Cities team on a great effort and result.


Venue: Pier-2 Art Center, Kaohsiung City, Taiwan
Date: 13 December 2013 – 12 January 2014
Presenter: The Kaohsiung City Bureau of Cultural Affairs, Taiwan

Language: English, Chinese

Curator: Jackson Tan / BLACK
Editor: Justin Zhuang / In Plain Words
Assistant Editor: Yvonne Xu
Exhibition Design: BLACK
Information Design: Yin Shanyang / SWARM
Sound curator: Zul Mahmod

Kaohsiung Design Festival:

Photo credits: Caleb Ming and Kaohsiung Design Festival, 2013.

The exhibition Domestic Renewal, featuring my Copper Ice Cream Scoops and curated by Rohan Nicol, is currently on show in Adelaide with new work contributed by designers from the Jam Factory. The catalogue can be downloaded here.

Domestic Renewal at the Jam Factory
10th October 2013 to 1st December
at the JamFacory Gallery, 19 Morphett St, Adelaide.

Featuring new work by Jam Factory artists including:
George Agius, Llewelyn Ash, Kristel Britcher,
Karen Cunningham, Liam Fleming, Daniel Guest,
Christian Hall, Marcel Hoogstad Hay, Wayne Mcara,
Alice Potter, Matt Taylor, Ulrica Trulsson,
Alexander Valero and Miao Wang

In addition to the existing works by:
Alex Asch, Richard Blackwell, Norman Cherry,
Ann Cleary, Guy Keulemans, Sarah K, Bridie Lander,
Gini Lee, Rohan Nicol, Sabine Pagan, Mel Robson,
Liane Rossler, Wayne Simons, Kenji Uranishi,
Jason Wade and Henry Wilson.

Domestic Renewal curated by Rohan Nicol is showing again at the Craft Cubed festival in Melbourne. The exhibition opens on the evening of the 1st of August and on the 2nd of August at midday I’ll be talking about my contribution with Rohan and others.

Event: Domestic Renewal
Venue: Craft
Start: August 2, 2013
End: October 31, 2013
Address: 31 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, Victoria, 3000, Australia

Images can be found here.

Update 8/10/13: The exhibition has been reviewed by the Australian Design Review, here.

This Thursday the 28th of March 2013, the very talented designer/curator/journalist Matylda Krzykowski will be giving a guest talk at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW. I’ve known Matylda since my time studying and living in Holland and I’m very happy to host this presentation of her work during her brief visit to Sydney.  Her cross-disciplinary practice is exceptional so its worth checking out the links below the following information about her talk:


>>The initiator, curator and designer Matylda Krzykowski is primarily interested in design as a vehicle for communication and content distribution, particularly in connection with the designers themselves. She creates a variety of projects in which she emphasises personality and aesthetics, based on the moment of experience.>>

For the last half decade Krzykowski has been active in the European design scene as a curator, journalist and designer. Her accomplishments include curation and documentation for many design festivals: including co-founder of Depot Basel, scenographer for the Design Biennale Liege 2012 and project manager for The Machine – Designing a New Industrial Revolution. On her website she has interviewed dozens of designers and producers from all around the world including Martino Gamper, Murray Moss, Gijs Bakker and the Bouroullec brothers. An example of her innovative cross-disciplinary approach is her recent project Personal Content (with Cristoph Sagel), where she photographed designers with their projects on a stage within their studios – drawing relationships between personalities, space, objects and objectives.

Hosted by Trent Jansen and Guy Keulemans, School of Design, COFA

7pm, Thursday March 28th
Room: E101 (above the main lecture theatre)
The College of Fine Arts, UNSW

Open to all.

Domestic Renewal at Craft ACT

| November 12th, 2012

Currently my Copper Ice Cream Scoops are on display in “Domestic Renewal: A table re:set” at Canberra’s peak craft and design venue Craft ACT craft and design centre, continuing until Saturday 15 December 2012. The exhibition is curated by Rohan Nicol and features the work of Alex Asch, Richard Blackwell, Norman Cherry, Ann Cleary, Heidi Dokulil, myself, Bridie Lander, Gini Lee, Rohan Nicol, Sabine Pagan, Richard Peters, Mel Robson, Wayne Simons, Blanche Tilden, Kenji Uranishi, Jason Wade, Kathryn Wells and Henry Wilson. The website for the exhibition is here.

The final work is discussed here, while the original research and a taxonomy of precedents is here.

Copper Ice Cream Scoops

| November 2nd, 2012

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 aluminium 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 yielding to the tool, yet strong and structurally sound – when drilled or milled its swarf flows out in long lustrous whorls. Yet, my intent was to change the most minimum 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 unpredictable. It flows thick, oxidises 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.

Note: I subsequently wrote about this work in my paper Capturing the Middle: experimental product design and the expression of socio-environmental relations in material, in which I also discuss the work Botanica by Formafantasma.

Torn Flasks, work in progress

| October 19th, 2012

Its been a tough year for me in regards to making objects – my phd research has taken precedence and I’ve hardly been in the workshop. This is a slowly developing work in progress, a series of ceramic flasks moulded from Erlenmeyer and various other flasks.  I’m interested in the seeming absolute nature of scientific certainties – mathematic formulas on one hand and references such as the melting point of solids or the viscosities of liquids at temperature on the other, contrasted with the infinitely  chaotic way  in which  actual objects  manifest in the real world. Nothing is ever perfect, so to play with this I keep sprues on the vessels, pull them out of the mould inappropriately and otherwise assist their imperfection. This image is merely presents objects in development – they are not yet imperfect enough.

This project for the upcoming exhibition Domestic Renewal began with a conversation I had with designer Henry Wilson, in which we talked about these fascinating hollow aluminium ice cream scoops containing liquid in their handle. The classic design is made by the American company Zeroll, as pictured above (image from Williams-Sonoma). The aluminium, which is quite thermo-conductive, and the liquid inside the handle work together to transmit body heat from the hand to the scoop blade, helping the scoop move through frozen ice cream and then release the ice cream. Such a design is both simple,  in that there are no mechanical parts, and intelligent, in the way its takes advantage of material qualities, and very much in the spirit of Henry’s own well thought out design philosophy. In relationship to my own practise and methodologies, which are complex and sometimes and unfortunately torturously more convoluted, I couldn’t help but be bothered by a nagging wonder – why don’t they make these scoops out of other materials more thermo-conductive than aluminium?

This question was not easily answered. It first required a thorough investigation into the design and history of these scoops. I discovered the patent drawings fairly quickly, and then began collecting various scoops from shops, friends, and online, mostly by ebay. I even discovered a very old scoop in a box of kitchen tools I  inherited from my late grandmother, never before noticed. Here I present just some of the scoops and research I have collected in roughly chronological order of design or production, starting with these beautiful patent drawings by inventor Sherman L Kelly.

In 1933 Kelly had noticed that the staff at an ice cream shop were hurting their wrists from the repetitive action of scooping frozen ice cream. The were using the traditional design with a squeeze triggered mechanical lever for releasing the ice cream. Kelly’s design improved ergonomics, but had another benefit as well; because the scoop melted through the ice cream, it did not compact it. This enabled shop owners to gain %10 to %20 more servings out of a tub – a useful advantage during the economic depression of the time. He applied for the patent in 1935 and the same year set up the company Zeroll from his garage in Ohio. The scoop was an immediate success. Production slowed during wartime due to lack of aluminium, but Kelly’s company was one of the first to gain access to post-war aluminium supplies. Eventually competitors began producing their own versions, presumably only once the patent expired, but who knows? More detail about the Zeroll story can be found on their website.


This old Zeroll was made in Toledo, Ohio, Sherman Kelly’s hometown, which means it was either made before 1953 or after 1981, as the company moved to Maumee, Ohio, during that period. Its dirty patina is a function of age, contact with hard or chlorinated water and probably being run through a dishwasher. The heat from the dishwasher in particular ruins the shine, but can also break down the special liquid inside, and so almost all scoop manufacturers warn against placing the scoops in dishwashers. The liquid is a propylene glycol and water mix. Propylene glycol is a chemical, generally regarded as food safe, used in a bizarre array of products including soft serve ice-creams, electronic cigarettes,  draught beer tap plumbing, vaginal oestrogen creams, Angostura bitters and the oil dispersant used to cleanup the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  None of the scoop manufacturers I contacted confirmed that the internal liquid was indeed propylene glycol, however its the only reasonable explanation as pure water does not have heat tolerance concerns, and other anti-freeze chemicals, like the commonly confused polyethylene glycol, are toxic and not safe for use in cutlery.

Zeroll – 2012 model

This new Zeroll shows how shiny they are meant to look prior to ageing and adventures with the dishwasher. The model they keep at Musuem of Modern Art in New York is kept shiny like this, though the nice thing about aluminium is its quite resilient and doesn’t form oxides naturally, i.e don’t expose it to heat or chemicals and it will remain shiny for forever. More or less. The blue cap on the previous Zeroll and the yellow cap on this one indicates the size of the scoop, measured in scoops per gallon, though these scoops are actually the same size (20) and so sometime between their respective manufacture Zeroll changed the color coding. Note that this newer version has a crisper blade edge around the scoop end, and that the inside of the scoop blade has a rough linished texture whereas the handle is high polished. Apparently Zeroll occasionally change the specifics of the aluminium alloy they use to keep up with metallurgical advances.

Ben & Jerry’s

I think Ben & Jerry’s have been making their own versions for some time, but their design is noticeably poorer than Zeroll’s . The colourful end cap is replaced by aluminium and the shape of the scoop blade is different and to my mind clumsier, with the edge being more rounded. You can also see distortion in the reflection lines which indicates a less precise mould, and while this is also new, the aluminium polish is somewhat dull.


The Stöckel scoop is a high quality German copy. The first image is an older scoop, borrowed from a friend, and has seen a lot of use and the inside of a dishwasher. The second image is of a new one and is quite stunning IMHO.  Note the polishing inversion compared to the new Zeroll – here the inside of the scoop blade is highly polished and the handle is satin polished. It arguably improves on the original Zeroll design by enlarging the radius of the upper scoop back surface (not visible in this image), somehow making the form appear more elegant. The blade edges are sharper  – not cutting sharp but enough to make a difference when scooping through rock hard ice cream. There is a slight flaw on the new one; on the front neck under the lower blade edge is a slight protuberance which has been sanded off slightly. Possibly the location of the sprue, where the aluminium is poured into the mould. This design includes an aluminium end cap, but  its set nicely flush with the end of the handle and stamped with the company branding (see last image).


I had  hopes when I found this scoop on ebay that it would be a high quality Japanese copy, but alas its a clumsy attempt with curious and inelegant  formal properties. Probably fairly old and made, or at least originally designed, during the post-war period before Japan stepped up its manufacturing and industrial design skills.


An American copy. The shape of its scoop is quite elongated at the throat and generally unappealing. Possibly this is for a functional change though, to produce a different shape of ice-cream ball shape or scooping action? Its black surface is marketed as non-stick, which is fairly redundant considering the whole point of Kelly’s original design. This surface is not teflon, but hard anodised aluminium. This surface treatment is sometimes used in cookware to prevent leaching of aluminium salts into food, but this is not an issue with ice-cream scoops which are not subjected to heat. Zeroll make a similar black coated scoop, but more correctly market it as circumventing the aluminium patina problem produced by exposure to hard or over-chlorinated water. It still doesn’t it make it resistant to dishwashers however, as the anodised aluminium oxide on the surface is less thermally conductive, meaning that if the aluminium expands from contact with heat, the surface can crack.


These non-branded Chinese made scoops arrived with no liquid inside, contrary to their description on ebay. They are not highly polished and have a sand blasted texture. There are obvious filing marks over the presumed sprue points. I cut the plain one open to discover the wall thickness and internal qualities quite variable, which makes me think they were investment cast, with the wax positive slip moulded. These scoops, one plain aluminium and the other anodised, were incredibly cheap – just a few dollars each including shipping to Australia from Hong Kong. Though they had no liquid inside, the caps are not designed to be easily removable, so I don’t think its intended for the user to add the liquid, though possibly this job was intended for a middleman or re-seller in the distribution chain. The scoop design still works without the antifreeze liquid, just not as well. Both of the scoops have raised text built into the moulding, warning the user not to place the scoop in boiling water or expose to heat. I think this is pretty funny considering one of the main reasons for the warning is to preserve the functioning of the internal liquid… not included.

I have several more scoops in my collection now, but these nine were the ones I had on hand in the photostudio. The most important thing to realise is that all their technical functionality and aesthetics, new and used, from their production to the way they wear with use, are contingent on the use of aluminium as the thermo-conductive metal in the scoop design. My experiment for Domestic Renewal starts with the alteration of this one factor.

The exhibition Domestic Renewal: A table re:set will be staged at Canberra’s peak craft and design venue Craft ACT craft and design centre. It will open @ 6pm on Thursday 1st November continuing until Saturday 15 December 2012. The exhibition is curated by Rohan Nicol and features the work of Alex Asch, Richard Blackwell, Norman Cherry, Ann Cleary, Heidi Dokulil, Guy Keulemans, Bridie Lander, Gini Lee, Rohan Nicol, Sabine Pagan, Richard Peters, Mel Robson, Wayne Simons, Blanche Tilden, Kenji Uranishi, Jason Wade, Kathryn Wells and Henry Wilson.

Idealism and Rationalism

| July 6th, 2012

Reading through Christopher Hitchens’ memoir I was struck by this quote (among many others) about idealism and rationalism, and the sometimes challenging ability to change one’s mind.

To announce that one has painfully learned to think for oneself might seem an unexciting conclusion and anyway, I have only my own word for it that I have in fact taught myself to do so. The ways in which the conclusion is arrived at may be interesting, though, just as it is always how people think that counts for much more than what they think. I suspect that the hardest thing for the idealist to surrender is the teleological, or the sense that there is some feasible, lovelier future that can be brought nearer by exertions in the present, and for which “sacrifices” are justified. With some part of myself, I still “feel,” but no longer really think, that humanity would be the poorer without this fantastically potent illusion. “A map of the world that did not show Utopia,” said Oscar Wilde, “would not be worth consulting.” I used to adore that phrase, but now reflect more upon the shipwrecks and prison islands to which the quest has led.

I don’t profess that this relates to any particular aspect of my design philosophy, to which, in regards to the need for radical approaches to the problems of production and consumption, I remain committed, but it does put a beautifully poetic slant on the rather mundane decision to think more pragmatically about complex problems, a decision which often takes a drubbing from the ideological position in arguments of worth.

Incidentally, I read in the paper today that the former Argentinian dictator Jorge Videla has been finally convicted for his part in stealing children away from his imprisoned dissidents (the “disappeared”), which I think would have caused the late Hitchens to feel remarkably vindicated. Hitchens actually met and interviewed Videla in 1977, on the same trip in which he met the great writer Borges. The following picture appears in his memoirs with the caption,

Swallowing vomit while greeting General Videla of Argentina in Juan Peron’s old palace

Later in the very last paragraph of the book, he clearly states the unalterable problem of history:

It’s quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time: to maintain that there is no totalitarian solution while also insisting that, yes, we on our side also have unalterable convictions and are willing to fight for them.

Cufflinks I designed for my father’s 80th birthday in London (his initials are TK).

Made from 925 silver. The whole cufflink is blackened by oxidizing the silver, and then the oxidization is removed from the face as the final finishing procedure, exposing the initials.

Another pair with initials JK, for my brother. I made the letters slightly more playful to better suit his character.

Fabricated by Kyoko Hashimoto.

I accept custom orders for these cufflinks in whatever letters are required.

A Quote from Andrea Branzi

| March 27th, 2012

Today, in order to create a new architecture and new urban spaces, it is necessary to to begin further upstream: one has to plunge one’s hands into that vast planktonic soup of products, technologies, pictures, signs and data which make up the artificial universe in which man is completely immersed.  It is an invasive and compromised artificial environment, but none the less it does constitue the only real urban space. Design, bravely operating within the world of production and consumption, has gained its new found supremacy through being the only planning entity able to transform reality.

Andrea Branzi, 1993.

This work has been superseded by the third series of Archaeologic.

Above photos by Dean McCartney.

This stage of the Archaeologic project was exhibited during Sydney Design Week 2011 in collaboration with Henry Wilson.

For other stages of this project I am using an approach adapted from kintsugi, the Japanese art of ceramic repair, embedding the photoluminescent pigment into deep glue seams running right through the bowls. For this project, Henry and I decided to focus on the common problem of chipped crockery – the kind of damage you see in crockery sold at second hand shops, which is where we obtained these samples. The pigment is applied as filler within the chips and sanded back to restore the unbroken shape, but with a nice surprise when you open your cupboards at night.

The exhibition case was built with a timed light switch similar to the ones they used to use in museum displays (at least the ones I remember from my childhood), except that the switch is reversed; pressing the button turns the light off for 30 seconds, instead of on.

In situ on Elizabeth Lane during Sydney Design Week:

Archaeologic: first image

| September 30th, 2011

Broken white stoneware repaired with photoluminescent pigment.

My new project with Henry Wilson is now on show during Sydney Design Week 2011. Details below.


Seeing potential in the look and feel of broken things, Guy Keulemans and Henry Wilson present an act of protest against the new. The transformative power of repair is harnessed in a collection of objects which celebrate a synthesis of Japanese kintsugi, archaeology, and light.

The street exhibition is on view in the laneway behind 617 Elizabeth Street Refern during Sydney Design Week between 11am and 5pm daily.

Studio 1, 617 Elizabeth Lane (behind 617 Elizabeth Street)

Facebook event page.

NNancy at PYD

| April 7th, 2011

From March 18 to April 19th my installation NNancy is on show at the PYD Building in Sydney. A spatial intervention built from a simple fixed modular component, the structure generatively becomes complex as it caterpillers its way up the central staircase. I, with a rotating group of assistants, are building the structure live on Tuesdays the 29th March, 5th of April, and 12th of April, with a pulldown on the 28th April. The pulldown is, in a way, as interesting to me as the build up because I film the process and use it to make animations, like the one below, but in real rather than virtual space.

The work is a sequel to my recent exhibition in Poland, WWilma, a similar structure, but whose form was built by visitors and controlled by demographic factors. It grew to massive proportions in the cultural centre which housed it, akin to an out of control architectural growth, temporarily, but drastically changing the interior space. NNancy, built for the first time in the PYD building, is smaller and less monstrous, but possesses more defined geometric parameters; an invitation to thoughts about the relationships between art and nature, control and chaos.

NNancy from yugyug on Vimeo.

NNancy: a spatial intervention by Guy Keulemans
The PYD Building
197 Young Street, Waterloo, NSW 2017, Australia
18th March to 28th April
Hours: Monday to Friday – 9am to 5:30pm
Saturday – 9am to 5pm
Sunday – 9am to 4pm

Information at the PYD website:

Pawel Kraus from Poland’s Archizoom has written about my project Kids Energy House, here.

The exhibition Tag! Base! Hide and Seek! has opened successfully at the Centre of Contemporary Art in Torun, and  WWILMA has begun. This was project was difficult for me because I was unable to travel to Torun and set it up myself, but instead sent an instruction manual to the curators. That makes a fair amount of sense, considering its built by the art centre visitors, and, as the video stream shows, they did an excellent job and its running like a dream. Already it is quite large, with a large chaotic arrangement in the foreground and some nice smaller, disconnected satellite arrangements in the background. As the structure expands, will these join up and intensify?

Click the link below for the live video stream. Works in most browsers, Chrome and Safari certainly, it will also open in VLC. Keep in mind the time difference – at night the centre closes and turns off the lights, and all you see is black :/

WWILMA at COCA, live video stream

Earlier this year I was asked to contribute to the soon to be released Platform 21 book. My contribution was a series of sketches proposing an structure built by the visitors of an exhibition which represents their demographic qualities by translation into physical structure. Its both interactive and generative, and somewhat like an infographic or diagram, but three dimensional, large and architectural. It divides space in a very physical way. Curator Joanna van der Zaanden liked the idea and is taking it to Poland where it will grow for the first time under proper conditions at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Torun, Poland. I have an instruction manual and a few details to work out before its opens on the third of December, but I’ve already built a smaller scale prototype with artificial demographic data, so it at least has been tested structurally.

Above, the prototype in Berlin. It represents 50 exhibition visitors and fills up a room of about 22 square metres. In fact it escaped out the door and ended up on the street. With visitors in Torun estimated at more than 1000, the structure there will be perhaps 20 times larger.

Thanks to Mirak Jamal and Marwin Bald for the use of their cellar studio and  gallery in Berlin.

Artichoke and Belle articles

| October 29th, 2010

I was recently featured in the July-August issue of Artichoke, Australia’s design and architecture magazine. It was a very nice profile written by Dutch design journalist Ingeborg van Lieshout, who also writes for a number of important Dutch entities like Bright, Frame and Mediamatic, as well as for her own site The Green Light District.

And soon after in September I was in Belle, the lifestyle and interior magazine, alongside Kyoko Hashimoto. We were instead asked to recommend things to do in Berlin for a travel feature, so we recommended some of the kookier bars, places to stay, and eat (especially Claudia and Nico’s amazing ad-hoc Sunday restaurant at Sowieso) and discussed the influence of the city on our work.

The May 2010 issue of Art Forum has a review of the Marres Centre’s We Were Exuberant and Still Had Hope. Ettore Sottsass: works from Stockholm, 1969 exhibition. The author Saskia van der Kroef writes:

….designer Guy Keulemans provided “notes” to Sottsass’s Superbox. Keuleman’s Objects for Atheists, Superunfoldedbox, 2009, comprising different kinds of cardboard posters that function as a DIY kit, turned the institution’s second floor into a playful cityscape of ill-shaped miniature Superboxes. Mass-produced, touchable, light and disposable, they were in complete contrast with the originals downstairs. The young designer clearly broke with the Superbox’s sacral staging, directly invoking the conditions of consumption. At the same time, the work illustrated the promise of an entirely designable society, with the participation of the viewer – but not without an exuberance of its own.

The celebrated young designer Tobias Wong died recently at the age of 35, officially by suicide. However, it appears he may have killed himself accidentally while sleep walking, a condition with which he had long been afflicted. In this post I speculate on how and why his ultimately tragic condition may have also contributed to the startling originality of his work.

I was surprised and shocked last month to hear of the death of the  Tobi Wong. Its true that talented people die all the time, but the news came quickly that it was suicide, and this is unusual for designers. They don’t tend to have the angst or terrible passions that strike misery into the hearts of the famous musicians and artists who kill themselves.

Of course, Tobi Wong was an artist; his work provocatively poked fun at the establishment and critiqued the trappings of consumer society, fertile area for many contemporary artists. Considering this, was he an Ian Curtis or Vincent Van Gogh, troubled by depression and tortured by the imperfections of his own art? It doesn’t seem likely, because his work and personality was light hearted and, in general, ironically sweet and aesthetically pleasing. Although he played with the paradox of producing things that criticised material production (for example the Wrong Store, which never opened, or his collaboration with Paper magazine) actually his work sold well, and is found in many shops both physical and online. In one interview he relished the opportunity to have been published in Teen Vogue, a magazine with a circulation well beyond the specialty magazines of his own profession. In many regards, he was an artistically and commercially successful designer at the peak of his career.

Yesterday, a fascinating article in the New York Times written by Alex Williams, proposed that he didn’t intend to kill himself at all. Williams discovered that Wong was afflicted by sleeping disorders, and Wong’s boyfriend Tim Dubitsky is convinced he hung himself while sleep walking. Bizarre as this sounds, the anecdotal evidence is strong; his friends and family tell stories of Tobi getting up in the middle of the night and exhibiting strange sleep walking behaviour – cooking 3 course dinners, randomly billing clients and writing nonsensical emails. On one occasion he made costumes for his cats. When Tobi visited his mother in her high rise apartment, she would stack chairs by the doors to prevent him from accessing the balcony ledge. On another occasion, he was said to have removed a treasured painting from the wall and violently thrown it across the room.

I can believe it. I have a history of sleep walking too. Sometimes I wake up and act out conversations with strangers, or speak gibberish to friends. More than once I have left my room and woken up in strange beds, or found myself naked inside elevators, locked out of my apartment. Awkward situations. Parasommnias, sleep disorders and sleep walking tend to affect families, and my brother too once sleep walked while at college, falling down some steps and badly cutting his head open. Once, while camping in Croatia, my girlfriend tied her hand to mine with string, to prevent me from getting up in the night and falling off the nearby cliffs.  Never, ever, however, could I imagine a tragedy on the scale of what happened to Tobias Wong. And yet, it is not unknown; both the popular media and medical literature are rife with stories of misadventure, death and even manslaughter being commited by those technically asleep. In these conditions the pre-frontal cortex of the brain is disconnected, and the afflicted may have no more control over their actions than they would over a simple dream.

I think its interesting to consider that this condition of Wong’s may have been intricately linked to his style and approach to art, but I preface these ideas by saying its entirely supposition.

It appears he had a dual life; a waking life, and a dream life that was acted out, but vaguely remembered or known only through the recollections of family and friends. Did he feel like he had a dual identity? A somnolent doppelganger? Much of Wong’s work deals with appropriation of the work of others; my favourite is his Savoy doorstop. Its  a wry take on Alvar Alto’s famous vase, which was filled with concrete to make the doorstop. And each doorstop requires another Alto vase to be broken;  a bold move by a young designer to place his own work at a higher premium than that of the Finnish master. Of course, the other well known examples are the Starck chair he fitted with a light and the cut up Issey Miyake skirt.

Did he feel that these appropriations were possible, or more conceivable, because of his own fractured sense of identity?  Did he conceive that he was acting out the dream lives of those he appropriates by proxy? In a parallel universe does Starck dream of putting a light in his own chair? Did Issey Miyake have a nightmare of seeing his skirts turned into monitor covers? In our universe, Tobias Wong made these imaginery events delightfully real and amusingly tangible.

At the Core 77 Design, Wit, and the Creative Act conference in 2007, Wong staged an interesting fraud by substituting his friend, academic Rama Chorpash, in his place as speaker and panel member. This is by no means original to Wong – its a core aspect of Dutch artist Barbara Visser‘s oeuvre and more recently the avant garde International Necronautical Society pulled the same stunt at the Tate. However, one can speculate that Wong was not just playing with authenticity or circumnavigating his own fear of public speaking, but also performing a voyeuristic fantasy; an act of observing his identity externally. One can imagine that having his sleep walking activities related to him third hand, by friends and families, “the morning after”, may have cultivated an intense desire to observe himself in the way they did. Something he could not do while sleepwalking, could be done by proxy. Wong attended the event semi-anonymously and is described sitting with the audience, grinning with glee at his own prank.

Other examples of his work show an intent to observe himself externally. I had previously thought his 1997 self portrait The Stolen Shot, in which he photo bombed a picture at the beach by popping his head into the frame of a couples own photograph, was a early expression of his interest in appropriation and inserting his personality into the work of others. Yet, an alternate explanation is that he was struggling to see himself as his sleepwalking phantom, a ghostly and distant entity. Perhaps, a way to see himself in the same way his close friends and family had seen him. Was his later work, Sleeping at Agnes, in which he slept at night in the window of a boutique, visible from the street, an attempt expose his condition to the public? An attempt to share his families’ experiences with a wider audience? 

Some aspects of Wong’s life and work take on dark new meanings in light of his sleeping disorder. His well known tattoo, “Protect me from what I want” scribbled in pen by the artist Jenny Holzer on his arm and later tattooed permanently, now seems presciently sinister. Wong described his own work with the name paraconceptual. The prefix para, when used as from its Greek origin, means beside, adjacent, and resembling, but also abnormal. The term describes Wong’s work well, working alongside the mainstream and resembling it, but also subverting the mainstream with beautiful abnormality. I can’t think of a better example than his diamond ring, the diamond flipped around to act as a weapon, or tool for destruction.
However, the prefix para also has a Latin origin, from parare meaning “to shield” and its from this origin we have words such as parasol and parachute, objects which protect us. Some of his work expresses this concept directly, notably his kevlar rose brooch and duvet, but I think his work is also protective in a more abstract and significant way. Tobi Wong was familiar with the experience of somnolence, the feeling of automatic and aimless nocturnal wandering, the moving and performing of actions without awareness. Maybe he saw all of us as sleep walkers; wandering through life buying, producing and consuming automatically. Perhaps he recognised this somnolent-like, but daily behaviour as dangerous? If so, what Tobi Wong really did with his life and work was to give us is a collection of ideas and objects – things to protect and guard us from the problems of production and our own blind, happy consumerism.

NOTE: The majority of the images I use in this post were sourced from Tobi Wong’s own site which is currently offline. But I hope can be restored because it gives a good sequential overview of his work, including lesser known work from early in his career.  Update: looks like there is a mirror at

The Grey Zone

| June 17th, 2010

This saturday opens Die Grauzone, an exhibition at Kaleidoskop in Neukolln, Berlin. My project Greygoo is designed specially for this exhibition. The exhibition is part of the larger art festival 48StundenNeukölln.

I recently contributed to the magazine associated with Fashion Clash 2010 in Maastricht (June 4th to 6th), an event curated on the idea of fashion being produced by designers from fields other than fashion. Based on the photos posted online at, and the ones posted by curator Matylda Krzykowski, the event was a mega-success.

My article in the magazine discusses the dressed-down minimalist aesthetic you see on the streets here in Berlin, and some of the eclectic shops that cater to it (specifically Nr4 and the Line Gallery) plus my own shop We Are All Made of Stuff. I’m eagerly awaiting my own copy to be sent to me by Matylda soon, but for everybody else its available from all Selexy bookstores, as well as the Bonnefanten Musuem in Maastricht and the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven.

The following images are by Peter Stigter. For more great images check out the Fashion Clash 2010 blog or Facebook page.


This evening in Breda, the Netherlands, Jose Subero, a classmate of mine from the Design Academy Eindhoven, is presenting a lecture on his innovative proposal to transform the city of Sao Paolo, by making use of its empty billboards, free from public advertising since 2007. In this article I introduce his project and discuss the different qualities art, sculpture and technology can posses when situated in public space.

The technical development and deployment of large scale video screens – I am conflicted about using the new industry term ‘urban screens’ – has increased dramatically in the last decade. Mega cities like Tokyo and New York have lead the way, but smaller, and more conservative, cities are attempting to catch up. Organisations exist to promote their deployment and the generation of content for them. Supposedly not always advertising…
I am not a fan. Its not that I don’t enjoy watching these large screens sometimes. When I was very young, I stood in awe outside a drive-in movie screen in Melbourne, perhaps the last of its kind in that city, while they screened First Blood, the first Rambo movie. The screen was so large it was easily visible from outside the fence. I was astounded. Likewise, the enormous advertising screens you see in Shibuya are superficially amazing. Once, when I was living in Tokyo, I saw the same walking Brachiosaurus that amazed Scarlett Johansson’s character in Lost in Translation. Yet, I don’t have to live or work in Shibuya with any frequency, which I believe makes a difference to the impact of these advertising screens.
There are alternatives however; technological developments in projection have recently enabled large scale projections onto buildings and other urban structures:

In this last example, the projector is hidden and the spectacle temporary. Afterwards there is nothing left, but empty space and whatever the architect or city planner intended. The problem with large screens is that they need physical and vertical space, a permanent billboard, on which to work. These either block sunlight or vista, if free standing, or architectural facades if adhered to the sides of buildings. Not so enjoyable for the windowless tenants inside. Think of them like a price tag on an artwork…. (This is just rhetorical – unfortunately I can’t actually imagine all architecture has the same status as art.)
In the digital age a video screen is a blank canvas capable of displaying anything, including public and interactive art. New technologies even permit semi-transparent screens. Should this mean a tolerance for such structures? Or the kind of sanctity reserved for public artwork such as statues or sculpture?
Their are certain differences that structures like statues and public skulpture have compared to technological objects like animated projections or screens with moving images. One is that they are static, they don’t change over time and so vanish from our perception when we do not have the time or inclination to perceive them. Consider this optical illusion as an analogy.
The human mind seems biologically wired to ignore static visual information, and perhaps this is essential in the urban environment. Personally, I have a wandering mind and have a hard enough time paying attention to life threatening traffic when walking around the city. It won’t get better for me; this article gives an indication how, at the current rate of deployment,  urban video screens will dominate our lives within the next few years. I suppose as human animals we have a remarkable ability to adjust to environmental changes, but…..
Another difference is the temporal quality of the structure. Statues and sculpture tend to last for a long time, so permanence and timelessness, is part of the feeling they provoke, which I think in the case of public art is a good thing. TV screens and other technology devices with a visible and physical body don’t have this timeless quality, because the rapid changes in their internal technology produce aesthetic changes in their form. They are perceived as period objects. Even my use of the phrase TV screen feels outdated. What modifier should be placed in front of ‘screen’ to make us understand what it actually is? Video-screen-, movie-screen , digital-screen,…  these phrases have or will become outdated, just as the forms they make us think about are outdated. This is a fundamental problem with technology.
My grandfather, the architect Nevile Gruzman, commented on this problem to me once, when discussing a car sales room he had designed in the 1950’s. It was photographed by Max Dupain in 19955, and decades later my grandfather reflected that while the building in the photographs still looked reasonably contemporary, the cars, as technological objects, had dated far more. The chaining of an object to the period in which it was created is directly related to the amount of technoogy it contains. In fact it is the cause, along with fashion trends and the desire for change in general, of the period style itself. So of course its pronounced with product design; just look at any old home electronic device and you can pick the decade in which it was produced with ease. The very best industrial designers, Dieter Rams, Bang &Olufsen, even Ettore Sottsass, worked to resolve this problem, but their work is still dependant on the underlying material, technology, which, over time, is a slippery and polymorphous sculptural material. Marble it is not.
Large outdoor video screens can be compared to the traditional family television (before we all had our personal devices in our rooms and pockets) in that they can bring people together for a time based event. You see this with drive-ins and at big rock concerts. This is an attraction to urban designers and advertisers, because they imagine a public crowd slack jawed en masse in amazement. But the analogy is false because it only works for temporary spectacles. When a permanently installed video screen is run continually, and they always are because to turn them off makes no aesthetic or economic sense, they soon become banal. In Shibuya and Times Square the locals ignore them and really its only the technologically star struck tourists that stand around slack jawed. Ubiquity begets banality.
A more exciting 21st century concept is to get rid of them all together, billboards and advertising signage included. This is exactly what the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo has done.  In 2006 they passed a law requiring all advertising to be removed from the city’s billboards. They are left vacant and empty, but also transparent; structures through which light can penetrate. I have heard stories about residents in the densely packed city awaking to find fantastic views from their apartment, right to the horizon, through billboards previously covered with cigarette advertisements.
Something still needs to be done with these industrial skeletons. One proposal is from a former classmate of mine from the Design Academy Eindhoven’s Humanitarian Design program. José Subero has proposed an exciting concept to use them as ‘greenboards’; places to grow plants and vegetation. Their location inside the city makes them perfect for food gardens, or even threatened species that require tending and care. The concept images and video illustrate the transformation this proposal could have on the city. A partial proof of concept has already been made in collaboration with Sao Paolo architects Bijari on a small vacated billboard opposite the Fundação cultural de Curitiba, though as Subero notes in his blog Naturezas Urbana, this deployment is different to what he proposes for the large industrial steel structure which he imagines would have have the most impact. The benefits of this idea when applied on a large scale are, I hope, obvious, but Subero iterates some of them: improved oxygen emissions (in a smog filled city), improved bio-diversity of plants but also animal bio-diversity, tourism and socio-cultural benefits plus potentially carbon credits.

My position is that in a world with larger and larger cities and less access to farms and forests, we should be integrating nature into the urban environment as much as possible. More parks, city farms, (public and private), rooftop gardens and something growing everywhere. Trust me, I’m not a hippie or a luddite; these changes will have aesthetic, social and economic benefits. Technological infiltration must be minimal, and technology itself practically invisible. This is happening slowly already thanks to miniaturisation. The development of intra-personal device technologies such as augmented reality will mean that the real world and virtual information can be meshed discretely and viewed privately or shared at the users will. For the creation of large scale shared spectacles there is projection on the sides of buildings and urban structures. I sometimes think that people, especially designers, love video screens so much because they saw them in sci-fi movies like Blade Runner when they were children. As visionary as science-fiction movies can be, do they serve as reliable guides for the non-fictional future?
Jose Subero speaks tonight the 20th May 2010 at the Graphic Design Festival Breda, in the Netherlands, details here.
UPDATE: The idea to do away with the content of billboards, but make new use of their structure, might be spreading. Recently I found out about this swingset concept from Mésarchitecture. Below that, is a new sculpture from Lead Pencil Studio on the border between the States and Canada, which proposes to advertise “nothing but clean air”. I think its an interesting sculpture, but find its use of the billboard negative space convoluted. Unlike Jose Subero’s and Mesarchitecture’s concepts, they are re-creating the silhouette of a form that purportedly want to remove? It seem’s counterintuitive. On the other hand, its aesthetic, mimicry of a self-assembling parasitic organism, suggests a post-apocalyptic interpretation; the sculpture has surrounded, enclosed and outlasted an old billboard used as scaffolding.

List of Images in order from the top down:

  • Naturezas Urbana (Jose Subero)
  • Flickr user: enuwy (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic)
  • A doctored image of Rambo on a drive-in screen
  • projection on Gorey Castle by Evan Grant / Seeper for the Branchage Festival 2009
  • Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor
  • Two images of Purnel Motors, Sydney, designed by Neville Gruzman, photographed by Max Dupain in 1955
  • Gillete Supermax Pro 1300 uploaded by Flickr user: Faasdant.  Probably not designed by Dieter Rams, but by Morison S. Cousins, although Rams worked for Gillette’s parent company the influence is clear.
  • HiFi that is designed by Dieter Rams
  • Naturezas Urbana (Jose Subero)
  • video from Naturezas Urbana (Jose Subero)
  • Mesarchitecture’s Double Happiness
  • Lead Pencil Studio, photo by Ian Gill

Note that some of these images kind of express the opposite of the point I am making. Makes it interesting that way.

In 1864 Jules Verne wrote “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”. Informed by new discoveries about the geology and the age of the earth, the novel attempted to equate levels underneath the surface of the earth with a hierarchy of older and older geologic time. Which is why the protagonists encounter Neanderthal men, and prehistoric animals, ultimately dinosaurs, as they go deeper and deeper into the earth. We know now that this is complete shit and really the centre of the earth is a solid ball of iron the size of the moon – possibly a single giant crystal –  surrounded by a molten lake of liquid iron and nickel. Despite what we already know or can presume, scientists want to know more, and the latest idea is to start a nuclear fission reaction inside a big ball of radioactive cobalt; making it so hot it literally burns through the crust and starts to sink towards the centre of the earth.
Most of what we know already about the earths core is comprised of theoretical modelling and real observation of the environment around us, even extending into space. For example, scientists can estimate the the type and quantity of elements that make up the solar system by analysing lightwaves coming from the sun and reflecting off other planets. The know from this the expected ratio of elements that make up the earth, but the samples we can physically access, from the earth’s crust, are low in iron. So its predicted that the rest of the earth, specifically the earth’s core, contains a lot of iron.
The study of seismic waves from earthquakes gives us other information. When an earthquake occurs, waves travel all over the world, both around the crust, along the surface of the earth, and also directly through the earth, which can be recorded and analysed on the other side. A certain type of wave doesn’t make it through certain parts of earth’s interior though, and these are the type of waves which don’t travel though liquid. So we know that part of the earth, outer core is made of liquid. Molten iron.
If the outer core is molten iron, the inner core is actually frozen iron. Its not any cooler, but the increasing pressure of the earth raises the boiling point of iron, so that inner core is actually growing solid, collecting more and more iron from the liquid outer core, as the earth slowly ages.  Theoretically, there must be an exchange barrier between the inner and outer core comprised of trace elements with melting points different to that of iron. This should function like a super slippery lubricant, allowing the inner core to rotate independently of the liquid iron around it. So its expected that the earth’s core rotates slower or faster than the earth itself, but no one knows for sure.
Above all this seemingly unstable collection of iron and trace metals is the mantle. We know a bit about what the mantle is made from, because bits of it spew up out of volcanoes every now and again. Its where stuff like diamonds, bits of carbon crushed into incredibly tight molecular structures, are made over the course of billions of years. The mantle is where the big shifts in temperature and pressure occur, the closer materials get to the core, and subsequently the mantle has lots of different layers with different compositions of various elements. The mantle is really the source of all the stuff that comprises the crust of the earth and, using techniques I don’t attempt to understand, geologists can tell from which part of the mantle the rocks we find on the surface of earth come from. They can even tell from which level of the mantle specific diamonds come from, based on the study of impurities they contain.
A full understanding of how the mantle is constructed, however, will require physical access. The deepest hole in the world, the 12 kilometre deep Kola Superdeep Borehole, dug by some Russian scientists,  reaches no where near the mantle, but did go deep enough to prevent further drilling from the excessive heat of 180°C, and deep enough to inspire the hoax that they had drilled into the mythological Christian “Hell”. This was first reported  by an evangelical news station in the United States in 1989, presented with a sound recording of the screams of the dammed, recorded with a “special heat-proof microphone” that was lowered into the hole. It has made its way around the internet for years since then.
Some Japanese scientists have been digging into the much thinner crust at the bottom of the ocean. They haven’t reached the mantle yet, but are choosing especially weak places to drill, where tectonic plates overlap, so as to study the occurrence of earthquakes. They even want to drill into the epicentre of the earthquake that caused the 2004 tsunami. This all sounds very counter intuitive to me, but if it leads to a better understanding of earthquakes and tsunami, and more scientifically accurate Godzilla movies, I guess its for the best.
All of the above is pretty small scale compared to what’s coming though. In 2003 planetologist David Stevenson, of the California Institute of Technology, proposed to crack open the crust of the earth with the use of nuclear weapons and pour a probe covered in molten iron into it. The power of the blast, several megatons, and the weight of the molten iron,  108 to 1010kg, would make the crack self-propogate right down to the core. The probe would descend down this deepening crack while sending back data to the surface. That the nuclear explosion would be in the megaton range makes me guess he was probably joking, but some Russian and British scientists have improved on the basic idea and seriously proposed a variation.
In a series of papers, 2005’s “Probing of the Interior Layers of the Earth with Self-Sinking Capsules”, published in the journal “Atomic Energy”, followed by 2008’s “Exploring the Earth’s Crust and Mantle Using Self-Descending, Radiation-Heated, Probes and Acoustic Emission Monitoring” published in the book “Nuclear Waste Research: Siting, Technology and Treatment” the scientists propose the design of probe built from radioactive cobalt surrounded by a tungsten wall. The intense heat from probe will cause it to literally melt into the earth, travelling slowly down through the crust and then mantle at the rate of about 20 kilometres per year. The cobalt will continue to generate radionuclides for several decades, allowing it to sink deeper and deeper. Although the probe is essentiall dumb, just a collection of nuclear fuel with no technological devices, the probe can be tracked by equipment listening to the changes in the earth it creates as it sinks; the melting rock and its re-crystalisation in the wake of the probe.
This concept has a historical precedent.  When Reactor no. 4 at Chernobyl had its catastrophic meltdown in 1986, there was a realistic concern that the exposed core would also literally melt in to the ground and start sinking down. Potentially this would made the disaster much worse, because there was an underground aquaduct below the reactor (used a s source of water coolant for the whole Chernobyl complex) and if the core came in contact with the water the resulting steam explosion would destroy the remaining three reactors above ground (which amazingly were still operating and continued to operate until the early 90’s.) Luckily this event was averted by having several helicopters fly over the reactor core and smother it in lead, clay, boron and canisters of liquid nitrogen. If the the threat of a steam explosion was not present, would the reactor have been left to to burn its way down to  the centre of the earth?
When I first told my girlfriend about this idea, she exclaimed “kowai!”, meaning scary, a word the Japanese reserve for phenomena like atom bombs, tsunami and Godzilla. She asked, “Aren’t they afraid they will set off a chain reaction and explode the earth?” I am not a scientist and could hardly guess, but I teased her with the information that the earths outer core also contains a fair amount of nuclear fuel, in the form of molten uranium, but that the scientists are willing to take the risk anyway.
More interesting to me, as a designer and not a scientist,  is the difference the form of such a probe takes, when compared to space faring probes like Voyager, Huygens and Mariner. Those latter probes travel thousands of kilometeres to other planets and their moons carrying sophisticated cameras, sensors and other scientific probes, and transmitting back amazing pictures and data of their journeys. The cost millions if not billions of dollars and require the co-operation of the worlds best scientists and governments. Yet, to send something a few dozen kilometres or so into the centre of the earth, our best solution is dumb probe;  a bundle of nuclear waste bunched together and set it on fire so we can watch it sink into the ground. By modern scientific standards, its like finding  a human corpse in the woods, poking it with a stick and calling that an autopsy.


In 1864 Jules Verne wrote Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Informed by new discoveries about the geology and the age of the earth, the novel attempted to equate levels underneath the surface of the earth with a hierarchy of older and older geologic time. Which is why the protagonists encounter Neanderthal men, and prehistoric animals, ultimately dinosaurs, as they go deeper and deeper into the earth. We know now that this is complete shit and really the centre of the earth is a solid ball of iron the size of the moon – possibly a single giant crystal –  surrounded by a molten lake of liquid iron and nickel. Despite what we already know or can presume, scientists want to know more, and the latest idea is to start a nuclear fission reaction inside a big ball of radioactive cobalt, becoming so hot it literally burns through the crust and starts to sink towards the centre of the earth.

Most of what we know already about the earths core is comprised of theoretical modelling and real observation of the environment around us, even extending into space. For example, scientists can estimate the the type and quantity of elements that make up the solar system by analysing lightwaves coming from the sun and reflecting off other planets. The know from this the expected ratio of elements that make up the earth, but the samples we can physically access, from the earth’s crust, are low in iron. So its predicted that the rest of the earth, specifically the earth’s core, contains a lot of iron.


The study of seismic waves from earthquakes gives us other information. When an earthquake occurs, waves travel all over the world, both around the crust, along the surface of the earth, and also directly through the earth, which can be recorded and analysed on the other side. A certain type of wave doesn’t make it through certain parts of earth’s interior though, and these are the type of waves which don’t travel though liquid. So we know that part of the earth, the outer core, is made of liquid. More specifically, molten iron.

If the outer core is molten iron, the inner core can be considered frozen iron. Its not any cooler, but the increasing pressure of the earth raises the boiling point of iron, so that inner core is actually growing solid, collecting more and more iron from the liquid outer core, as the earth slowly ages.  Theoretically, there must be an exchange barrier between the inner and outer core comprised of trace elements with melting points different to that of iron. This should function like a super slippery lubricant, allowing the inner core to rotate independently of the liquid iron around it. So its expected that the earth’s core rotates slower or faster than the earth itself, but no one knows for sure.


Above all this seemingly unstable collection of iron and trace metals is the mantle. We know a bit about what the mantle is made from, because bits of it spew up out of volcanoes every now and again. Its where stuff like diamonds, bits of carbon crushed into incredibly tight molecular structures, are made over the course of billions of years. The mantle is where the big shifts in temperature and pressure occur, the closer materials get to the core, and subsequently the mantle has lots of different layers with different compositions of various elements. The mantle is really the source of all the stuff that comprises the crust of the earth and, using techniques I don’t attempt to understand, geologists can tell from which part of the mantle the rocks we find on the surface of earth come from. They can even tell from which level of the mantle specific diamonds come from, based on the study of impurities they contain.


an illustration of Kola Superdeep Borehole by Egil Paulsen, looking across the Kola Peninsula

A full understanding of how the mantle is constructed, however, will require physical access. The deepest hole in the world, the 12 kilometre deep Kola Superdeep Borehole, dug by some Russian scientists,  reaches no where near the mantle, but did go deep enough to prevent further drilling from the excessive heat of 180 degrees Celsius, and deep enough to inspire the hoax that they had drilled into the mythological Christian Hell. This was first reported  by an evangelical news station in the United States in 1989, presented with a sound recording of the screams of the dammed, you can listen to it here, recorded with a “special heat-proof microphone” that was lowered into the hole.



Some Japanese scientists have been digging into the much thinner crust at the bottom of the ocean. They haven’t reached the mantle yet, but are choosing especially weak places to drill, where tectonic plates overlap, so as to study the occurrence of earthquakes. They even want to drill into the epicentre of the earthquake that caused the 2004 tsunami. This all sounds very counter intuitive to me, but if it leads to a better understanding of earthquakes and tsunami, or more Godzilla movies, I guess its for the best.

All of the above is pretty small scale compared to what’s coming though. In 2003 planetologist David Stevenson, of the California Institute of Technology, proposed to crack open the crust of the earth with the use of nuclear weapons and pour a probe covered in molten iron into it. The power of the blast, several megatons, and the weight of the molten iron required,  between 100 000 tonnes  and 10 000 000 tonnes, would make the crack self-propogate right down to the core. The probe would descend down this deepening crack while sending back data to the surface. That the nuclear explosion would be in the megaton range makes me guess he was probably joking, but some Russian and British scientists have improved on the basic idea and seriously proposed a variation.

In a series of papers, 2005’s Probing of the Interior Layers of the Earth with Self-Sinking Capsules, published in the journal Atomic Energy, followed by 2008’s Exploring the Earth’s Crust and Mantle Using Self-Descending, Radiation-Heated, Probes and Acoustic Emission Monitoring, published in the book Nuclear Waste Research: Siting, Technology and Treatment, the scientists propose the design of a probe built from radioactive cobalt surrounded by a tungsten wall. The intense heat from probe will cause it to literally melt into the earth, travelling slowly down through the crust and then mantle at the rate of about 20 kilometres per year. The cobalt will continue to generate radionuclides for several decades, allowing it to sink deeper and deeper. Although the probe is essentially dumb, just a collection of nuclear fuel with no technological devices, the probe can be tracked by equipment listening to the changes in the earth it creates as it sinks; the melting rock and its re-crystalisation in the wake of the probe.

This concept has a historical precedent.  When Reactor no. 4 at Chernobyl had its catastrophic meltdown in 1986, there was a realistic concern that the exposed core would also literally melt in to the ground and start sinking down. Potentially this would made the disaster much worse, because there was an underground aquaduct below the reactor (used as a source of water coolant for the whole Chernobyl complex) and if the core came in contact with the water the resulting steam explosion would destroy the remaining three reactors above ground (which amazingly were still operating and continued to operate until the early 90’s.) Luckily this event was averted by having several helicopters fly over the reactor core and smother it in lead, clay, boron and canisters of liquid nitrogen. If the the threat of steam explosion was not present, would the reactor have been left to to burn its way down to  the centre of the earth?


When I first told my girlfriend about this idea of melting a probe down into the centre of the earth, she exclaimed “kowai!”, meaning scary, a word the Japanese reserve for phenomena like atom bombs, tsunami and Godzilla. She asked, “Aren’t they afraid they will set off a chain reaction and explode the earth?” I am not a scientist and could hardly guess, but I teased her with the information that the earths core may also contains a fair amount of nuclear fuel, in the form of molten uranium, but that the scientists are willing to take the risk anyway.

More interesting to me, as a designer and not a scientist,  is the difference the form of such a probe takes, when compared to space faring probes like Voyager, Huygens and Mariner. Those latter probes travel thousands of kilometeres to other planets and their moons carrying sophisticated cameras, sensors and other scientific probes, and transmitting back amazing pictures and data of their journeys. The cost millions if not billions of dollars and require the co-operation of the worlds best scientists and governments. Yet, to send something a few dozen kilometres or so into the centre of the earth, our best solution is dumb probe;  a bundle of nuclear waste bunched together and set it on fire so we can watch it sink into the ground. By modern scientific standards, its like finding a dead body in the woods, poking it with a stick and calling that an autopsy.


In an “Abelard Snazz” story written by Alan Moore in 1982, Abelard Snazz, an egocentric and  immortal character with four eyes (literally), is imprisoned for eternity on the bare surface of a planet by some gods he has inadvertently offended. Until he can solve a Rubik cube. An easy task for a self-professed genius.

The problem is that the cube is 50 metres high and across. Solving the puzzle takes him 6 million years, of which the first 30 000 years is spent mining enough metal to build a giant crane capable of rotating the sides of the puzzle. The remainder is spent manufacturing parts, assembling the crane…. and etcetera. Millions of years later, and to Abelard’s frustration, just moments before finally solving the cube, he is whisked off the plant by “Amnesty Intergalactic”, who want to help him escape his unlawful imprisonment.



The idea to try and produce a complicated industrial product or tool from scratch, starting with the most basic materials and working upwards, is not new and was perhaps first proposed by Leonard E. Read in his 1958 essay, I, Pencil., an essay from which Alan Moore might have drawn inspiration. I, Pencil illustrates the complexity of technological infrastructures by describing all the actions which combine to produce a simple Eberhard Faber pencil; the mining and refinement of graphite for the lead, the logging of pine wood for the shaft, and the processing of various metals, plus rubber for the eraser tipped end. Read conjectures that no man would be able to single-handedly produce a product as complicated as pencil from scratch, without existing technologies, and even with existing technologies, excluding machinery built expressly for the purpose, making a single pencil would cost more than $50,000 in 1958 dollars. Indeed, this is what bringing new products to market can traditionally cost, at least until the division of labour and production efficiencies bring the price down, in the case of a pencil, to just a few cents. Read concludes that the production of pencils highlights the efficiencies of free trade and the capitalist market to synergise the efforts of individuals, working from self-interest, into a complicated and dynamic technological system for the benefit of all.


Inspired by the Read’s story about the pencil, last year Royal Academy of Art student Thomas Thwaites set out to attempt the impossible and build himself a toaster from scratch, using only the most basic materials and technology he could find. His aims included mining and smelting iron and nickel-ore, with subsequent processing into wires, springs and heating elements by hand, and obtaining some petroleum from which he could attempt to refine plastic for the outer casing.


While conceived as an art project to question the state of modern technologucal scoiety, its best quality is not that it exposes failings of the industrial world. Taken broadly I think the industrial world, having given us advances in medicine, transport, energy et al, are fairly impervious to criticism from conceptual art projects. However, the project does expose the trappings and inertia of industrial design, and the consumerism that supports it. His project shows us what actions must take place to produce a a toaster, and questions why it is made the way it is, and possibly, whether we need it in the first place.

The presentation of his project is infected with failure. Thwaites found the production of raw materials difficult. A 500 year old technique for smelting iron in a ceramic crucible proved impossible, so he resorted to using a microwave. An ingenious solution begging the question of whether he should have first tried to build a microwave. This irony is not lost on Thwaites and even feeds his later suggestions, such as his dream of flying to a offshore oil rig in a helicopter to pick up some crude oil. This goes unrealisd; with his project deadline approaching he resorts to melting waste plastic into the (very) rough shape of a Chinese factory made toaster. All these little concessions and cheats however do not diminish the project, instead they remind us that there is nothing discrete about technological processes. One step relies on another, and with each step the distance from a personal body of knowledge increases.


Radley Balko from the libertarian magazine Reason, in a haphazardly perceptive and occasionally humourous rant, responded by calling it a mockery. A mockery it is for sure; its final appearance is apocalyptic and when finally plugged in the toaster didn’t work, but exploded in sparks. Balko sees it as left-wing liberal arts crticism of the capatalistic free market which generates and shapes the industrial processes that produce toasters. Processes, he argues, that are periperal or intrinsic to many other technologicies, creating wealth, freedom, and leisure time from which Thwaites has been spoilt, and which he is exploiting in order to produce his art in the first place.

While Balko is right about the framing of the industrial processes in Thwaites work, I don’t see it as mockery of technological society as a whole, but a mockery of a certain type of design. Specifically, industrial design driven by a consumerist desire for new and shiny things, and which tends to hide and obfuscate material qualities. The projects ultimate importance is that it exposes the material essence of products, a confrontation to any designer building futuristic, blobby products whose realisation relies on more highly evolved and technological knowledge than they could ever hope to grasp, and whose success relies on the abscence of critical consumer perception. This is, once again ironically, illustrated by Thwaites’ display of that which he is attempting to reproduce, a cheap factory made toaster, the Argus Value Range 2 Slice toaster, filmed and idolised on a white pedestal in a video on his site, soundtracked with classical music.

Argos Value Range 2 Slice Toaster from Thomas Thwaites.


I can explain this design problem in another way, from my own experience. In 2008 I attended a Cradle to Cradle workshop orgainzed by Koekoek and Qreamteam in Venlo, the Netherlands. After some bland lectures, the organisers made groups and handed out half a dozen Phillips Senseo coffee machines, asking us to take them apart and count and sort the components. My group counted 43 components and 17 different materials in one machine, many of them unrecyclable composites. And I think we missed a few. The process was fascinating, especially as the group was a professional mix of engineers, businessmen and designers. We were asking each other, what is this material? What is its use? Why does a machine that fundamentally just heats up water need so many components in the first place?  The shallow answers to these questions are technical, as the engineers in the group were eager to explain. For example, the Senseo had a number of different plastic composites, including glass filled nylon and carbon filled nylon in various different ratios. This is because each composite has slightly different qualities, and the Phillips engineers, in the interests of technical mastery choose the most appropriate material for the technical scenario they created. This is perfectly well and fine if you are building something for NASA, and perhaps even very high-end electronics, but its insane for mass market consumables that do simply things like, as in this case, just boil water.

I should add that in all likelihood there were multiple design constraints at play. Component price and lightness (to reduce shipping costs) for example – in addition to the function that it boil water – further encourage the choice of such highly specific composites, when really companies should be concerned with constraints which alleviate secondary and tertiary costs to the community e.g durability, reusability, repair-ability and recyclability.

But to return the issue of technological mastery, I find it entirely probable that in some way coffee machine engineers really want to be NASA engineers. And probably they were trained at engineering schools which don’t differentiate the training for either type of engineer, holistically at least, encouraging the mastery of choosing specific materials for specific problems.An important difference is that NASA engineers, or engineers for any high technology mission critical application, are pretty well connected to the product life cycle and use. When a part breaks down in space, its the engineers who designed the part with whom the astronauts want to talk. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had that luxury with our consumer products? While the coffee machine works perfectly well when unboxed by the consumer at home, the product lifecycle is compromised because it has too many complex parts, making it difficult to be repaired, re-used or recycled. It doesn’t come with the engineeer’s phone number, or even a repair manual. The engineers would be better off using their professional riguour to reduce the number of components and minimize the number of materials from which they are made.

Every time a designer introduces complexity to an object, they make it harder to understand. Fine. Some things are complicated, and require effort to understand. However, everytime a designer covers up complexity in an object, they make it impossible to understand. Its clear the Senseo has far more components than the Argus Value Range 2 Slice toaster, and that, from a Cradle to Cradle point of view, it is a clear disaster. The Chinese made toaster has fewer components and simple guts from today’s point of view. Yet, that’s a point of view refined by our increasing technological sophistication. Practically it makes no difference – for the people who would never dream of opening up the injection moulded casing in which the the coffee machine and the toaster are both presented. Philosophically, the coffee machine and the toaster suffer form the same problem; a design philosophy which emphasizies technical efficiencies and functional ease of use over life-cycle functionality and user intimacy. Their interiors are hidden away from the consumer with a shiny plastic shell;  a push-button aesthetic preventing users from deeper interaction with or knowledge of the products in their lives. Victor Papanek said that his first commercial job after graduating from school was to design a radio, a task he labelled “shroud design” and hoped it was the first and last time he did such a thing. This is just to show this kind of criticism is hardly new, and dates back to at least the 1960’s.

Incidentally, Papanek went on to make a candle heat powered radio with his student George Seeger in 1962, an object that parralells Thwaites’ toaster, although Papanek radio did, at least experimentally, work. It boldly shouts its aesthetic of openness and simplicity; an object one could easily and intuitively delve into. An object as much for screwdriver as the hands and ears. Repair and re-use… shouldn’t we be rolling our sleeves up and getting sweaty with the guts of our belongings?

A question any industrial designer can ask themselves when designing a new product is: how hard would it be to create this object from scratch, like Read’s pencil, or Thwaites’ toaster, if they must?

Its true, Thwaites’ toaster is extremely ugly, but perhaps no uglier than the philosophy behind the thing he sought to re-create.


Manhole covers from Japan

| January 31st, 2010

It is my dream to one day design a manhole cover. I have no idea how that might come about, but in the meantime, I’ve taken an interest the beautiful manhole I discovered whilst living in Japan. Like many things from Japan, they are finely designed and crafted, and sometimes wonderfully humorous.


I’ve discovered some more nice examples of manhole covers here, and even more interestingly, an article explaining the origin of Japan’s colorful manhole covers at the Japan Times. Apparently, the covers were initially a way for central government to encourage small towns council to cover the cost of installing sewerage infrastructure, so making the covers unique and representative helped the small town politicians justify the costs to their constituents. They were so popular that bigger cities began to upgrade their own covers as well when the time came. Previous to the 1970’s and 80’s manhole covers were more conservative, and sometimes even direct copies of foreign manhole covers (I assume American?).

hidden in a garden of an izakaya in nishi-Tokyo, probably Tanashi-cho.

near Shibuya station.
HI350033 copy

from a Japanese island, I think it was Miyake Jima.

from Araichi, Arai-cho, an area famous for the fireworks basket carried by the man depicted.

and again from Toyohashi, Arai-cho, a similar graphic with Toyohashi castle in the background.

for those who are interested, many more amazing manhole covers from Japan can be found by image searching the phrase “mannho-ru “- manhole in katakana. Some of my favorites are below (not my photos, but the images link to their original source).

… and in addition there is a wonderful series of manhole covers,  which together tell a graphical story, here.

Platform21, Goodbye.

| January 29th, 2010

About a year ago I recieved a phone call, out of the blue, from Arne Hendriks of Platform21, to talk about my SMASH REPAIR project, the second prototype of which he had seen on my website. He wanted to exhibit it, I told him it was in the bin. I asked, could I make another for Platform21? Yes. Would Platform21 pay for it? Yes. Could I build it at Platform21? Definitely yes. And could I also present a lecture about my ideas and philosophy of repairing (and also get paid for that)? Yes…!

Well, its not often that I hear “yes” so much, nor have such an enjoyable phone call. But that inclusive and agreeable attitude is what made Platform21 so unique; an open-minded position that drew artists and designers from all over the world and from all areas of the community.

Platform21 was conceived as experimental phase, an incubator, to precede a bigger art and design centre called Supermaker which would have its own custom built workshop and exhibition space, however, and unfortunately, I just heard that Supermaker will not get off the ground due to a lack of funding. Which means Platform21 has finally ended. A shame, but I think everyone involved should be proud of the remarkable things Platform21 achieved. The website will remain up as an archive of the cool projects they did (Hacking Ikea, the Breakfast Machine, Repair Manifesto etc.)

Platform21, goodbye.


superunfoldedboxes…. folded.

| January 25th, 2010


After setting up the Sottsass exhibition in Maastricht a few weeks ago, I traveled back to London with copies of the die-cut models. At a pub in Shortditch, I passed some around and invited my friends to assemble them together. I was interested in seeing how long it might take someone unfamiliar with the design, especially I was not going to be at the opening. The results were decent. Most could do the boxes in less than 10 minutes, even after a couple of beers. A some took longer and a few gave up – on closer inspection because they had made a incorrect assumption early on which frustrated all their later assembling decisions… Overall, pretty fun. I clocked myself at about 2 minutes for the easiest box (Yellow), but thats after making several hundred of them in Maastricht the day before 😉


My write up of the actual exhibition and purpose of these cardboard models is here.


My interview by Ingeborg van Lieshout from the Green Light District has been placed up on DutchDFA. Its a little long-winded, of course! but I hope you enjoy it. And thank you Ingeborg.


In November this year Giovanni Innella, a former classmate of mine from the Design Academy Eindhoven, set about on a new project to travel to Burkina Faso and mediate the integration of a new high speed internet connection available to the population. The introduction on his site Googling Burkina explains the purpose, such as educating the locals with the use on online tools and the creation of online businesses to generate income for the country, which is poor by African standards. As an example, one idea discussed is the use of google maps to connect tourists with local guides. We all know that the internet is proposed to be capable of far more de-centralized organization than which we are typically accustomed, which makes Burkina Faso an interesting case. As a country which is relatively lacking in centralized organization to begin with, but experiencing the internet for the first time, the sociological landscape is virgin, open for radical new forms of technologically applied organization.


In an effort to understand the country, Giovanni has traveled around and had some crazy adventures. He has explored the desert and met workers at open-pit `micro-mines’, who dig tunnels 15m straight down into loose sand in the hope of finding tiny grains of gold, in a seemingly anarchist co-operation amongst the sand dunes.

Later he met witchdoctors, who were really mercenaries. They blessed him with sorcery then proudly showed him photos of their limbless bloody victims. Giovanni remarks that although he had of course seen dead bodies before in the media, what was terrifying about these photos was they they were not from newspapers or magazine, but real analog photo prints. Who developed the photos?


For all the wildness of his journey, Giovanni is a product designer by training and also posts about the more sanguine subject of furniture design in Burkina Faso. Although trivial compared to the social forces that create subsistence gold mining or blood thirsty sorceror-soldiers,  they are unique and I think interesting to discus. Giovanni’s own attempt to design  a chair in collaboration with a local metal-smith became a strange simulacra of Mark Newson’s Lockheed Lounge, made from empty gas cans. Afterwards, Giovanni posted pictures of the local chairs of Ouahigouya, which are pretty cool.


These first chair Giovanni describes as being common, but valued. Robustly welded together, I guess they last a long time and are too heavy to steal easily, although apparently they are also pinched with holes to mark ownership. They can be hired from at least one local shop too. I find their straight angles harmonic and the 45 degree downward tilt at the seat edge a nice expression of their production technology. The extra work required to produce the curve of the back rest is limited to that one location, reflecting a poetic economy. The fact that they get very hot in the sun is a weakness, but also an indicator… I guess no one has sat down here for a while….



The next chair, a hand-made beach style chair, is described to Giovanni as being “for the poor” and uses waste material from construction sites. Its not elegantly resolved,  but it reminds me of the first cantilevered chairs built by Mart Stam from welded gas pipe. I was always aware that the Dutchman Mart Stam came up with the idea of the cantilevered chair before Marcel Breuer, what I didn’t know was that it was, perhaps my favorite architect, Mies Van de Rohe who originally saw Stam’s chairs and communicated the idea back to Breuer at the Bauhaus. This became knowledge during the lengthy legal battes Stam and Breuer fought over the intellectual property in Germany, which Stam won. However, Breuer was succesful in keeping his pre-existing patents in the United States and elsewhere, resulting in the commonly held belief that he was the original designer of this type of chair.



And then we come to the Monobloc. No surprise, because this generic injection molded garden chair is seen everywhere around the world. I haven’t seen this chair with such detailed decoration before, even though I have been to China many times, which is where I assume this chair is made. I probably just ignored them, easy to do. Yet, in the dusty street scape of Ouahigouya, such a chair stands out. The decoration does not look African, but perhaps some form of Chinese or Indian derived lotus flower decoration. I guess it might be Arabic, which would place it slightly closer to its home geographically. The meshing on the back rest makes sense for such a hot climate, but why would such a detailed chair be in Burkina Faso is curious in the first place. Well, these Monobloc chairs are everywhere, and I guess it makes no sense to exclude this style from a place Ouahigouya. In fact, with these injection molded chairs, it makes little difference whether the chair is decorated or not. The original time spent to design the decoration does not impact the production process and as the production increases the extra design cost cost becomes divided by the hundreds of thousands or millions of chairs made from the mold. It arrives at a paradox; the decoration on the chair has an infinitesimal cost per chair due to the mass production process, so is considered to add value without cost. However, the value of this decoration relies on the historical notion of such decoration being hand carved, which being mass produced, is not, and therefore has no value.

Aesthetically speaking, I am very liberal, meaning I can tolerate many styles or genres of design.  Especially if I understand why they exist in that form.  But this kind of decoration grates on me, because I see it as an odd representation of the less democratic values of hand-carving expressed in the newer democratic medium of injection molding. The aesthetics of the minimal ‘West’ are in conflict with the decorative ‘East’ because the West experienced the doctrine of modernism e.g less is more, and the philosophy of Adolf Loos’ ornament is crime. This philosophy stood to improve production economies and the aesthetics of the machine. Yet if the East mostly skipped this era they then see things differently; if decoration does not impinge on production economies, such as in this chair, there is no reason to not include it. The schism is something which some contemporary artists have addressed by re-introducing craft processes to mass produced objects, such as in these Monobloc variations, or the post-consumer Monobloc decoration of Tina Roeder, who drills old Monoblocs with thousands of holes, below. An emerging economy like Burkina Faso is a place, however,  which will experience a very different arrangement of craft and production culture.  Potentially, the issue of decorative value will be resolved well in a place where different material and technological resources meet social needs relatively lacking in the cultural baggage of industrial production.


UPDATE: Giovanni Innella has now published his extraordinary work in Burkina Faso as a book, which can purchased as a print copy, or downloaded as a PDF.

This page concerns the graphic design-in-progress for my project superunfoldedbox exhibited at the Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture in Maastricht. A full description of that project and its outcomes is here.

These graphics are diagrams that guide the creation of a model Ettore Sottsass Superbox. Functional elements, like fold and cut lines are presented, however they are disguised by irrational elements. The density of patterning and color creates a tension between the rational and irrational. Unlike conventional schematic diagrams, this tension produces abstraction, an emanating energy. Not unlike a mandala, but for secular society; the process of balancing the tension and and ‘folding up’ the superbox mentally is the discovery of a structural truth. [Note: curator Lisette Smits ultimatelly prefaced the title of this work with “Objects for Atheists”, the title of my Master’s thesis, when it was exhibited, so that I had this thought is appropriate.]

The schematic sheets are designed double-sided, with an ‘authentic’ superbox on one side and a text block on the other. The box can be folded up both ways, with either the text trapped inside or presented on the outside surface.

above, from this drawing.

above, from this maquette. (notice the ‘watermelons’ – they are modelled from foam.)

above, from this prototype.

zoomed details:

New images of the Smash Repair 3 table, a structure generated continuous cycles of smash and repair. The smashing is facilitated by ‘break lines’ that guide the direction of fractures around bolt holes, leaving the holes functionally intact, ready for repair. Pre-cut tiles are then bolted on to place broken sections back together, in time building up layers of repair in areas where structural support is needed. These photos show the structure after the ninth cycle. To find out more and see the smashing apparatus, check out the video, pictures or infosheet.


| October 22nd, 2009

Earlier in the year I made a post about the Austrian/Italian designer Ettore Sottsass, and his influence on my own work. Part of the post dealt with the Superboxes, marvelous and provocative “product-sculptures” he produced in the mid-60’s. They were a reaction to what he had seen and experienced earlier in India and the United States, a contrasting relationship with objects that was deep, spiritual and monogamous, on one hand, in the case of India, and fetishistic and consumerist in the case of the States.

The Superboxes bear influences from both continents. Large, and bulky, they are positioned in the middle of the rooms and dominant everything in it, something Sottsass learnt from his study of Indian objects. On the other hand, they are directly influenced from the American pop artists; their stripes and and bright colors reminiscent of Donald Judd or Jasper Johns. impressive and totemic, they operate on a kind of metaphysical wavelength, that seeks to disrupt perceptions of everyday life with a transcendental vibration.

They way we read them is not the same as conventional furniture, and in fact, drawer knobs are only occasionally visible, and the objects are not photographed with doors or drawers open. Yet they are obviously products – and sometimes they are photographed in domestic settings with pillows, hi-fi equipment and, bizarrely, melons. On closer inspection we can see the melons and pillows are made out of foam, and these Superboxes are maquettes. Nevertheless, their depiction as products is central to their message; a provocative statement on understanding objects for their spiritual qualities as opposed to only functional or aesthetic concerns.

In December this year, Lisette Smits will curate a special Superbox exhibition at the Marres Art Centre in Maastrcht, Original and re-produced Superboxes will be exhibited, with a satellite exhibition featuring contributions from four other artists and designers, including myself. My contribution is still being developed, but in the meantime I am experimenting.

The photographs that open and close this post are of a box I made recently, and which I patterned in a monstrous collage of object hyperlinking tags. In the 1960’s, Sottsass set himself the task of criticising the consumption of industrial objects, an issue which he saw, as an industrial designer, very clearly. It cannot be denied that we still consume products easily, like we consume food and air, but we now also consume information. A blanket of virtual information overlays our experience of reality. Augmented reality, the connection of real world objects to hyper-real constructs made of digital information, once conjectured, has become real. In Japan, supermarket products carrying mobile phone readable ‘QR-code‘ link to virtual information, as do movie and concert posters. Its beginning to happen in Europe too…. The proposal is enrichment – a way to manage the array of products in our lives with contextual information, but are we, in essence, only increasing the volume of information to process?

In these images, the model uses a mobile phone to reads a code embedded in the patterns on a furniture box. The patterns are made from a collage of QR, Datamatrix, Blotcode and others. The codes link to this post.

My furniture research project, Object for Atheists, and the furniture item it inspired, LKBP, pictured, is on exhibition at the Design Academy Eindhoven Graduation Galleries 2009, from October 17th to 25th.

The research involved ethnography of online atheist groups, and historical analysis of the influence of religion on aesthetics. The resulting furniture presents an inversion of aesthetic function. Shelves are hidden in the back of a chest of drawers, becoming a secret to be discovered; and superseding the secretive nature of drawers. This concept is positioned as a metaphor for the continual drive of atheists to uncover and expose the mysteries of science, religion and life.

You can read through the research or download my thesis from my research journal.

The furniture is constructed from sustainably harvested bamboo with dovetail joinery, with no nails nor screws and very little glue. Four industrial strength spherical castors allow movement across the floor in all directions, so it can be rotated easily away from the wall to access the hidden bookshelf, or used free-standing as a movable partition. Drawer opening is friction-less, made possible by a novel rail and groove system from special polymers, in a very small containment space (1.5 mm) between the drawer and the case.

“Beautifully minimalistic but with enough detail to keep the eye interested. There’s also hint to the tree-of-life. Love it.”

contributor from from the online forum The Brights

Additionally, my summer project SMASH REPAIR 3 is on display at the exhibition Origin of Pieces, curated by Eindhoven designers Limited Edition Lab (L.E. Lab) during the same dates. More info here.

2 new pictures of the SMASH REPAIR 3 table, after the 7th smash and final repair, taken outside Martijn’s studio in Eindhoven. More images can be found here on my research site, along with a somewhat lengthy schizoanalysis, manifest as 7 conceptual interpretations, which can also be downloaded here.

In my last post I wrote about the Object Without A Story by Andrea Bandoni and Joana Meroz – a glass vase critiquing the use of stories as devices through which we understand objects. Their conclusion is that interpretation of objects should not be “monopolized” by on official story but that the object should be open enough to for the viewer to make their own meaning. This was a thesis project for Bandoni and Meroz at the Design Academy Eindhoven – by way of convergence by own thesis at the Design Academy came to a similar conclusion, but in different way.

Objects for Atheists, (object | thesis), is an attempt to give an answer to the question: Can atheism, as a social paradigm and philosophical viewpoint, be used to generate aesthetics in the same way that social systems from the past, such as the religious examples of Catholicism and Protestantism, have been used to define aesthetics?

After a field study of atheist groups online, the short answer is: not really. The online community of atheists, that has been realised by the development of the internet in the last decade or so, is far too eclectic and heterogeneous for discrete aesthetic moves to be made. This is in contrast to say, Protestantism, which possess a precise idealogy (for arguments sake lets say simplicity) which can easily manifest into aesthetic choices. And that is what the Protestants did – the Shaker’s removed all decoration from their elegant and simple wooden furniture, and the European Protestants inspired the major stylistic change of the 20th century, Modernism.

However, the long answer to the question above is Yes – the atheism movement can inspire aesthetic choices, by way of reflective modeling; capturing the essence of the community by conceptual expression. My decision was to represent the diverse and culturally expanding community by the provocation of subjective interpretation. If every viewer can produce their own personal meaning for an object, it can relieve them the acceptance of an external interpretation. The analogy here is to the submission of religious doctrine, seen by atheists as a an externally controlling, top-down, societal force. So just as atheists choose their own life beliefs, so to can they choose the meanings for objects in their lives – the ability to think freely and subjectively being a highly valued quality. In this sense, an atheist aesthetic is far from being Modern, and while closer to post-Modern, in that complexity, detail and historical sources are important tools, the aesthetic should not just be a re-configuration of historical aspects, but a striving for a physically realised and pluralistic ambiguity that truly captures the subjective imagination.

So the conclusions of the project “Object for Atheists” gel with the conclusions of “The Object Without a Story”, but the paths for reaching that conclusion was very different. What does this indicate?

The next object I produced after the bookshelf/chest of drawer for Objects for Atheists, was the SMASH REPAIR series. Originally conceived by Martijn Dijkhuizen and myself as a process for exploring structural limitations, it very quickly became much more. This began when Arne Hendricks from Platform 21 called me to ask if I could re-produce it for the gallery’s Repair theme. Repair is central to the process of SMASH REPAIR, and it is part of the name, but there is an illogic to it also. Why repair something that isn’t naturally broken? The answer, apart from the argument for discovering structural information, is that it frees repair from the stigma of its relationship to old things. Repair as a concept is a wonderful process for form generation – and once we see it applied to the formation of new objects we can envision the transformation of old objects by repair with greater vitality and conviction.

But SMASH REPAIR, does not end quite there. It is purposely and energetically an ambiguous object – and its possible interpretations fragment and break away from it rapidly, as I realised near its completion. I generated 7 story possibilities for the writer Freek Lomme during an email conversation, and I’m sure more are possible. The difference between Bandoni and Meroz’ work is that their stories were generated systematically as an expos of the design-copy writing system – the metaphors of visibility, reflection and transparency in their work is therefore paramount. The collection of stories generated by SMASH REPAIR are altogether different, cobbled together and haphazrdly screwed onto a frame that is continuously morphing. So like the processes of smashing and repair involved in its physical construction, the conceptual form uses a continuing process of de-construction and re-construction…. for a new story to make sense, it must be applied over the broken remnants of the previous.

The 7 stories of SMASH REPAIR can be downloaded as a PDF.

The Archetypal Vase is a set of five interconnecting glass vases designed by Andrea Bandoni and Joana Meroz, born from their research project The Object Without a Story which suggests that the stereotypical text accompanying conceptual design objects is entirely systematic. The designers discovered sentence patterns and word clusters that were repetitiously used in the marketing of design objects. From a re-production Bauhaus lamp to Marcel Wanders newest sofa, specific words and phrase types are re-cycled over and over. Rather than simply assuming this indicates a stagnation in the artistry of copy writing, although it probably does, Bandoni and Meoz present evidence that the stories tended to fall into four categories or archetypes.

Are we looking at a world with subtitles?

The implication is that production of these stories is in fact mechanistic, and that they are intuitively used by designers, PR people, writers, critics, curators etc. because they are sub-consciously assumed to work. Bandoni and Meroz then extrapolate the mechanism into a formula which can generate multiple and arbitrary stories. Their vase is therefore presented as not as having a single story, but multiple; generated by this formula and corresponding to the archetypes they uncovered.

We found that 100% of designers believe the story interferes in the perception of the object.

The vase presents five layers of visibility: and the accompanying stories manifest as layers of glass. One is on the outside, and one on the inside, and  3 in between. All are seen. The metaphor of transparency is paramount, and we can sense the transparency of the stories as conceptual devices. The materiality is precise; the use of glass reflects the highly controlled formation of an idea which is both poetic and brittle; that a story can express truth. The stories presented here bite into one another, leaking away their opacity and exposing the structure of the whole.

The story can be used as a walking stick

Bandoni and Meroz makes a position that the vase devalues all stories, however, at its heart, there is a powerful meta-narrative at play. The title “The object without a story” is a misnomer; the object has many, and far more than the four or five. There is a story written in the blog posts: and also written in the research paper. There is the story of how Bandoni and Meroz used statistic analysis to dissect the stories used to sell and market conceptual design. There is a story also in the workshop Meroz conducted in Poland, mixing up designers, authors, stories and objects into random combination, and there is story in the production of the vase itself – part of that story is the apparent strangeness of having the mould made in a Czech glass factory, but the glass blowing in a Dutch one. The mechanically generated stories are also important – while seemingly arbitrary they are designed to stimulate subjective interpretation.

Stories don’t reveal the truth about an object but we are still obsessed with them.

The final story is the one that forms when jumbling the visual information one gets from looking at the vase, with the textual information one gets from reading about the vase. Much in the same way the glass of the each vase is is structurally separate, but visually interrelated, the stories of the vase are discrete narrative entities making up a meta-narrative which can be subconsciously constructed and intuitively felt. The real story is that all objects have different narratives depending on the personal way you tilt your head to look at it. It forms when we open our mouths to speak at a gallery or when look up from our magazine at the cafe: we are obsessed with stories because they represent creation, and we are constantly and sub-consciously making them in our minds. But the nice thing about story creation is also its problem; we are rarely aware we are doing it – the formation is intuitive. And in the mire of laziness, we re-produce rather than produce. Intuition can be like the leak of light to a blind man who otherwwise must think with his fingers, but we don’t always interpret this glimmer as creatively as we should. When it comes to thinking about the objects with which we fill our lives, mostly we are just groping around in the dark.

This is what Bandoni and Meroz present; mechanistically produced stories have less value. Subsequently, they make the position that the viewer should form their own story about the vase. Once we do, we realise we have circumvented the conventional process of understanding design, which itself becomes the story. The meta-story is now awake, and made tactile and concrete via the synthesis of construction and material into a set of, really nice, blown glass vases.

All quotes from “Narrative Objects/From Vormgever to Woordgever” by Andrea Bandoni and Joana Meroz.

Photo by Susana Camara Leret


Opening: Saturday 19 September, 17:00 > 19:30, 2010, Prinsengracht 645 – Amsterdam

Recently I have been engaged in an interesting email dialogue with curator and writor Freek Lomme about my and Martijn’s SMASH REPAIR project. Its inspired me to reflect upon my own intentions for the work, and as a designer in general – especially when prompted by Lomme to define my visual politics.

My visual politics are to promote subjective personal interpretation. Every object I make has more than one interpretation and I purposely attempt to activate imagination in the viewer by producing ambiguous design. This is my reaction to the over use of conceptual stories for the marketing of design and art objects. It also my technique for maintaining interest in my own work and warding off the boredom of familiarity. At worst, a reflection of my mind’s inability to focus on a single idea. But this is what I think life in the 21st century has become; moments, feelings, ideas and encounters, branched and connected nebulously without barrier or frame.

I believe that every object should have not one single story, but many and multiple, offered by the artist, or imagined by the viewer. It is intuitively natural for me to share my thinking and working processes, but also interesting to create a hyper or meta-awareness of the marketing processes at work in the conceptual design field. To offer many stories is to debase the value of each. The only valuable story becomes the subjective. To keep the story of the object open and flexible is a mark of respect to the viewer, critic or curator.

The only true story is transitory, which is the ephemeral construct we make in our imaginations when we sense an object.

Confrontation with interpretative choice is capable of producing a special effect. This is the dynamical sublime, first defined by Jean Francois Lyotard. It begins with an assault or provocation on our senses that makes the mind recoil. The provocation is perhaps monstrous, illogical or absurd, but after the initial shock the mind has the ability to recover via the use of its thinking power, our imagination. We intellectually process these assaults, imagine their reason for existence, subdue their effect, and subjugate the monster. At once we are affected by profound feelings of beauty and hyper-awareness; the dynamical sublime. It is, metaphorically, a near-death encounter avoided by ninja move, that leaves one shaken yet stirred by empathy for the fragility of life. Aware of human inadequacies, yet braced by strengthening of self-confidence. For we are proud of the little survival mechanisms which help us to cope with complexity.

One of my inspirations is Junya Ishigami, who uses a method to produce ambiguity in this way. Starting from a strong conceptual point he develops his work along as cascading series of fragmenting lines until the work is perceived as a network, or cloud of ideas. Ishigami refers to this ambiguity in the Japanese as aimai, or “unclear”. Normally used in the derogatory sense, it is claimed back and uplifted as a critically advantageous method of presentation. The best example of this in Ishigami’s work is, in my opinion, is the aluminium balooon he presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. Giant, rectilinear yet irregular, clad in vibrating metal and helium filled, the sculpture occupied a mass amount of space, yet moved with a contrasting smooth fluidity. Like slo-mo beach ball at a dance party, it rose and descended before being sent skywards again by the gentle touch of fingers. The video on youtube, despite being low resolution, is the best to get a sense of its size and movement.


This expression of ambiguity has cultural roots in the Japanese tea ceremony and is especially represented in the warped and cracked ceramics of the wabi-sabi style – a movement composed on designers and design studios all attempting to out run other designers with the production of intriguing and novel ceramic techniques. The mystery of these techniques, perfect for reflective dialogue during the tea ceremony, were also products of self-interest; they differentiated one designer or studio from another and were secretively guarded.

~images courtesy of the Freer+Sackler Galleries~

These examples are interpreted here entirely subjectively – I am using them as support for the correct understanding of my own design, the third SMASH REPAIR table. My interpretation of these examples is a subjective interpretation, a quality I consider highly desirable in an object. These objects lend themselves to such interpretations, and I hope, so does SMASH REPAIR. However, there is one fundamental difference. SMASH REPAIR was born from and developed during my studies at the Design Academy, and from within the broader context of “Dutch Design” in general, which prizes the clear and concise reading of objects. From conceptual genesis to functional reading, its considered best if an object has a single, strong and unambiguous narrative.

Given that my proposal for SMASH REPAIR is to do the opposite, its natural to assume that it must also be criticism. In order to both critique the marketing of conceptual design and to survive its earnest machinations, I cannot provide a single concrete narrative. But, practically, I can provide several stories to use as critical diving platforms – from which one can jump into personal mysteries or ascend into the meta-narrative of object as story as idea as thought as commodity. Next, I will post the first of these stories, paired with new images, and also discuss how it relates to the project “The Object W
ithout A Story”
by my colleagues and former fellow students Joana Meroz and Andrea Bandoni.

A short video compilation of the first 5 smashes of the smash repair 3 table project.

1 = 2 chairs, new images

| August 22nd, 2009

New images of my 1 = 2 chairs, originally posted here in January

One old chair was cut apart and rebuilt into 2 chairs with the addition of one material, 6mm steel rod. This was a method of repair, but also a way to forge new a new identity for an object made anonymous by the passing decades.

SMASH REPAIR 3 – Day 6 & 7

| August 13th, 2009

SMASH REPAIR 3 – Infosheet

| August 12th, 2009

Its true that SMASH REPAIR is cerebral. And perhaps a bit crazy. Why break something on purpose….. and then repair it so as to break it again?

So here is a link to a SMASH REPAIR infosheet that explains my concept, method and intent.

…another day of repair and the form is growing in complexity…

My class, the Design Academy Eindhoven 2009 Masters graduate projects, are now online, where you can find some images of my furniture project, Objects for Atheists.

The design is one result from my thesis research:

Objects for Atheists…

…this research focuses on the the influence religion has on the aesthetics of design. This begins more than 20 thousand years ago in pre-history with the design of the Venus of Willendorf and the neolithic stone furniture of Skara Brae. It ends in the present day with 20th century Modernism and that which follows. But what could be the aesthetics of the comparitvely new movement of “no-religion”, that is atheism?

Atheists are not a group easily defined. As many atheists like to say, all they have in common is a lack of faith in god. Otherwise, they are a free, wide ranging and inclusive community, with members of many different beliefs and interpretations of life and aesthetics. In effect, the atheists represent an epitome, for this is what life in the 21st century has become.

The aesthetic solution to this is ambiguity. An object that can be freely interpreted, freely appreciated and adaptable to the viewer’s own subjective imagination.

Is it a chest of drawers, or is it a bookshelf? It appears modern yet expresses the feeling of an antique. The joinery is in a traditional, handworked style, yet manufactured by a programmed machine. Is the bookshelf at the back meant to be hidden up against a wall, a place to hide your bibles and pornography? Or is it meant to be free-standing, to show off your books and intellectualism, whilst you hide your secrets in drawers? Opposites in tension prevent a concise reading; the furniture does not a represent a finality or fundamentality, but flexibility, ambiguity, and conditionality.

This Friday, Saturday and Sunday (July 24th – 26th 2009) I will performing SMASH REPAIR live at the gallery Platform 21 in Amsterdam. I hope to smash the structure and repair it once per day, but we’ll see what happens…. the process is quite unpredictable. I’m excited to be working in the beautiful gallery space there, but a little concerned about my arm; I was bitten by a spider last night and my arm has been slowly swelling up over the course of the day…..!


In June 2009 I graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven with a Masters degree in Humanitarian Design.

A description of my graduation project, pictured, can be found here.

I also produced a thesis, which served as research and inspiration for my final project.  The thesis, titled Objects for Atheists, investigated the influence of religion on the design of furniture and other domestic objects, and proposed strategies to design objects for an increasingly secular society.

Thesis + Appendices, as a zip file.
Thesis only, PDF.
Appendices only, PDF.

EDIT: If the links above are not working, please email me and I will send it to you personally.

As the images show, yesterday was the first smash and repair. Crushing the structure and see it break was immensely satisfying after the long assembly work. The structure took a lot more weight than I expected, but when it fell, it began with an eerie and very soft crackling sound, like twigs breaking in the forest…. one by one, for an eternity, and then everything happened at once; the bricks descended and the structure almost exploded with energy and a visible dust cloud.

So we start the repair, a straightening the segments of structure still attached and fixing them with the first layer of tiles. Some segments were forced completely separate from the structure; we collected these and, like a jigsaw puzzle, figured out where they belong.

And the whole time we work, we think about smashing it again.

Over the next few days I will be re-producing the SMASH REPAIR project for the gallery Platform 21 in Amsterdam. This version, the largest Martijn and I have designed so far, uses a system of tiles, threaded rod and nuts for the repair of its structure. Each tile, and also the base structure, shown above, includes a pattern of breaking lines, to steer the breakage around the bolt holes and, hopefully, produce interesting patterns.

The very nice laser cutting was done by Dutch company Pronty.

Of course, part of the fun in this project is the “SMASH” part, so for this I have built a “smashing platform” from steel tubes inserted into a white plinth. When we built the last SMASH REPAIR, one of the problems we faced was the control of this aspect; sometimes the bricks would break the supports, completely crushing the structure.

Not that this was bad, but it slowed down the process. My plan this time is to stop the falling weight at the point where the horizontal supports are welded to the steel tubes.

Yesterday my assistant Kyoko Hashimoto and I began the first assembly of the structure, and I made special tools to attach and remove the nuts and rods. Today, we make the first smash.

Finally…. I graduate.

| July 4th, 2009

Finally I have graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven, with a masters degree.

My project is currently on exhibition at the school, and here I present my thesis titled “Objects for Atheists”.

Thesis + Appendices, as a zip file.

Thesis only, PDF.
Appendices only, PDF.

EDIT: If the links above are not working, please email me and I will send it to you personally 🙂

Thanks to all my friends, family, fellow students, mentors and colleagues, who helped me over the last two years. I will post images of my project soon.

I exhibited my thesis and the furniture design which resulted from my research at the Design Academy Eindhoven earlier this month. Below is are some teaser images… proper images for publication will be available just prior the Academy’s Graduation Exhibition during Dutch Design Week in mid-October.

Thesis – 4th draft

| May 22nd, 2009

At the following link is a PDF of my nearly finished thesis. Missing is the third appendix and the odd reference or figure number.

link expired

Below, a recent sketch and a 1:10 model, photographed by the rapid prototypers as proof of production, winging its way to the Netherlands, hopefully before mid-terms on Tuesday.

Following on from the success of Repair Night at Platform21 last friday, SMASH REPAIR has been featured in two online magazines:

Bright Magazine (in dutch)

Dutch DFA (Design, Fashion, Architecture) (in english)

Models for Chest of Drawers

| March 9th, 2009

Chest of drawers, cabinets and bookshelves are suitable design opportunities for a topic dealing with atheism. The atheist worldview is very much concentrated on the accumulation of information and knowledge in order to ascertain the truth. The categorization inherent in the drawer/filing/shelving system is an analogy for this. And in this sense too, cabinets and drawers relate to the medieval “wunder cabinets”, or Cabinets of Curiosities, that predate modern museums and which were important to the development of both scientific reasoning and secularism in the Enlightenment period in Europe.

With these designs, I am attempting to embed qualities that appeal to rationalists, such as the mathematically proportioned drawers, as well as those with an atheist perception of life as framed by the a vacuum of life before birth and after life. This last quality is manifested by the deep and reflective black, and highlighted internal color for the drawers.

Additionally, I am trying to create a sense of subtle conflict in the design – as a metaphor for secular/religious conflict perhaps, but especially in a contrast of the rational and the irrational, as a path to a sense of the sublime, as defined by Jean Francois Lyotard:

Lyotard defined sublime as pleasurable anxiety and spoke about the “dynamical sublime”, when our minds recoil at an object we feel is immensely more powerful than ourselves, something that could crush us with its weight, force or energy. This unique aesthetic occurs when we realise that while our bodies may be dwarfed by such power, our reason need not be; we can control our fear by reasoned contemplation. The sublime is both pleasurable and painful.

This is most evident in the sloping backs – that rationally indicate the reducing drawer sizes, but irrationally create a void behind the object – inhibiting the object from being placed up against a wall, and suggesting a placement inside the room, creating a greater and more dominant presence.

At one point last year, frustrated with designing and especially with structure, I tore up a big sheet of paper and then proceeded to sew it back together. The process of stitching something as delicate as paper was actually quite a therapeutic experience; I attempted to make the repair as strong as possible but knew it didn’t really matter because it physically could not last forever.

Next week I have been invited by the Amsterdam gallery Platform 21 to present my research and a proposal that followed on the the paper sewing and the SMASH REPAIR tables I did with Martijn Dijkhuizen (below). We have an idea for the creation of a stronger wood and metal structure, inspired by the adobe mud brick building of Djenne, Mali. Platform 21 has a REPAIR MANIFESTO and next friday 13/03/09 is the opening night.

This is a set of graphic studies I produced to visualise my thesis topic. Basically they are concerned with the representation of life and death within an atheist worldview, using visual metaphors such as space, stars, mandalas, spirals etc, which I think are understandable universally. The PDF of them all is here, above and below are 4 selections.

Recently I have been reading a lot about Sottsass, some on the net, but mostly from the book Etorre Sottsass: A Critical Biography, an illustrated biography written by his third wife Barbara Radice. Generally I have found it very useful, especially when considered in the framework of my thesis topic of designing objects for atheists. This is because atheists tend to be very rational, and so embrace functionality instead of conceptual or metaphorical allusions in objects. Yet, for an object to reflect an intangible worldview and speak to the heart intuitively, it must contain some aspect of irrationality, to elevate it above conscious understanding and into the realm of the emotional. This contrast, one could say even a duel, between rational and irrational concerns is very present in Sottsass work, and produces much of its emotional impact.

The book opens with a description of Sottsass’ urge to travel around the world intensively, running from place to place with fervour and a mad desire to photograph everything. At one point he took 1873 photographs in 12 days in South America. He is described as travelling to consume life, but yet he is also disgusted and appalled at the consumption of others. His travels to the United States in 1956 revealed American consummerism to him and led him develop objects that were “tools to slow down the consumpton of existence” as if he was designing to self-medicate his own manic personality. I think its clear also, reading between the lines of the introduction, that he had self-esteem issues, which he sought to surmount by constant and passionate ambition.

Sottsass wanted to get ride of rationalism, which he said, “did not cover by any means the necessities of existence”. One of his reactions to rationalism was break it apart and reform it. Radice says that with the very rational Bauhaus, he took its elements and performed a “transplant operation”. He re-arranged the ratios, distances and weights that he saw in the Bauhuas style into an “irony of dis-proportion” seen in much of his ceramics and furniture, but at other times into a playful hyper-rationalism, seen in his ground-breaking work for Ollivetti. These are streamlined, strict yet soft machines; as if he had thrown all the elements of modernism into the air to see the kind of chaos in which they would land, but they had reformed by chance into a perfectly formulated solution. Radice writes that this is because, for all his love of irrationality, Sottsass was aware of the intimate effect objects can have. Sottsass remarks:

“When I began designing machines I also began to think that these objects…. …can touch the nerves, the blood, the muscles, the eyes and the moods of people. Since then I have never designed a product in the same way as I would design a sculpture, and I have been utterly obsessed with the idea that… …I was setting off a chain reaction of which I understood very little. “

Yet, this does not extend to all his designs, such as in his “super-boxes”; giant wardrobes that are more provocation than product. Covered in custom laminates that pre-date Memphis by 15 years, these shocking objects were derived from Sottsass’ exposure to American pop art, and its appears a very direct influence from the minimalist Donald Judd, but also his early work on super-computer chasis design for Olivetti. But, Radice writes, their ultimate effect was to consume and dominate the the room in which they were placed as if “dropped into the cosmos”; an effect Sottsass learnt from his experiences in India. Etore said many years later “They were such crazy things they were hard to imagine”.

(The first image of an electronic printer for Ollivetti, whose form feeds into Sottsass’ later super-boxes. This last image is of a scultpure by Donald Judd – note the almost identical sketch from Sottsass notebook next to the sketch of the superbox in the photo above.)

Sottsass’ Memphis period is famed for its rule-breaking and perceived irrationality. But it seems that the rule-brekaing is highly conscious and therefore very rational. Sottsass agrees:
“I’m always offended when they say that I play when I do memphis work; actually I ‘m very serious, I’m never more serious than when I do memphis work. it’s when I design machines for olivetti that I play.”

To conclude, Sottsass had two distinct phases to his process. Sottsass was open about finding his inspiration in the realms of the irrational, and I believe the first part of his process was to explore irrational ideas agressively and intuitively. He remarks:

“…we draw our product-language stimuli not so much from institutionalized culture, not from technology, not from some sort of institutionalized certainty, but from spheres where everything starts afresh again, is uncertain, contradictory, without firm outlines.”

And you can see that in the formation of his Memphis products. Yet their is a second phase of his process, the management of irrationality. Once he had a slippery hold on an certain idea, he would mold it with care and sensitivity to rationalism. This made it communicable to others, and can be seen in the gentle curves of contact surfaces, or the logical placement of knobs on his cabinets. I don’t think it worked all the time; personally when I look at a lot of his work I can only point to a small percentange of I actually like (although you can argue that virtually all are at least interesting). Sottsass’ impact today comes from that fact that when we remember the output of an artist, as with many things, as with life, we t
end to remember only the very best.

Quotes and information from
“Etorre Sottsass: A Critical Biography” by Barbara Radice,
Design Boom article “Memphis Remembers”:
“Memphis, Research, Experiences, Results, Failures and Successes of New Design” by Barbara Radice

I just discovered this wonderful little story on Artnet, about a young woman’s journey to Milan to interview Sottsass when he was 89. It’s perfect little vignettes include this gem:

“Over a meal at a nearby restaurant, I started bombarding him with questions about architecture, even though it wasn’t really architecture I wanted to talk to him about. Sottsass seemed tired. He said his basic idea was this:

“a room should have a few objects in it, and those objects should be so intense they vibrate.”

I started to cry. Objects vibrated. I knew that, but I thought they did it only because I was lonely and I needed them to.

I tried to hide my sniffling but I could see that Sottsass knew, and that he felt exasperated and sorry for me and curious about the shape of my breasts all at once. And I smiled ruefully because I knew what a pain-in-the-ass stalker/journalist I must be being. And he smiled back and said, “Here is a story,” as if those words would solve everything. “

from The Curious Mr Sottsass by Amy Fusselman

Last weekend I designed some graphics to illustrate my topic. These graphics abstractly deal with the atheist conception of death and its inverse, life.
Atheists do not beleive in god, and the majority also do not believe in the afterlife. Death is seen as the ultimate cessation of consciousness. This frames life as a temporality, its vibrant complexity open for exploration, but framed by the nothingness of death on all sides.

Translating this into furniture objects requires a decontruction down into simpler archetypal forms, lest the execution be seen as overly decorative. This deconstruction involves a formation of the concept into functional components; the elementary units of everyday objects. Subtleties like a hidden colour along the edge of a shelf, or a cascading proportions of drawers, must suggest the possibilities of an entire universe of life.

Here are some ideas for designing metaphorical or symbolic objects for atheists and naturalists. I did this by developing an atheist persona, a personality construct, based on my research of the atheist community. These ideas are somewhat jokey, and I am quite sure a final solution will involve a more sophisticated approach, but I think it is still useful to explore the stranger possibilities for object and furniture design.

What is the symbology of science?

| February 11th, 2009

At this stage in my research I am looking for a way to express the atheist world view in objects. One method I have considered is to apply, either directly or indirectly, some of the aesthetics used in graphic depictions of science. This is not to say that atheism is the same as science, it’s not at all, however, one thing held in common by many atheists is a high regards for science, and according to intellectuals like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet, a good understanding of science will encourage and strengthen a belief in atheism.

The image above is a large collage of the “evolutionary tree” system of graphics. Its begins on the far left with Darwin’s first diagrammatic sketch of his theory of evolution, taken from his personal notebook. Next to it is the first printed version, a rather dry diagram from the “Origin of Species”. The rest of the collage is filled with the many subsequent and diverse forms the evolutionary tree system can be, although it is interesting to note that many follow Darwin’s original sketch very closely in aesthetics. Other forms attempt to make it clearer with the use of color, overlay of historical bands, or depictions of the animals involved. It culminates with the common contemporary use of circular trees, radiating outwards, which allow maximum space for the animals on the periphery, our contemporary lifeforms. Many of these forms, and especially the tree motif, can be compared to other scientific depictions, such as those for neural nets, rivers, data structures etc. The final images on the bottom right are illustrations of evolutionary trees interpreted very literally as real trees; the big one by Ernst Haeckel is particularly beautiful.

The depictions of structures such as atoms and molecules scream “science” out loud; the incredible sub-microscopic discoveries of the latter 20th century are responsible for that. Spectography is likewise full of scientific “aesthetic”. Interestingly, for all the depictions of molecules and the like on Wikipedia, the articles on Quantum Theory are curiously devoid of explanatory graphics. Is it to complex for even scientific illustrators to understand?

Fossils, and the illustrations of fossils, really put one’s mind into the atmosphere of the 19th century, when the first major discoveries where made about evolution and our animal ancestry.

Finally I made this collection of photos and portraits of famous scientists and naturalists. Nothing critical can be analysed from this, but I find them interesting, especially the ID tag of Richard Feynman from when he was working on the atomic bomb and Los Alamos (middle row, second from the right).

Throughout history, the ability of objects to survive has had little to do with function or aesthetics, but everything to do with cultural significance. The existence of objects is sustained by their importance to the cultures in which they are born and later pass through. In this regards, there are two main types of culturally significant objects. Those that have a cultural significance based on their relationship to power structures, usually royal or aristocratic in nature, and those that have significance based on a relationship to religion. This thesis will critique the latter relationship and how this relationship has changed or will change in a society growing increasingly secular and non-religious. Specifically this phenomena will be explored by the ways in which deeper meanings can be invested into objects through the study of the atheistic worldview.

Chapter 1
The styles and forms of furniture and objects from the past reflect the worldview of the society in which they were designed. If this reflection is significant enough, the designed object can have the capacity to move beyond the time and place of it’s original gestation and continue it’s existence through proceeding cultures. For example, the Folding X-Type Stool was originally designed for ancient Egyptian royalty, but the form has progressed by being translated throughout history into religious contexts and finally into the secular context of today. (Lucie-Smith).

We see this progression in other examples of object design; even secular design from the 19th and 20th century is derived from an early religious forms. Kaare Klint, the forefather of Danish modernism was strongly influenced by the religiously inspired economic forms of Shaker furniture (Lanks), and German modernism was born from earlier Protestant designers reacting to the excesses of Catholicism (Betts).

A collection of Shaker furniture:

Shaker inspired Kaare Klint chair:

Chapter 2
Given that these perpetual forms arise from an intimate reflection of the world in which they were created, an understanding of contemporary society must be achieved to produce culturally relevant objects today. The modern world is increasingly being defined by secularism, the separation of religious activities from daily life, and atheism is increasing (Dale). Is there is a form of design deriving significance wholly from contemporary secular sources? In many ways, modernism tried to do this, via the application of rationality in design, as rationality is a fundamental aspect of the secular worldview. However, it is proposed that a study of the worldview of atheists, a contemporary social movement, may produce more culturally significant objects, and subsequently sustain their form.

Chapter 3
The world view of atheists is more complex than just rationality and includes a strong belief in science, democracy, secularism, a curiousness about the mechanisms of nature, and feelings of wonder about the transient quality of life (Dawkins). In addition, it is felt by many leading atheists that the atheist perception of life, society, morality and especially death are very important issues for the future of atheists and society in general. How can these qualities be invested into objects? The design of objects culturally significant to atheists have the potential to become long lasting forms, but a secondary objective is to express the atheist world view in an object and thereby improve the understanding of atheism by other cultural groups.

A review of design history literature and visual research is ongoing in order to summarize the effects religion has had on the history of furniture and object design prior to the 20th century. Additionally 20th century design is being studied so as to see the effect of secularism on design and to discover any prior attempts to invest the atheist worldview into design.

An expert, archaeologist or design historian, could be consulted to answer finer questions raised by the literature review.

Atheist literature, interview and documentary television have been studied to understand the atheist culture, worldview and needs. Additionally, an online dialogue with two atheist groups is ongoing, conducted through 2 online forums, private messaging and email. Visual research is also ongoing in an attempt to analyse the symbology and graphic devices used to depict science, logic and atheism. Proposed designs are submitted online for feedback from atheist groups.

Thesis Conclusions:
There is legitimacy in the formal manifestation of an atheist worldview into an object, based on the precedent of previous objects representing their historical worldview. However, there is seemingly little precedent for methods in which to do it. Partly this is because atheists, until recently, have not identified themselves as a group nor formed recognisable communities. This is changing as a result of the internet and also activities, such as from the scientist Richard Dawkins, who push for a bolder representation of atheism in society.

Image of Dawkins wearing the Scarlet A, a symbol of atheism:

As a result, a clearer understanding of the atheist worldview can now be discovered. One unexpected discovery is that they are very individualistic and some dislike the actual idea that they share a worldview. However, their shared respect for rationality, logic, science and the processes of nature is clear, and in fact their individualism is another commonality.

Design Conclusions:
The online dialogue has inspired a number of solution which are in the sketch and modeling stages. These solutions include applications of scientific symbology, hyper-rationality, and metaphorical form. It is hoped that feedback of these designs from the online atheist community will inform future iterations.

(in addition to previous bibliography published here)

Betts, P 2004, The Authority of Everyday Objects: A Cultural History of West German Industrial Design, pages 66-68, University of California Press,

Radice, B 1993, Ettore Sottsass :A Critical Biography, Thames & Hudson, Limited, London.

Risatti, H 2007, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, The University of North Carolina Press, US.

Web articles
COTTER, H 1996, Shakers, a Modernist and a Lasting Utopian Spirit, Accessed January 2009, Source:

Dale, D 2009, WHO WE ARE: Generational warfare, published in The Sun-Herald, Acessed February 2009, Source:

Lanks, B 2007 The Second (and Third) Coming:A new exhibition traces the Shakers’ distinctive influence on midcentury and contemporary furniture, Accessed: February 2009, Source:

Packham R 1998, Atheist Spirituality, Acessed: January 2009, Source:

Seliger, J 2007, The Spiritual Atheist – Finding Spirituality Without Worship, Acessed: January 2009, Source:

Television and Film
The Enemies of Reason, 2007, Dawkins, R (Writer, Presenter), Produced by Alan Clements, Distributed by Channel 4, UK.

The Four Horsemen: a discussion with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, 2007, Timonen, J (Producer), convened by The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Source: Youtube:

The Genius of Charles Darwin, 2008, Dawkins, R (Writer, Presenter) Directed by Russell Barnes, Dan Hillman, IWC Media, Channel 4, RDF International, UK.

The Root of All Evil?, 2006, Produced by Alan Clements, Written by Richard Dawkins, Starring Richard Dawkins, Distributed by Channel 4, UK.

Dawkins, R 2005 TED Lecture: The universe is queerer than we can suppose, Long Beach, U.S Source:

Dawkins, R 2002, TED Lecture: An atheist’s call to arms, Long Beach, U.S

Online Forums
The Brights Movement, accessed 2009, from:

Atheist Forums, accessed 2009, from:

Atheistic Forums, accessed 2009, from

Growing Pains

| January 27th, 2009

This family of chair models uses a kind of “genetic” system to grow and build objects. The manual system is applied to the design of larger and larger chairs, causing some construction elements to become marginalized while others refine into better developed expression.

The end result is somewhat like the growth of a child into adult, with all the difficult puberty stages in-between included.

It was flowed from my analysis of the Goldilocks and Three Bears fable, but  then computer renders of the design formed the basis of a survey for my masters research. The results of the survey were very interesting; when the chairs were shown at an equal size and not in scaled relation to one another, the baby chair was universally disliked. But, when shown together as a family, the baby chair suddenly became attractive.

These images show a diagrams for a 2-dimensional architectural tiling system. The system works with 2 tiles, a larger triangle edged primary tile, and a smaller triangle shaped filler tile. By changing the arrangement of the larger tile one can produce a very large number of tiling patterns, with the filler tile used to complete the arrangement and produce a tessellation.

The design was initially inspired by my research into the notion of sacred objects, and the emphasis on mathematics and geometry in Islamic culture, as an expression of God. What i wanted to do was expand upon this idea but use a modular system which from a simple base of 2 tiles can produce variable and complex patterns, in an attempt to give user flexibility, but also to express something about the dynamic relationship of simplicity and complexity in nature. For example, the base unit structure of DNA is surprisingly simple; four units of nucleotides only are used to code the structures of all living things; an amazingly complex array of life.

The large graphic above has 4 rotationally repeating tiling patterns, as shown enlarged, however an much larger number can be produced, and 6 more patterns as shown below, including 3 that re not rotational, but linear in arrangement, and 3 which are rotational but which also modulate the filler tile pattern.

My Second Chair

| January 24th, 2009

The final result from the project set by Dick van Hoff, the 1 = 2 chairs. The brief was to take an old chair apart and rebuild the structure with 6mm rod. In the first chair I built a support structure replacing the legs, and in the second chair I replaced the seat and back.

The design of this second chair, on the left in the photos, was almost completely crystallized in my mind by the time the first chair was finished. Unlike the first chair, which I repainted to make clear the relationship between them and to the original chair, and which had a difficult conception. Its design was itself a reflection of the struggle to find direction. So indeed, all the hard work was done on the first chair.

The making of this second chair, then, flowed naturally, allowing me to concentrate on the sensuality of the materials. And something interesting began, the relationship between the metal and wood became complex, a relationship of domination, submission and ultimately tense union. The metal wants to control the wood, but the wood stands resolute.

You can download a PDF showing technical drawings and the construction schema here.

Drawing of Topic

| December 8th, 2008

How can a manipulation of scale be used to create long-lasting objects with sublime effects?

In the past, large architectural structures were possessed with a spiritual power representative of their iconic and rare status. Similarly, very small historical objects such as jewellery and miniature books held a special place of importance due to the time, care and techniques needed to produce them. However, the contemporary era is one where the special context of these objects has been lost and similarly the processes required to produce them are ubiquitous. The sense of sacredness and focal purpose of large structures has been reduced by the democratization of construction. And in turn, the trend for miniaturization in electronics has produced an array of tiny yet profane and meaningless products. In spite of this, many objects from the past still exist today and possess values that ensure their continuation. If their original meaning has been lost, the nature of their existence is often perplexing enough to ensure their continued survival. In context of today’s society that has lost much of its traditional relationship to the spiritual, this research attempts to produce home objects and architectural fittings that use a manipulation of scale to achieve a sublime or spiritual effect.

Literature Review

| December 8th, 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.

People Research Report

| December 8th, 2008

My people research has taken two forms. The first is a four part survey (found here)I sent out into the wild via Facebook. The survey dealt with the perception of scale and aesthetics in chair models, long-lasting and sacred objects and the supplementary data in 4 sections (sections 1 and 3 being related). Out of an estimated 250-500 people who received the survey, I received 47 responses over a two week period. A report of the results are here.

The second part of my research involves communication with design historians and archaeologist, and for this I compiled a list of questions embedded in a text (found here). The text was a contextual narrative with examples of objects from pre-history, and design history up until a few hundred years ago, with related modern examples where they exist. It was difficult for me at first to embrace the study of objects from the archaeological record because their aesthetics are often difficult to understand, however, much analysis goes into their sociological function as well as material construction and this is good information to absorb. The text and narrative was broken up into 6 sections or qualities that I feel are important to the ability of objects to survive; materials and construction, ubiquity, context, aesthetics, function and cultural significance. I have sent the text off to several academics, however am still awaiting a response. Because the text is fairly involved, and now is a busy time of year for academics especially in the southern hemisphere, this unfortunately may not happen until after the xmas break period. And so the remainder of this report will detail the results from the survey.

Survey Results
In the first question of the survey, subjects were asked to rank 5 chairs shown at equal size. The chairs are formally related to one another via the use of a scale manipulation that corresponds with a “growth” concept, though this was not evident at first. To the participant, what is clear is that the chairs are related somewhat (mainly by color and some common aesthetic features), but differ drastically in terms of thinness and thickness, lightness and weight.

Chair D was designed first and served as a template for the other chairs; it can be considered to possess the original genetic code passed onto its older and younger siblings. It was also voted the most popular in the survey. Just behind Chair D were chair C and E, “one step away” relations, followed by least favorites Chair A and B, who possess the most extreme stretch of the genetic code towards “thinness”. This result could be interpreted to suggest that this system of scaling a structural system thinner and thicker weakens aesthetic appeal, or that the original chair D makes more visual sense, in that its structure was designed rationally rather than inherited from a sibling. Another possibility is that my own initial aesthetic judgment as a designer was stronger and more able to connect with an audience in the first design than subsequent generative design of the other chairs. In regards to the lowest ranked, it appeared from the responses that the participants were responding to its thinness; in that humans are basically a little concerned about sitting on something that looks too light. However, lightness and thinness was also the reason for some participants to rate it highly. Actually, the concern for structure is reflected in most responses; many described the appeal of chair D as “robust”, “strong”, “bold” etc; more at least than those who used words for chair A or B, such as “light” “elegant” “mobile”. However, in the reasons for not liking chair A, apprehensive expressions such as “death-trap” (!) were common.

The next part of the survey diverged away from the chairs (necessarily, as I will show later) with freeform questions about old, personal and sacred objects. The responses were very varied, but with some clear trends. In response to the question, “how old is the oldest thing you own” the majority of responses were over one hundred years older, with some even older, up to 1500 years, but comparatively few younger than 100 years. This suggests to me that despite the contemporary problem of planned obsolescence and our inurement to it, we still have a place in our lives for very old objects. A positive result! The range of objects was fairly evenly divided between larger items (such as furniture, carpets and musical instruments, and smaller objects (such as jewellery, photographs and antique coins). Against my expectation that fragile objects would be well represented in the range of old objects, sturdy objects were far more common. This is more logical, but I was surprised because I had assumed that fragile objects do not necessarily have shorter life spans because of the care taken in their protection.

The answers to questions continued to become more and more personal and subjective, however I find these subjective responses very inspirational; a response from one subject described an old chest of drawers belonging to her grandmother – although this would be reason enough for its value to most participants, her responses admitted that the real reason she liked it was the use of the now rare New Zealand rimu wood.

In responses to the questions about sacred and objects, I was relieved to discover that many responses were not about religious artifacts, rather books, jewellery, photographs and antiques. This corresponds to my existing definition of sacred as not something necessarily religious but rather something that can elevate your spirit and well-being. The range of answers to personally valuable items was even broader, and began to incorporate technological devices (especially laptops and cars), tools and collections. Conclusion: there is no sharp definition of what constitutes a sacred object, each object must posses a personal relationship with the owner, and only blurry nexus of factors can be defined for sure: a combination of age, personal history and family connection. Qualities such as religious meaning, valuable materials or specific function are often present but not always. Aesthetics were not often considered in the responses of the participants, however this could easily be because of not being emphasized or alluded to in the questions.

The third part of the survey was a progression from the first part, but with the chairs displayed in context together as a family. The results change dramatically; Chair E becomes the front runner with a large lead, popular with 45% of those surveyed, followed by Chair A, at 28%. Why do the chairs at the extreme ends of the genetic deformation receive the highest ranking? In the case of the the smallest chair, its cuteness; an overwhelming number of responses mentioned this quality. In the case of Chair A, anthropomorphism created a new opinion; what was seen as skinny and fragile became protective and caring. This surely a result of the composition however, if the same chair was seen to the side and not hovering above the others, I believe this response would not have happened. What really surprised me however, was the degree to which the participants understood my design process; responses referred to the “genetic code”, the growth of children and and even the awkward phases of adolescence, all conepts running through my mind when I was creating the chairs. I surely see this as a result of the anthropomorphism of the family metaphor. It is a metaphor that can be easily understood and appreciated by many people; a universal value.

The idea of discovering universal values from a survey leads us to the last section; perso
nal data. I asked for age, sex and ethnic/cultural background because I believe that these qualities that are interesting when attempting to discover universal values, although in hindsight I think I was being overly cautious in asking for personal information and should have asked for education and career data as well, among other things. The results were weighted to people of european background but not excessively so. When I analyse these results, I must also remind myself that the majority of participants are Facebook users, and therefore belong to a specific social group (technologically savvy?) and are also rather young, as reflected in the age results.

Application of a scale manipulation or generative system for furniture could be successful, but only if it includes an anthropomorphic quality. Furniture can be far more accessible if it relates to human qualities. Therefore the design needs to communicate its context. As for old and sacred objects, I realize that good choice of material and sturdy construction are fundamental, but less obvious is which other qualities should be applied. I believe this will come down to more intuitive design decisions, although I do want to create something that can have a very real and personal relationship to its owner, even if this is not outwardly evident at first glance or use i.e an object that manifests a beautiful quality, but as it ages rather than at first sight.

As part of my people research, I have written up a narrative spliced with questions that I am sending to experts in the field of design history.

What is the survivability of objects? I am using this term survivability because it implies a life force extant to those objects of which we know. My main concern is the investigation of those objects that continue to exist in a useful way for centuries or more. Archetypes fit this profile, such as the chair, but which chairs specifically survive better than others? I am trying to connect examples of of objects from different eras and discover qualities that have helped them become long-lasting. I propose that qualities such as materials, construction, aesthetics, and unbiquity play a role in keeping an object functional, but sometimes the ability of an object to survive is through some external factor, and these interest me also. One example is preservation, either accidental, (such as the case of the Pompeii ruins, preserved in volcanic ash, that influenced neo-classisicm when they were discovered) or purposeful (such as the many examples of tomb furniture).

Preservation also occur when the design is transmitted in another form other than the object itself (such as the Ancient Greek klismos chairs that only survived as images on pottery, later to be re-made in the 18th century.)

Finally, cultural significance needs to be addressed when discussing the survivability of objects. It may be that in a world where everything can only last for a finite period and must be remade or reproduced to continue existing, all other considerations are secondary to the matter of cultural significance.

I guess its obvious that with examples from pre-history and the archaeological record the qualities that can be assessed are fewer and mainly deal with construction and material, e.g stoneware and ceramic can survive thousands of years (example, the crude stone furniture from the neolithic settlement Skara Brae) whereas wood cannot. (in Skara Brae it is assumed that drift wood was also used for furniture and boats etc, but how do we know for sure?)

Whereas in furniture from more recent periods, say from the Renaissance to the 19th century, aesthetics and cultural significance must play a larger role than mere material robustness in helping furniture survive….. or do they? Perhaps with wooden furniture, wood being a more age susceptible material compared to ceramics, for example, strong construction plays a very larger role in survivability as a compensation for a weaker material. (I have noticed that my grandmothers old chair that dates form the Georgian period seems very solidly constructed, even though we are forbidden to sit on it).

And while it appears that furniture from the middle ages up to the Tudor period in England is made from heavy duty oak, is it not possible that this is a reflection of the ability of their design to survive i.e, is much of the antique furniture that goes up for auction around the world merely representative of the more robust furniture of its period? Or instead, is it that restoration plays an important part and the pattern of its application is based on factors related to aesthetics and cultural significance? In other words, can a fragile chair have as much chance as surviving the centuries as a robust chair, if the fragile chair has greater charm and better attracts instances of repair and restoration? (One example is the Jenson chest of drawers in Kensington palace, restored with non-original turned legs.)

Another factor that comes into play, is ubiquity. Popularity leads to high levels of production in turn helping the style or design survive, even if the majority of each example perish. On the other hand, some highly unique items (such as the Phaistos Disc) have survived despite being (seemingly) one of a kind objects. How does the uniqueness of an object affect its value and preservation?

I think this especially interesting in cases where the object is not intrinsically valuable from its materials, (unlike say, ancient Roman jewellery) but from other less tangible factors. Sometimes this value is mysterious, and if it remains so then the mystery around the object itself becomes an important quality (Voynich Manuscript).

Esoteric objects can also be ubiquitous and mysterious (such as the Scottish carved stone balls from the neolothic period). Can the case of these last examples be linked to contemporary design that also seeks to perplex (Codex Seraphinius)?

Concerning preservation; a fair number of archaeological finds have been in royal tombs, preserved underground and by the prohibition of trepass. Does this therefore mean that the archaeological records convey royal and upper class design disproportionately to those from the common classes? Is this always true? Even nowadays its fair to assume that qualties such as expense and the wealth of the owner must help to protect an object from factors affecting the common classes (less permanent residency, wealth fluctuation, lack of storage space etc. What is the complete range of these sociological factors? Off topic, but how much can it be said then that the history of design is the history of the possessions of the wealthy or ruling classes? (In Edward Lucie Smith’s book Furniture, A Concise History, almost all of the still existing furniture illustrated is from royal or church contexts.)

How can function improve or impair the the survival of an object? I guess the real issue here is whether an object has a basic archetypal function and therefore resilience to changing uses (most common furniture?), or has the ability to adapt to changing uses. I don’t have any examples of the latter yet, and maybe examples are few? In the medievil period when kings and landowners would were partly nomadic and moved from castle to castle, furniture consisted of those that were light and mobile, and those that were immensely heavy or built into interiors and could be safely left in place (example of the latter can be seen in some suriving castles.) (One interesting example is the heavy turned wood chair in Hereford Cathedral, which is assumed to have been part of a matching interior which has since been destroyed. The furniture survives but the interior it was attached to for protection, did not.)


It cannot be doubted that aesthetic choices and refinement play a part in acceptance and continuation of an object in the short term, but how exactly in the long term? Could it be, considering the cycles of fashion, that all the other factors above themselves set the aesthetic climate, contributing to the popularity of certain aesthetics and even causing the re-birth of older styles? This is probably a chicken or the egg type situation, but it may indicate that because aesthetics change frequently over time, aesthetics have little influence on the survival of an object except where it influences other more practical factors such as material or construction choices. On the other hand, it could be said that the aesthetics of an object are important in the long term because it can place them in relationship to a “grand narrative” or tradition of object design within a culture that in turn achieves a continual popularity (one example of this may be the sella curulis x-type folding stools of ancient Rome, which has precedent in earlier Egyptian and Greek forms, and which developed into post-Roman versions such as the 7th century Dagobert chair, and then into many contemporary forms.)

Cultural Significance:
This last example leads us to the subject of cultural significance. Can it be argued that while initially the function and beauty nature of the ancient x-type folding stool led to popularity, its continual development throughout history owes more to its historical essence? Is it that the popularity of the Barcelona ottoman lies not so much in its graceful curves but in its reference to the archetypal folding stool? So that its reflects not just the aesthetics of modernism but the whole of western design history; a tangible link between ancient and modern forms?

The desire to preserve the past in the object of the present is seen in the extreme example of the Ise Jingu shrine in Japan; every 20 years since the 7th century the shrine and its contents are rebuilt identically. For a few months during the ritual, k
nown as Shikinen Sengu, two shrines stand, twinned and identical in appearance, until the old is demolished. The same is true for more than 1000 holy objects and garments that populate the shrine. The design of the shrine and these objects therefore remains unchanged for 1300 years.

In the western sphere, there are many examples of architecture older, but they fall into ruin at one stage or another, though the materials of rock and stone prevent complete destruction. However, in the west the ruin has a nostalgic value.

Is it that this perception of ruin is intrinsic because of the associated values of age and history? (Comparatively, the Ise Jingu remains ageless in appearance). Can these associated values be exploited in smaller objects which normally have much shorter life spans? If so, how can this quality of being historical via ruin be communicated without structural dysfunction?

It is now well on the way to the end of the trimester, and I now have designs and models to assess. Some of these I won’t discuss here, and instead show at finals, but its interesting to look ideas and experiments have worked and have not worked.

To start with, I produced a design that attempted to rescale the monolithic. The Egyptian pyramids, the ultimate monolith, is possessed of a sacred nature. But my own experiment in tiling tetrahedrons at minute scale created a landscape of the profane, a grip tread less attractive than diamond plate. Is it the change in scale or the repetition or both that produces this (unwanted) effect? Is simple geometry monolithic at large scale but banal at small scale (witness the dice)?

Or is it that the miniature require complexity to become sacred? When I introduced a fractal style recursion, a growth of smaller and smaller tetras from their skin, the forms became more interesting but still lack any sense of being subliminal, simply because, I believe, the basic element remains unchanged.

On the other hand I recently discovered the beautiful and tiny forms that can be produced by the actions of magnets on ferrofluid, which is an oil filled with iron particles and thus magnetically reactive. In some ways these landscapes resemble the tetrahedral patterns I modeled in Rhino a few weeks before, but are far more sensory. Is this because they are actual rather than virtual? Is the transformation from an ordinary liquid to a strange geometry, and the movement involved, that makes it so absorbing of attention? Or is the the subtle complexities and randomness of the structural repetition? I ask myself again: does the miniature require complexity to become sacred?


In the case of my family of chairs, it is perhaps the opposite. At the smallest scale we witness an inability to contain detail due to the thickness of material. At the same time, the thickness of the material becomes structural and defines the aesthetic form. At the other end of the scale, with the larger, thinner chairs, this structure becomes merely decorative and its structural purpose is obsolete like a vestigial organ. These characteristics when seen together in all the chairs have the ability to communicate information about their context and family relations. And this is not just conjecture; to test this idea I produced an online survey and sent it via Facebook. The first page of the survey included a picture of the individual chairs at an equal scale i.e all the same size or 1:1. A few pages later the chairs were shown again, this time in relation to one another. Both times, users were asked to rank the chairs and comment on what they did or did not like about them.

The survey can be accessed at this address:

Out of the 30 or so answers I have received back so far, a large number of users understand that the relationship between the chairs i
s more than just aesthetics decisions of weight and form, but an expression of a genetic code…. but only after they had seen them in context together. Then the majority of users change their opinion and rank the chairs differently; Chair E, the fat little baby, disliked when shown at 1:1, becomes popular when shown dwarfed by his relations. His immaturity as a chair is assessed alongside his potential as a chair.

When discussing this smallest chair, I can say that the material which binds all the chairs together is best expressed at its smallest scale because its lack of ability to function as a sheet material makes its presence overt. As an individual, it is anomalous. Just as a baby is representative of the full grown adult it shall become, packaged in the same material of skin, blood and bone, but at distorted scale. A giant baby may be monstrous, but at its naturally tiny scale, a quality manifests itself: cuteness.

A Definiton of Sacred

| November 26th, 2008

Notes from my meeting with Erna Beumers on the 17/11/08.

During my meeting with Erna she drew attention to my continual use of the words sacred and profane in my abstract and research analysis. The simple reason is that this is because intuitively I feel they are the words that best express the kind of design I want to produce. Design that is uplifting and worthy of pause for contemplation. Design that can be sublime, in its original meaning.

But, sentiment aside, what is the nature of sacredness? What and where are sacred things and places and what are their purpose?

My feeling is that I want to define sacredness apart from religious definition. Of course sacredness is intrinsic to religious practices; the placement of the crucifix about the bed, or the the Buddhist habit of placing a shrine to ancestors somewhere in the house. But can this be compared to the sacredness of a a bookshelf, should the books on it be cared for properly and treasured for what they represent. Is the secular sacred truly sacred?

The example of Minoan artifacts is an interesting example; due to a lack of surviving sources archeologists are unsure about the status of ceramics and pottery discovered. Some are found in sacred caves and assumed to be use in religious services, however others are found without geographic context. Yet these are still perceived as being sacred, and at the least are treated this way in the present day; their sacredness is manifest by their extreme age and beauty.

In the case of the Phaistos Disc (above), an object of beauty and curiousness, we may be dealing with something as banal as a market sign or a board game, but its language has yet to be deciphered, so we may never know. In this cloud of uncertainty, the Phaistos Disc is perceived by default as having a spiritual power. Sacredness as defined by age, beauty and mystery.

Mystery also plays a part in the contemporary value of the Voynich manuscript (below), and the Codex Seraphinianus (above), although centuries separate their origins. The two books are encyclopedic in nature but are written in code and detail plants and exotic human activities. The case of the Codex is easier to fathom, produced in the 1970’s by an Italian designer who is still alive, although unwilling to discuss this work. It is reasonably assumed that the Codex is written in purposely random script, and therefore not actually written. The beauty and strangeness of the illustrations that beg for explanation are what keep most readers intrigued. Still, sporadic attempts are made to decipher the text too, in part because the page numbering was recently “decrypted” and discovered to be a form of base 20 numbering.

However, the Voynich Manuscript (also here)was produced in the 15th century in a script that has repeatedly withheld interpretation by some of the world’s best cryptographers, while passing statistical tests that show the book is written in some kind of language.

At their most profane, the Voynich manuscript may be a (highly) elaborate hoax, the Codex Seraphinianus, an adolescent preoccupation. The Phaistos disc, more or less consequential than some archaeologists desire. But the point is that sheer amount of critical analysis that has gone towards decoding these books places them into another category altogether, that of the anomalous object. This is a category for those objects that intrigue, mystify and overwhelm us with their individuality. The force us to feel the fragility of our own comprehension and move us towards the sublime. They are objects that can be defined as “secular sacred”. This is the domain of crypto-archaeology.

Another topic to investigate, should there be time…
The Sacred Represented by the Void:
The Calvinistic practice of stripping churches of ornament, and the Shinto sand-gardens which define space by the absence of objects.

Fumihiko Maki Metabolist system of urban design breaks down the structure into 3 areas.
compositional form – individual elements that mold and adapt to the next level of megastructure:

megastructure – a larger network of forms that give unify compositional form and create shape and pattern:

and group form, a system of megastructure linkages that create dynamic and flexible urban tapestry, or in this case, tiling:

Some thoughts after reading Rem Koolhaas’ S,M,L,XL

In the margins of Rem Koolhaas’s book S,M,L,XL, is a kind of dictionary, a collection of quotes from, I assume, various sources headlined under a single word in bold capitals. For example:

SCALE: …. working with scale puts you in a an almost god-like position…. you can hold a piece of turf in your hand, or a house, and you can plant it somewhere, or you can crush it, smash it. ” p. 1114

Working with scale models can be seen as a metaphor for our constructive and destructive nature. Elsewhere in S,M,L,XL, Koolhaas discusses the daughter of a client who has commissioned a house from him. The house takes so long to build that the daughter grows up and Koolhaas wonders, “…how would she inhabit the house that she had destroyed – accidently – as a model, when she was seven.” (p. 135)

This duality of creation and destruction is evidenced in the urban planning of Singapore, a UN approved plan to construct “New Towns” around the island, connected by a central ring road. The dictatorial government took on the challenge to bring Singapore into the 20th century with enthusiasm and boldly made a tabula rasa, a blank slate, on which to build, destroying jungle and shanty towns alike in order to produce hundreds of identical housing blocks.

Pragmatism was the rule and while much can be said about the lack of humanity expressed by the design aesthetics, the building program is successful and people became better off terms of general well-being. I lived in Singapore fr 6 years as a teenager, and remember well the take off and landings from Changi Airport; the island, tiny from the sky, laid out like a circuit board, the repetition of housing blocks like rows of soldered microchips.

Better techniques for urban planning can be seen in the context of Japan and the Metabolist movement . Koolhaas discusses Fumihiko Maki system of breaking down the tapestry of the city into 3 areas; compositional form, megastructure, and group form. Compositional form is the domain everyday architecture and while it can be beautiful and inspiring, it can also be ugly and banal. Either way, it is subjugated to megastructure in Maki’s context – being the large frame and the domain of urban planning. Grid systems, roads and highways, and other large structures. But there is also group form, which is a macro form arising from the interaction of compositional form and megastructure over larger areas and expressed through the application of linkages; built in linkages to connect and harmonise discrete architecture, and larger open linkages to to connect expanding urban areas together. (p 1045 and p. 1049)

The difficulties with the Singaporean plan of the New Towns, is that the compositional forms, the (non)individual apartment blocks, are designed by the pen of those who also designed the highways and other megastructures. Lacking variation they are unable to link in any meaningful way to produce a dynamic or flexible group form. This is probably a consequence of three factors; autocratic planning, fast delivery, and the erasure of history that accompanies the creation of the tabula rasa in the programs beginning.

In fact, the program and Singapore itself becomes defined by its origins and the abilities of the her government to create this blank state and rebuild again at will. It is expressed again and again overs the decades; it is manifested legally by a law enabling the government to appropriate property without consent of the owner, and in practice is a method to give momentum to financial and economic factors. Is it also reaction against the the fear of an endlessly encroaching jungle? Koolhaas argues it is. But in fact, the onslaught of development is itself akin to the relentless fecundity of the jungle. Despite meager protests to the destruction of wilderness and traditional villages it continues, and creates an insecure feeling of permanence:

“The curse of the tabula rasa is that, once it is applied, it proves not only the previous occupancies expendable, but also each future occupancy provisional too, ultimately temporary. This makes the claim to finality – the illusion on which even the most mediocre architecture is based – impossible. It makes Architecture impossible.” p. 1075

The threat of the blank slate is placed all our products, architecture and all creation nowadays and promotes the construction of temporary design. This is the legacy of modern
ism and of complete and total design. It is the context from which cradle to cradle is derived, and the playing field for the design of the vast majority of consumer products. After the 20th century and the creation of the bulldozer, and its equivalent for product design, the landfill, it is taken for granted that function inevitably decays and can only be restored through re-designing and re-making from from scratch again.

The story of goldilocks and the three bears is an interesting tale dealing with notions of scale and privacy. Goldilocks, usually depicted as a pretty young blonde girl, the perfect representation of innocence, discovers an empty house one morning in the woods. Inside she discovers 3 differently sized bowls of porridge (eating the smallest), 3 differently sized chairs (sitting in, and breaking, the smallest) and 3 differently sized beds; tired from her porridge eating and chair breaking activities, she falls asleep in the smallest bed, finding it “not to hard” and “not too soft”. Unbeknownst to her, the house belongs to a family of bears; Papa, Mama, and Baby Bear, who were out for a morning walk while waiting for their freshly cooked breakfast of porridge to cool down. Upon returning to their home they discover the food eaten, their furniture damanged and the angelic little Goldilocks asleep in Baby Bear’s bed. They promptly wake her up, and according to the original version of the tale, eat her.

The story deals with several themes, foremost being the respect of privacy. But the story uses several other themes in its narrative before arriving at its final message, namely the representation of scale, access and preciousness of the miniature. Each of the bowls, chairs and beds are described in relation to one and other, often in detail, yet it is always the smallest of the three that Goldlilocks chooses. This is because the larger objects represent the monstrous – the larger bowls of porridge are too hot and burn her tongue, the larger chairs are too high and too empty to be confortable, and the larger beds alternately too hard or too soft. The fact that she consumes all three smallest items, by eating, breaking and defiling, depicts the vileness of her crime; she trangresses in turn the represenation of the miniature as the precious, the fragile and the sacred.

And at the end we have a hero inversion, the angelicly portrayed Goldilocks exposed and is eaten for her transgressions. The poor victimised family of bears show their teeth and attack as animals. Beware young children, respect the privacy of others and appearances can be deceptive.

My First Chair

| November 12th, 2008

This is the interim results from a workshop I am doing with Dick van Hoff; the task is to take an old chair and rebuild the leg structure from 6mm steel rod. Unwilling to destroy a perfectly good chair, I chose an old and broken chair that was floating around the studio. With loose joins and a missing slat it was time it needed a makeover.

When set a task such as to design “~some kind of structure~” with a an arbitrary material, I find that a vast array of design choices appear. The act of choosing a formal decision, making a path through the cloud-like chaos of the possible, is dependant on the material properties, but providing the material is flexible enough in application, an almost infinite number of directions are possible. This negotiation some designers find easy, those that rely on their own (often largely pre-determined) aesthetics to generate form, and some designers find it hard, those that require singular and unique concepts to shape an object. I am more in the latter group of designers, and finding myself needing some kind of motivation to create a form for this project, I chose this idea itself as the concept. So the iron framework that crackles belows the amputated chair top, is a form representing the the array of possible directions that one can take when making form. Which becomes a kind of paradox because the final form is itself the result of a finite direction – a functional structure based on somewhat rational formal decisions. Therefore it also represents not just the conceivable but the applicable. This is a relationship of pairs ~conceivable vs realisable~ / ~chaos vs structure~.

And below is the chair as it used to be, moments before dissection in the workshop.

Abstract revision…..

| November 3rd, 2008

In the past, large architectural structures were possessed with a spiritual power representative of their iconic and rare status. Similarly, very small historical objects such as jewellery and miniature books held a special place of importance due to the time, care and techniques needed to produce them. However, the contemporary era is one where the special context of these objects has been lost and similarly the processes required to produce them are ubiquitous. The sense of sacredness and focal purpose of large structures has been reduced by the democratization of construction. And in turn, the trend for miniaturization in electronics has produced an array of tiny yet profane and meaningless products. In spite of this, many objects from the past still exist today and possess values that ensure their continuation, and these objects will be studied for characteristics which relate to the human scale. In contrast, the contemporary situation is one where our relationship to human scale has been changed by living in an information society. Far distances can now be accessed immediately via technology, and much of our time is spent in a digital world where human scale is an abstract quality, and this effects the value we place on real world objects.

This research attempts to understand the sense of scale, defined as an objects size in relationship to our human senses, inherent in sacred and profane objects. A focus will be on products that mediate the human scale in a tangible sense, for example, furniture that reminds us of human height, width or weight. Objects that address optical and perceptual scale or distance shall also be explored, in order to show that that human scale is not just centred on the body but extends outwards to include many human senses. Finally, these topics will be analysed in the context of a specific method of sustainability, being the design and production of meaningful and long-lasting objects.

Before I rewrite my abstract in response to feedback from Bas Raijmakers and the other M+H mentors, I want to quickly outline some new directions of research I discovered in the build up to the mid-terms.

Antiques and Antiquities:
One of the comments made at mid-terms is the use of the phrase “long-lasting” in my abstract. Indeed, in my introduction to my verbal presentation, I mentioned my disappointment with modern consumerism and the obsolescent design it engenders in the manufacturing industry. One of the problems (or benefits depending on your perspective) in the currently vogue “Cradle to Cradle” mentality is that as long as materials are recycled correctly, endless re-making of products is considered sustainable and in fact desirable to promote industrial economy and technological change. For all the advantages of the system Braungart and McDonough have detailed, I don’t subscribe to that viewpoint, even if (solar) energy was freely available without cost. Rather, I see the way forward is to produce timelessly functional and resilient products that survive for far longer than the time spans envisioned by contemporary manufacturers. The purpose is to not only reduce the energy required for redesign and remaking, but also to create a communication channel to the future; a strengthening of design tradition. In the same way we are informed by the antiquities of the past, we must inform the generations after us in order to give stability to the cultural zeitgeist.

And so I imagine my investigation into the characteristics that help antiques survive over centuries will cover both practical considerations such as production and functional qualities, as well as less tangible aspects such as cultural significance, rarity, collectability, preciousness and future utility.

Images above are of a three legged sugar bowl by silversmith G.L. Connell, dated 1937. Below, an illustration of the Elkington and Co. showrooms, from the 19th century.

Deformations of the natural proportions of figures in historical sculptures and objects:
Many artifacts, if not most, from history use non-standard proportions for human figures, such as seen in this fascinating Aztec obsidian vase.

The Venus figures of pre-historical Europe are interesting, because having little historical context for archeologist to investigate, the reasoning behind the form is impenetrable.

One theory is that the form of these figures, such as the Venus of Willendorf above, represents a pregnant women’s own body from her own perspective, that is, looking down at her own body. So her breasts are massive and her toes tiny or non-existent in the distance. In a time before mirrors and unable to see her own face, her head is morphed into the form of a plant or vegetable, a representation of the woman’s own burgeoning fecundity.

The Nasca Lines, and other curiosities of the region:
The Nasca Lines, geoglyphs dug into sand and rock in a plateau of the Andes, are an example of the sacred and gigantic. While researchers cannot agree on their meaning, religious purpose is assumed.

Some of the most famous Nasca geoglyphs:

– The Spider, approximately 46m long,
– The Monkey, 55m long,
– The Guanay (guano bird), 280m long,
– The Lizzard 180m,
– The Hummingbird, 50m long,
– The Killer Whale, 65m long or
– The Pelican – the largest of them all – at 285m long.

And the mystery of the Nasca extends outwards to some other weird stuff relating to scale; nearby, giant deformed skulls were dug up by archeologists in the 1830s. Its believed these skulls were “designed” by binding the heads of infants, and that they were considered beautiful. In addition, the eventual inhabitants of this area, the Inca, who conquered the Nasca around 600AD, had a their own “profane giant” myth. According to Royal Commentaries of the Incas the legends refer to a coming of giants from across the ocean. At first they were peaceful and concerned with engineering their own survival in the new lands, but eventually grew restless and began terrorizing their smaller neighbours, the Inca. Womanless, and finding the Inca women too small for their purposes, they engaged in sodomy, openly, in plain sight of the Inca and their gods, until they were eventually struck down by the these gods for their profanity, freeing the Inca from tyranny.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome:
This syndrome is described by Wikipedia a neurological symptom causing object to appear larger than they are in relation to one’s own body (macrophasia) or smaller (microphasia). Its usually a symptom of migraine headaches, or a few kinds of more serious viral diseases. And of course, psychdelic drugs.

On a broader note, the Alice in Wonderland stories are ripe subject matter for discussing scale; at a surface reading I see it as Lewis Carrol’s exploration of a “god complex” – that is, Alice’s shrinking negates her divine status as a giant, and given its context as a childrens book, this divinity is related to child-parent relationships, and therefore the miniature becomes a metaphor for childhood.

The scale of perceptual distance changing in the modern era:
Some of my scale research so far has involved distances of perception, or the scale of perceptual distance. Mostly in terms of optical effects, but a deeper understanding of this concept can be seen in the writing of French theorist Paul Virilio. In his book Open Sky, he discusses it in the context of the information society, much in the same way that John Thackara laments our loss of intimacy with locality in the age of information networks; 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 in-substantiates the very value of their distance. The human point of view derived from the our physical relationship to the natural world is now changing rapidly and he asks, do we need a grey ecology to match our green ecology? From my point of view the question is, how can objects mediate this loss of human scale in a technological society?

In addition to the graphics I presented for my research question and abstract (in the previous post), for the midterms I also presented an intuitive response to my research topic in the form of a model and a graphic.

The graphic, on the right above, was a silhouette image of “Natalie”, a fictional character also known as “the Miniature Killer” – a poor girl who murdered her sister at a young age by pushing her out of a tree house.

“…When Natalie looked down from the treehouse at chloe lying dead, the scene looked to her like a model, like a doll’s house. It was the first of her murders, and the only one she did not recreate in miniature.”

The graphic was produced using CMYK patterns that blur or mix when we view the image from enough distance – so the colors above appears as a slightly patterned greyish shade of soft red, purple and yellow pastels. But when you move closer to the graphic…

…we see that the patterns is actually produced from smaller silhouettes printed in in bright shades of 100% cyan, magenta and yellow. This is actually a references to classic CMYK rosette printing (halftoning); the optical effect is actually produced by the limitation of our vision in discerning discrete colors which mix in our eyes and brain to produce a greater range of shades and colors. My concern here was to create a metaphor for the differences a range of perceptual scales can produce.

Likewise, the model intends to confuse by combining visual devices we attribute to different scales. The use of nails in architectural practice has been used to represent people at 1:100 scale….

This perspective is re-enforced by the temple aspect of the design; from the lower viewing port we can look up to see Natalie as a giant statue, from the same angle as the nails.

But from the higher viewing port we look down to see her as a little doll, trapped inside a confusing dollshouse. At this scale we can see her for what she is, a doll of a little girl, at 1:6 scale.

…whereas in other viewpoints the model can be seen at 1:1. At this scale everything is blunt; the model is simply made from wood and paint and the nails are just nails…

…or stretch our imaginations towards the scale of 1:500, and see the model as a towering monolith.

A PDF of my midterm graphic detailing my research question, abstract and research plan can be downloaded here.

Mid-Terms Submission

| October 24th, 2008

In the past, large architectural structures were possessed with a spiritual power representative of their iconic and rare status. Similarly, very small historical objects such as jewellery and miniature books held a special place of importance due to the time, care and techniques needed to produce them. However, the contemporary era is one where the special context of these objects has been lost and similarly the processes required to produce them are ubiquitous. The sense of sacredness and focal purpose of large structures has been reduced by the democratization of construction. And in turn, the trend for miniaturization in electronics has produced an array of tiny yet profane and meaningless products. This research attempts to understand the sense of scale, defined as an objects size in relationship to our human senses, inherent in sacred and profane objects. A focus on the creation of everyday functional products with a medium size, such as furniture, is envisioned, in applications that attempt to improve the value of objects in their human context.

Research Question:
How can an understanding and subsequent manipulation or application of scale be harnessed to create meaningful and long lasting objects?

Bibliography and Inspirations:
On Longing, by Susan Stewart
S, M, L, XL, by Rem Koolhaus/AMO
Various academic articles on scale and proportion, here and here.
Tara Donovan, American artist (see previous post)
The underwater world and the changes it makes to the perception of scale, (see previous post).
Miniature books and architecture of antiquity: pyramids, statues, castles and temples, (see previous post)

The architecture of Rem Koolhaas and OMA

Etore Sottsass and other Memphis designers

Artists and designers who use alteration of scale in their work, such as Jamie Hayon, Studio Job, Jeff Koons and Claes Oldenburg.

Appropriations of one scale into another…

Daguerre’s Diorama

People Research Plan:
Scientific Methodology:
“Interactions with Scale Models” experiment. This experiments seeks to compare human interactions with the same object but in different sizes. It proposed to produce scale models of an object or environment in many different sizes and to encourage subjects to use or play with each sizes in turn. With the use of a video camera and post-activity interviews it is hoped to either gain some understanding of how size affects behaviour and perceptions, or to discover some kind of conceptual design inspiration. My initial idea of what to produce for this experiment is some kind of simplified doll’s house or diorama, possibly containing only one room, and something I could build at common scale ratios such as 1:6 (playscale used by modern toy companies) 1:10, 1:24 etc as well as some very small scale such as 1:144 (doll’shouse for a doll’s house scale.) On the other end I can imagine that I could blow up parts of the room or objects from the room, such as a cup or plate, very large, to beyond human scale, 2:1, 5:1, and larger.

Intuitive Methodology:
An interview with Job Smeets and/or Nynke Tynagel of Studio Job, whose recent work has involved alterations of scale.
Interviews with people of extreme tallness or shortness, such as a person with dwarfism, although talking to anyone with on the far ends of human height scale would be interesting. The purpose of this is to see how they interact with the majority of everyday o
bjects being more or less out of scale with their own body. Children could be used for this study also, but as they grow their perceptions are only transitory. However I do plan to read the existing research on children and their sense of scale, and how it relates to toy and child furniture design.

Other Research, General.
Scale in different cultures: for example, craft objects in Africa that are enlarged for the tourist market. Scale in mathematics and geometrical transformations in different dimensions and spaces. Scale ratios used by toy makers and hobbyists: what are the percepual benefits and disadvantages of different scales in this limited context?

Illustration of Topic:
An overview mind map.

Kindergie Huis (Kids Energy House) is a prototype for a doll’s house that can educate children and parents about green architecture and sustainable living. The House includes toy-like features indicating solar panels and solar hot water heating, cross-ventilation, green walls and planter boxes and, of course, an iconic wind mill, in addition to other elements. These features are not meant to be purely representative, but are aspects for play and for promoting dialogue between child and parent.

The components for the the house can be flat packed, and are laser cut from a space filling template, reducing the amount of wood required. It can be constructed by child or parent easily via a notching system and without the use of glue. The packaging includes environmentally friendly paint, so the basic initial appearance of the house can individualised and given a unique identity. The design is modular and staircases and ladders, green walls, roofing and even entire floors are re-arrangeable, becoming movable elements with which to play. This is conceived as a metaphor for sustainability and flexible living.

This prototype was designed by Guy Keulemans, Rachel Baker, Winnie Kwok and William Hunter in response to a brief by Duurzaam Eindhoven, aimed at improving energy usage in the Netherlands from an outsiders perspective.

Scale: the Sacred and the Profane

| October 13th, 2008


In antiquity, the gigantic has been associated with the sacred. Religious monuments are large in proportion to the technics of the religious culture….. building churches, pyramids and giant Buddhas were the domain of the religious elite, designed to cow the masses with their fantastic scale.

Time to can also be used as an expression of the sacred giant; the karmic wheels of Hinduism roll around every 4,320,000 years (the Maha Yuga)….. a daunting time in which to consider a series of re-incarnations from gnat to dog to man. In many religions the God is expressed within the concept of the indivisible Infinite, the ultimate Gigantic . (and yet infinity can also be used to express the miniature, via the notion of infinitely small or the infinite fraction.)


Susan Stewart in “On Longing” describes the travels of Gulliver in Lilliput as becoming defined only by his body: “eating, drinking, defecating, sleeping and using his muscles are the sum of his social existence within the miniature world.” In this interpretation, even his death is considered with concerns for practicality instead of spirituality; the Lilliputans wonder, what shall become of his enormous mass? How shall it be managed? It is poor farmers that have to deal with his fecal waste and enormous hunger….. in Lilliput he is akin to a drunk playing with a doll’s house.

So too are gigantic structures becoming more profane. The democratization of building technology and the ubiquity of reinforced concrete has produced Mexico City, enormous prisons in America, and Disney World in France (Arizona Lewis Prison is above, via Google Earth). This is because man has mastered the building of the enormous. Construction is now in the realm of the profane. What was once a sacred task undertaken by the Church, Emperors and Kings is now handled by a multitude of financiers all around the world. Apartments in the tallest buildings of the world can be bought and sold as commodities…. Pyramids that were once perceived as the dwelling houses of the gods are now dwarfed by skyscrapers that house businessmen, and which indeed can be destroyed by a terrorists with simple means. How can these structures be pillars of the holy?


Just before and after the invention of the printing press, the European society was fixated on the miniature book. In the pre-printing days, monks and scribes would compete to produce the longest text in the smallest book. Bibles were the most popular subject, followed by calendars and almanacs. The modern day equivalent of the digital organiser? They had their antecedents in ancient stone tablets, as well as the micrographic pictures and decoration of Jewish and Arabic cultures, which prohibit God being expressed in anything other than writing.

The nature of God as reflected in design has become more focused on the minute. We have turned our attention to the tiny to re-invent the nature of godhead. …. atoms, quarks…. the origin of the universe are said to be told in the minute building blocks of the universe. The most extravangant theories of the universe have come full circle back to religion, as seen in the “theophysics” of Frank J Tiplers’ and David Deutsch.

(Frank J. Tiplers Omega Point theory is based on commonly understood laws of physics, but wildly proposes that the universe must enter a necessary and fundamental crunch point at the end of its life whereby the computational power of the universe will enable infinite simulations of all existing realities…. bringing back the dead and everyone and everything now living. Tipler sees this as the expression of the God-head, or Heaven.

Perhaps the new sacred artifacts are the particle collidors being built around the world to study dark matter and other phenomena?

(The recent news about the Large Hadron Collidor on the border of France and Switzerland had a ominous religious tone…. In response to news that the collidor would be turned on for the first time, possibly creating miniature black holes, the world news was plagued with headlines such “Are we all going to die next Wednesday?” (Daily Mail) and “Collider Triggers End of the World Fears” (Time) , culminating in a doomsday inspired suicide from a young girl in India. )


And lastly, the miniature is fertile ground for sweeping and deadly profanity. The bubonic plague, which wiped out half of Europe in the 17th century, is spread by bacteria in fleas on rats, a nice expression of regressing miniaturization. It is our fear of germs the fueled the hygiene explosion in the west and even the word dirt itself has its duel meaning of “soil”, an aggregation of small earth particles, and “unclean”.

In art does the act of miniaturization signal profanity? Miniature writing may be the result of religious dedication, but only when it is readable; micrographia is the progression to continually smaller and smaller writing, until so cramped and tiny as to be unreadable. It is a symptom of Parkinson’s disease and other mental illness. R. Crumb’s elder brother, who R. Crumb admits could write and draw with far greater skill than he at an equal age while young, began and never finished a sequential masterpiece which began with intricately looped drawings made with concentric circles….

…. and degenerated into scratch like markings for text, as he spiraled into mental illness. (Crumb, the movie by Terry Zwigoff, and Crumb Family Comics).

Tara Donovan

| October 2nd, 2008

This artist applies the kind of perceptual scale I talked about in this post, very beautifully. Her art is site specific and adapted to the the locations she exhibits, building up her work in the days beforehand. In explanation of the bio-mimicry seen in her work she explains,
“My work might appear ‘organic’ or ‘alive’ specifically because my process mimics, in the most elementary sense, basic systems of growth found in nature.”
She negotiates herself into a kind of non-conscious method of working, a semi-generative approach.

Mind Maps Workshop with Bas

| October 1st, 2008

A recent mind maps workshop was a succesful way for me to expand concepts and vision for my thesis topics.

For Futurology and Design, I envisioned a scenario in which their are two actions resulting from the study of the future. One is to use the knowledge to speed up society – predicting changing market demands and the need for new tools and gadgets. I believe this is the commonly understood use of futurology, and goes hand in hand with current economic models and the promotion of technological recycling. Speeding things up. On the other hand there is a big movement in design to slow things down, and futurology conceivably could be used to create long lasting products that withstand changing demands…. if more products are like this, and we ultimately need new products less frequently, wouldn’t the economy slow down? Sociological change itself would slow down, negating the need for futurology itself. The snake eats its own tail. For me this is a more interesting approach to using futurology in design.

Also important in the notion that the study of the future has historical antecedants; reading tea leaves, I-ching, and astrology et al. One can argue that these lack the scientific basis of modern future studies, but science itself is driving the need for futurology itself. What are the similarities and differences between futurology and these ancient understandings of the future?

Futurology must also be affected by culture. It is the drive for technological change, but technology is a manifest of culture and so cultural differences must in turn shape futurology. How do the Japanese perceive the future differently from Europeans?

For the topic of Scale, the mind map session was a nice confluence of ideas. First up was the idea that transformation of scale modify the form external to its quality ofscale. Shrinking highlights fineness, enlarging highlights grain. This is not true with scale independant digital technology (e.g vector software) but is always with representation of the object – on screen, or in manufacturing. Even rapid-prototyping machines must operate at a tolerance (currently around 0.25 to 0.05mm for common machines).

But is the quality of scale in an object theoretically infinite? Science is continually proposing and sometimes discovering smaller and smaller particles in nature. The building blocks of the universe, but usable will they be? Does the rabbit hole go down forever? I am reminded of a anecdote about some American researchers in the 1950’s. They engineered a tiny little drill bit, and assuming they had created they world smallest, sent it over to some Japanese engineers to show off. The Japs returned it with a hole drilled through its shank. I can imagine the way this drill bit must have been prepared and wrapped for postage. Smallness paradoxically a way to increase value in sometimes. Despite the reduction in material, small things convey technological prowess through the quality of fineness, and an aspect of fragility the is inverse to their size. Miniature dolls, stamps and micrographia.

I will now begin to read “On Longing” by Susan Stewart, subtitled, “Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection.”

One more insight: if visual perception is mediated by the distance between the viewer and the object, what are the scale of perception in other senses? How can touch, smell or hearing be affected by scale? Can a musical note have a grain only audible at a certain volume? What s smell? I guess the perception of grain is based on the volume of sensory input i.e the more you can see or sense the better you can perceive its detail. This is true for senses sensitive to changing levels of input… sight, hearing, smell, taste even. But what about touch? It a sense that is at once immediate and rigid to input…. you either touch it or you don’t. The area touched can be increased for more input….

…and “time” can be put into play to get a increasing sense of texture… we do these when we run our hands over the carpet. But sensing grain via touch is often used for adding the sense of grain percieved by vision. And for this there is little variation we can feel in the “volume” of touch. We either touch, or we don’t.

What do the super rich collect?

| September 29th, 2008

An article about the excesses of the super rich, and their spending and collecting habits.

Among frivolous purchases such as heated marble driveways and the collection of private airplanes, the super rich crave unqiue experiences and exclusivity. They want not just what no one else can have, they want what no one else can even conceive. Damien Hirst, personal shoppers and mega-yachts are discussed, as in an interesting travel agency going by the name of “earth” that organises exotic luxery holidays for a private clientele, invitation only.

And this is collecting, but also scale, and branding. Connect the dots.

The Rosetta Disk

| September 25th, 2008

Some more information about the Rosetta Disk – I was just reading here about how 5 prototypes have been produced, each containing the book of Genesis translated into more than 1500 world languages. Produced by the company Norsam, these translations are micro-etched on a a single surface at the back needing a x750 optical microscope to read clearly. This etching is so fine that to the naked eye it only appears as a diffraction rainbow, such as you see on a CD-Rom. The article doesn’t say, but I assume the etching was done by laser. What the article does say is the prototypes were produced by a nickel cast of a silicon mold – which I find unbelievable that a silicon mold could hold such detail…..

The choice of the book of Genesis seems strange, considering its ethnocentric bias, until you consider that it is the most widely translated text in the world, and was chosen for practicality. Although its does hold a sort of metaphorical meaning for this project. Lets just hope tour future descendants don’t take it literally, awed as they may be by our facilities in linguistics and silicon molding…..

The top surface of the dics si worth discussing; it shows a brief written introduction to the disc in the worlds main 8 languages, twisting together in rapidlly decreasing spiral. A fairly nice expression of the disc’s content. This top surface has been blackened for contrast, unlike the pure nickel micro-etched back.

For me this project has great resonance becuase of my previous undergraduate design, the Trinumeric Dice, inspired by the same source (the Rosetta Stone, below) and conceived for the same reasons. I produced it before the Rosetta Disc was prototyped, but after its documented conception, not that I had heard of it at the time, but you can’t always be first out of the gates.

Aluminium Door Knob

| September 24th, 2008

There is something soothing and graceful about a doorknob. I find them nostalgic, reminding me of a childhood playing in the rooms of adults. They are pleasurable on an aesthetic level due to their minimal form and, on an abstract level, their formal relationship to a room, as an intrusion, is succinct. However, door knobs are not so common anymore because they require more grip strength relative to door handles. Of course, doors must be universally accessible, especially in public buildings, but what about the home? Can routine day to day activities promote digital strength or dexterity? This idea is often mentioned when discussing the benefits of using chopsticks.

Regardless, the contemporary situation requires that the design of a door knob address this issue of grip, even if not directly striving for optimal ergonomics. My concept was simple. Design a simple and non-convoluted doorknob, but make it a little more grip-able.  With this design I used a simple lightbulb shape with the addition of a minimal yet tactile ridge that emerges around the bottom side of the doorknob, hidden from eye, but overt to the fingers. A helpful surprise for your hand as it turns to open the door.

Completed with the help of  Kyoko Hashimoto. Photographs by Aldo Bakker.

“The goal of forecasting is not to predict the future but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.” – Paul Saffo


+ what questions can we ask about the future and what predictions can we make?

+ how can this inform predictive design?

+ how can this inform non-predictive design, contemporary design, which still includes the perceptions of the future in its conception.

+ how can our fears and dreams for the future be addressed in object design.

+ given the rise of futurology studies and their increasing importance in technological industries, to what extent can a study of futurology help conceptual object designers working in the present. The idea is not to come up with wacky future products, but sensible contemporary objects that stand the test of time and the changing demands of future society. Although I should add that humour is important.

+ How will demand push practices – marketing, branding, advertising, etc change in the future and to what extent will affects product design,

+ How will demand pull – classic consumer demand, change in the future and ditto. Are consumers becoming more aware of product choice through the internet, or does just create a confusing and uncoordinated tapestry of information for the user….. perhaps creating the rise of meta-critics….(push demand)

+ to what extent can designers invest probabilities into their work….. how much can a forecast of 80% something or other becoming likely be invested into the object while still addressing the remaining 20% – – can futurology be a while in-building an insurance policy into the design of an object?

This could be a study about about the discipline of futurology within a theoretical framework: that of design. But, this is not a study of the future of design, though that is one logical path I could take. Importantly, for me it is not an investigation into possible future aesthetics to inform m own work, but a theoretical and conceptual base upon which to express my own aesthetic. A fine distinction I should break down more later.

Artifacts that position themselves as insurance against unknown futures:

Clock of the Long Now (10,000 year clock)

The Friars Astrological Clock, from the Clock Museum in Vienna.

The Rosetta Disk, part of the Rosetta Project nickel alloy disk with 1000 languages micro-inscribed. Inspired by the Rosetta Stone, as was my own design from 2003; “Trinumeric Dice”, below, featured numbers in 3 languages: indo-arabic, mayan, and binary.

The Long Bet Project

World’s slowest, longest concert: a long running music composition by John Cage in Halberstat Germany (Sankt-Burchardi-Church). There is a note change on November 2008

Jens Olsen’s World Clock or Verdensur

Thesis Topics: a list of ideas

| September 24th, 2008

Conceptual Design and Futurology, to be discussed here.

The Psychology of Collecting, as introduced via slideshow on the first day of school.

Design and Scale, as posted.

Digital Locality, a world where creators connect online and cultures form across geographic borders, how can we assess locality of culture? How does digital freedom of movement affect our relationship to physical geographical movement and what are the consequences for society and the environment?

Temporary Definitions of Design: 1

| September 24th, 2008

September 2008

Design is about achieving beautiful and useful synthesis. Nothing is created from out of thin air, it is a product of all that came before it – the combination of influences, skills, knowledge and art into a new formulation that serves a humanitarian purpose well is the highest ideal to which design can aspire.

after reading Enzo Mari, though not a quote or paraphase.

All object designers must at some point consider scale.

Scale is important both internally within an object and externally to its location and surrounding architecture.

Scale often exists in measurements and parameters that are based in old systems or technology, such as measurements such as the yard (distance of an old English King’s arm). Even newer and logically astute measurements systems force a rigidity onto design due to the acceptability of “round” numbers. What furniture designer works in fractions of a millimetre? This can be called the “grain” of a measurement systems.

In a purely digital environment, and increasingly in computer controlled manufacturing, these kinds of limitations are redundant…. models can be scaled, shrunk and enlarged at will. But to what extend do the internal proportions of an object need to adapt to fit the external environment or function? Font designers have known this for sometime, that serifs need to be thickened to improve readability at small sizes, and refined for large sizes. But can such techniques be applied to objects?

What extent to designers consider variations and perceptions of scale in nature as inspiration?

How can the perception of detail changing over distance be exploited for dramatic effect?

Dolls House Cup (Design by Scale) by Frontdesign
Garamond in different sizes by Adobe
Tropical zoanthid coral, Okinawa, seen from 5 different distances, photography by Guy Keulemans.

Work Emergency Solar Clock

| August 26th, 2008

Recently I have designed some unusual sundials that, instead of a clock hand shadow, use shadows of words and pictures to tell the time. The process was quite fascinating and this post is a little longer than normal because I want to detail some of the issues I faced with their design.

To start with; how do you design a sundial that tells the time without the use of a standard clockface? One way is to use shadowtext, as I have shown here using the words “Coffee” and “Lunch” to indicate the start and mid point of a typical office day. This was not so hard to construct virtually using extrusion and boolean functions in a 3D modeler. I thought the expression of the concept was quite good; a visual trope of John Thackara’s writing about “Clock Time” vs “Event Time” from the book In the Bubble.

This was fine in theory but I soon discovered that the effect would not hold up throughout the year as the sun changed its angle in the sky. So I set up a simplified model of a celestial sphere within a 3D modeler (Rhino) with lights to simulate the direction of the sun at different times of the year. I could then play around with creating a shape that could cast a similar and recognizable shadow from many different lighting directions. This proved tricky though when combined with my desire to preserve the mystery and abstraction of the shadow casting object so that its shadow could not be inferred from its shape.

One experiment, of many, intersected the second word, Lunch, across a stretched out portion of the first word, Coffee.

It was about this time that I discovered Maarten Baas produced a shadowtext sundial while also studying at the Design Academy Eindhoven several years ago; it displays the phrases such as “About 3pm” or “nearly four” in Dutch. From the only picture I could find of it, a 3D render in the graduation book of 2003, I could see that he came up against the same problem I did in my first design and that it could not work well during most of the year. He subsequently produced a second sundial that uses this as a feature by only displaying the shadowtext clearly at one specific time of year. Much in the same way many conventional garden sundial designers highlight anniversaries and other specific times of the year with various optical effects – this is not so hard (relatively) because it only requires predicting the angle of the sun in one position.

However, I wanted to create a sundial that addressed the challenge of a moving sun as much as possible. I moved onto the shadow casting of icons, a pre-emptive suggestion by my mentor Satyendra Pakhale. These renders show the shadow casting of the coffee mug and knife & fork icons; the nodus is adapted to cast them recognizably at different times of the year and it is reasonably robust, working most of the year except for the extremes of summer and winter.

I didn’t think that the visual effect was worthy of the original concept of Clock Time Vs Event Time, however, so I went in another direction. We have a fair number of Japanese students in my class at the Design Academy, and we often have discussions about the long office working hours back in Japan – to which I relate, having worked there myself for a few years as a graphic designer. Sometimes I feel we can be stricter with ourselves about not working overtime – something the Dutch are actually quite good at – shops close dead on 5pm here and its hardly a 24 hour culture. To express this I played around with the emergency exit symbol and at 5pm everyday it magically appears from out of an abstract shape cast upon the wall. It works most of the year and the shadow casting object itself is quite abstract so there is little chance of inference.

The full idea, yet to be produced, is that is made from lightweight foam and uses a suction cup to stick to an office window. I did, however, hand make a prototype from wood – a painstaking process that required splitting the 3D model into slices, laying them onto sheet MDF, cutting them out then glueing the shape back together. Its an analog of the stereolithography rapid protoyping process, but hardly very rapid.

Silver Toilet Brush

| April 26th, 2008

I designed this silver toilet brush during my last semester enrolled in the IM Masters course at the Design Academy Eindhoven….. somewhat of an ironic reaction to that program. Its a bit jokey, like my gold and rhodium cocktail straws, but like the straws, I hope, also beautiful and complex in meaning.

It was interesting to arrive at something so obviously meant for a luxury market after studying highly disposable plastic brushes and changing their form based on mainly a hygienic criteria. So this silver brush was designed to to create better hygiene conditions by expediting the processes of evaporation by exposing the brush head. It can also be disassembled for sterilisation and transport, and, importantly when considering the resulting visual effect, uses the properties of silver for the oligodynamic effect. This use of silver is therefore directed by a concern for hygiene not luxury or aesthetic design. But of course, it does then introduce new aesthetic considerations, and conceptually raises a conflict between disposability and luxury within the work.

..::Seducing the Bowerbird::..

| April 13th, 2008

Last week I finished co-designing the Seducing the Bowerbird lookbook, for jewellery designer Kyoko Hashimoto. Her new collection has been inspired by the nest-making abilities of the Australian native bowerbird, so the lookbook design features branchy lines and feather like graphics. Much fun.

Kyo and I also went out into the woods around Eindhoven to take some photos of the jewellery, modeled by our friends Esin, and, pictured here, Andrea and Simone from Formafantasma.


| March 29th, 2008

The second experiment in “repair aesthetics”. This time Martijn and I used small square “bandages” and a grid layout to map and repair the damage we inflicted on our model. We also duplicated the repair with wood tiles on another model, shown above. The final aesthetic is nice, but unsuccessful in communicating its process I think – unlike self-repair in animals (scars) or plants (see the monkey tree god for an interesting example of tree self-repair).


| November 21st, 2007

My research at the Design Academy is now focusing on the aesthetics of repair. To test out some ideas, I, collaboration with another masters student, Martijn Dijkhuizen , constructed this chair/table out of cardboard. We then smashed it with some large bricks (which was fun) and then carefully repaired it (which was surprisingly fun) so we could smash it again. And again. We apply strict rules to the repair process, and are repeating it several times to see what will eventuate. Its still ongoing and we will soon cut away the starting form to leave only the repaired sections. Here is the poster I designed to communicate the process.

And here are 4 images of the final chair, after being smashed and repaired 3 times. 2 of the shots are taken after we cut away the original form, leaving only the repaired sections. Actually, its pretty ugly in the end!

Stuart Walker Workshop

| November 7th, 2007

Here are the result of a workshop I just did here at the Design Academy with the designer and author Stuart Walker. The starting point for the workshop was to bring in old, but still working electronic goods, bought at second-hand shops or salvaged from the tip. We then had to figure out creative ways to re-contextualize or re-value those products. It was a pretty fun project, perhaps a little silly in some ways, but interesting because it promoted out-of-the-box type thinking.

I worked with my fellow student Hyuan-Taik Lim and mated an old AKAI radio receiver with an old Sony Cassette-Corder. One can receive radio and the other can record and play it back, but you can’t listen in real-time. An interesting ear-brain-memory-mouth relationship. We de-skinned the products and attached a light to create a shadow on the wall, which looked like…. a factory. For me this connected perfectly with my starting point and feelings about the AKAI receiver – a solid durable product made just prior to when the ethics of “built in obsolescence” took off in Japan and other countries. The black plastic decade.

My Mid-term “Manifestio”

| November 1st, 2007

So I am halfway through the first semester of my masters course at the Design Academy, and for the mid-term presentation I made a manifesto, actually I call it a “Manifestio” a source book for aesthetic criteria, set of “design instructions” for myself.

The introduction on the first page functions as an index, and the graphic I used underneath is a kind of “table of contents”. I like to think of it as a carpet.

The choice of corflute was inspired by a Frank Stella colorfield painting. That movement was very much about material “honesty” so I searched hard for a suitable binding method before realising I could “sew” the corflute (thanks Lim). I used a magnet to run the needle up and down the entire length of the page.

Underneath the book is a schematic of my brain, but that’s a secret.

You can download a PDF of the contents here.

Plastics and Petroleum Poster

| October 31st, 2007

I have recently begun the Masters program at the Design Academy Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, which so far has been very interesting. My current topic of research is new plastics such as bio-plastic, self-healing polymers etc. To refresh my knowledge of plastics as a whole, I produced this large poster presenting a broad overview of plastics and their origins (for most plastics) as a petroleum product.

Its a simple, informational poster. The mess of intersecting lines in the centre is used as a simple graphic device to suggest the complexity of polymer production, consumption and post-consumption – all of which contribute to the problem of plastic being tricky to reuse or recycle.

All the text is original and, though there is no referencing, the information is easily verifiable. Graphics are also my own, with the exception of the photographs and molecule diagrams, which are from Wikipedia and licenced under the GNU FDL, as is this poster.

More Anatomy of F stuff – heres the look book for the new collection by Kyo Hashimoto.

the Anatomy of F

| May 3rd, 2007

Here is a graphic treatment I did for Kyo’s new range “The Anatomy of F”. The model is Yuka from the Trippple Nippples

Kyo Hashimoto and I presented at Pecha Kucha Vol. 40 at Superdeluxe in Tokyo last month. Lots of fun. We spoke about the jewellery range “I Blame the Uni” and also presented some new work from the both of us including the series “Anatomoy of F” and the pendant “Jelly Monster” below.

This is a video of our presentation – it was filmed on a keitei though so the quality is pretty low.

bezoah pendant

| April 23rd, 2007

I had a really busy couple of months and I am afraid to say that getting real work done took precedence over blogging. But I am happy to post again for the first time since January, with some photos of a new jewellery design called Bezoah (usual spelling “bezoar” which is a type of hard secretion found in human and animal stomachs made form undigestable materal. One bezoar I had in mind when I designed this piece was the trichnobezoar, a kind of hairball very ocassionally found in the stomachs of young girls. But really the influences are multiple – hairballs, arteries, and especially ocean creatures, so the name Jelly Monster is very applicable.

The back side. Did you know bezoars were considered magical in the middle ages? And also hard secretons like bezoars and pearls are not just found in oysters and other animals but in plants as well, like bamboo?

Arterial sketches

| January 6th, 2007

mm. Haven’t posted for a while, so I just thought I would upload these drawings from my sketchbook. I think they might make ‘interesting but ugly’ jewellery. My influence was probably Chris Burns, the artist of Black Hole and El Borbah.

The thing keeping me the most busy recently has been my graphics and production work for my partner, the jeweller Kyo Hashimoto. We have just released the catalogue for her new series “I Blame the Uni”. Right now we preparing purchase orders for our stockists, which include Beyond the Valley in London, and Candy in Tokyo.

Photos of Nabe

| June 19th, 2006

Nabe from the Triple Nipples, a Tokyo based dance group. I took these with the camera on my mobile, a cheap camera that has a strange type of built in fuzzy compression. Yet I like the the ghostly quality that was captured. I don’t consider myself a photographer, don’t even have a proper camera, but I take photos constantly for reference. Sometimes they surprise me.

Pixels for Carpets

| April 20th, 2006

A little while ago I was reading about modern carpet production using automated Jacquard Looms. I decided to make my own patterns in minimal patterns suitable for the process. Linked is short movie of 18 of these patterns. I’m not sure if the technique I used to produce these designs has a proper name, but its similar to ‘granular synthesis’ as used in audio synthesizers; starting with a aperiodic tiling pattern as a base image , I then zoomed into small pixel sections, expanded and repeated them, and spun off new patterns as they emerged.

Finally got around to making a PDF of my honours thesis “Strategies for generative designers and the development and use of generative software tools.” Not really for casual reading that’s for sure, but it may be of worth a look if you are interested in generative design, evolutionary design or Rhizome Theory. The work of the following designers/artists is discussed; Marcel Wanders, Stephen Rooke, Richard Dawkins, John Frazer and Soddu & Colabella. Please note its 2.6 MB and might take a while to load.


| March 13th, 2006

Just for my own interest, I’ve been creating little animations using Illustrator. The animation is essentially generative as its controlled via variables (like stroke and skew) based on a simple mathematic formula. The beginning and end frames are not though, as I consciously design them. All the frames are generated individually unlike Flash animations. This is a bit of a hassle though, so until I write some Illustrator scripts they probably won’t be much longer than 4 seconds because after 99 frames I’m like this (@_@). The next step is to add color and camera fly-throughs in After Effects… when I have the time! Click on the little gifs above to see larger Quicktime movies.

Modern Life posters 2nd look

| February 19th, 2006

It’s pretty obvious I was reading Chris Ware when I did these.

Modern Life posters 1st look

| February 19th, 2006

To print these cheaply, I bundled them with another commerical job I was doing. For some reason I got paranoid that the printer would find the design offensive and I rang up very ready with apologies. The response was – “huh? why would I give a damm what was on the poster?”

Stencil Girl Brooches

| February 19th, 2006

Co-designed and built by Kyoko Hashimoto

The AMPED project

| February 19th, 2006

In 2004 I promoted a club night with Maxitone Studios at Q Bar in Sydney. It was rock based mainly, so I got this idea to create rough, raw posters and photograph them around town taped up on walls.
I find it pretty funny that one or two people to whom I’ve shown this image think its just a photo I took of a poster design, which it is of course, but don’t realise that the photo is the actual flyer and that the design of the poster on the wall is purposely meant to look rough and kinda crap (!).

Over several months the design of the flyers evolved with the use of cut-up technique.

Amped Promo Image - september

AMPED promo continued

| February 19th, 2006

Amped Promo Image - september

The AMPED project evolving.

A selection of object designs completed during my bachelor studies at the College of Fine Art.

The straws above are functional cocktail drinking straws made from sterling silver, gold and rhodium – an inversion of the materials and value we usually associate with plastic drinking straws – a theme I continue to work with (see the Silver Toilet Brush)

The Slashbox Modubes above are modular table/chairs that connect with hidden magnets. Each group of stark red minimalist cubes features one that is smashed on one side with an axe. The design was my first use of generative technique, and also wabi-sabi (for me the two are not unrelated). The working concept dealt with food i.e “what is really inside industrialised food?” and “what is the tension between natural and artifical food?”, but more broadly, the design contrasts the idea of uniformity and control with a feeling for the unique and chaotic.

The Big Fat Ring, from the a collection I made of “un-wearable jewellery”inspired by mathematical topology. This design, for example, is a shape that is homeomorphic with a conventional wedding band (or also a coffee cup), but whose hole is two small for the finger and whose body is too large for the hand.

This design is a lit, low table commissioned by an architect. The main feature is that the leg structure is “spongy”; the vacuum formed shell is bracketed by re-arrangeable steel legs cushioned by silicon rubber washers. This creates a soft interactivity – the glass table top has a slightly springy reaction to touch.


Trinumeric Dice, inspired by the Rosetta Stone, numbered in Indo-Arabic numerals, binary and Mayan numbers. My exploration in producing time-indestructible objects/tools. More recently this theme has been adopted by the Long Now Foundation, with their Rosetta Disk and Clock of the Long Now, among other projects.

Margot and Neville Gruzman Award

| February 19th, 2006

In 2002 I was commissioned to design this award and promotional poster for the University of New South Wales. I should point out that the full name of the award was later changed to the Margot and Neville Gruzman Award, by Gruzman himself,  to honour his wife, but after the award had been printed. Margot, not a big fan of architecture, probably did not mind too much.

| February 19th, 2006

An album design proposal for the band Bureaux, which eventually became Modern Life. I continued to design for them under their new name.

uBin .02 cd cover

| February 19th, 2006

one of my early commercial designs (1999), the cover for uBin’s debut album “.02”. I ended up co-writing some of the songs on their next album Star Lo.