Archive for Object culture

How does the Met keep their sculptures so shiny?

14 May 2009

With a swiffer! P&G couldn’t make a better ad if they tried.

Seriously though, there was something really joyful about seeing this no nonsense woman assiduously dusting stone abs and bronze buttocks as though they were furniture in someone’s apartment. This is a joy example that doesn’t bear many of the typical signals of joyful aesthetics—saturated colors, cuteness, youth, play, or nostalgia. In fact, just the opposite, here is an instance of work, and not just any work, but manual labor often considered drudgery, seeming joyful. Why?

It hinges on the pleasurable disruption of expectations. The expectations here are unconscious, stemming from the conventions of a museum. In a museum, the boundary between art and viewer is a sacred line. We can look, but not touch. To see someone so matter-of-factly breaching such a barrier jars you out of your normal experience and diverts your attention.

So it’s a noticeable disruption, a departure from the ordinary. But why is it joyful? First, the idea of touching the sculptures is appealing, and it appeals to the unfiltered, tactile inner child in all of us. Children always seek to touch as part of their sensory experience, and it’s only as adults that we learn to control that desire. So watching someone touch the sculptures connects us to our own desire to do just that, and the sensation is something we imagine as pleasurable. (This is well-trod territory, cf. “Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” among others.) Second, there is the fact that most of us never think about the cleaning of the artworks in a museum. We assume that they must get cleaned, but that it’s probably done off-hours, at night with special high-tech cleaning instruments. So the second joyful aspect, beyond the breaking of the touch-barrier, is that it reveals something normally hidden to us, and reveals it to be contradictory to our assumptions. The revelation of hidden aspects of things is naturally pleasurable to us (think voyeurism, or The Discovery Channel) as it satisfies our natural curiosity.

But the kicker is the juxtaposition between the glossy, venerable sculpture and the mundane household cleaning tool with the faintly silly name. The swiffer is a complete oddity in a museum, and that contrast is ironic and enjoyable.

The best part of all this is how it then gets encoded into memory. I don’t think I’ll ever look at that sculpture again without imagining this matter-of-fact woman and her swiffer, and having a little smile at the memory. And I think the Met will always be a little more joyful now that I’ve had a funny little peek into its hidden side.


4 February 2009

I have been thinking a lot lately about how much i love this city. So of course I loved Christoph Niemann’s LEGO homage to the big apple.

Design and desire

30 January 2009

Last Sunday the New York Times ran a fascinating cover story called “What do women want?” on a group of female researchers who are trying to understand what ignites female lust. It’s a really diverse treatment of the subject, with theories ranging from intimacy to narcissism, all explored through robust clinical studies.

My particular interest in the piece relates to the arousal-sensing dress I’m working on as part of my biodynamic clothing project. The premise of the project is for the garment to sense when the (female) wearer is aroused and to move in response. My original framework was based on an internal/external model, where the goal was to take an internal emotional state and project it outwards onto the “skin” of the body, much like a peacock or any of a series of other animals. Using that construct, it seems most plausible to use light or some other display technology to communicate the output. But all along I’ve really had my mind set on using motion for the output, a decision that has created numerous design opportunities, as well as many obstacles.

Reading the article, a passage struck me that I believe illustrates another possible framework for viewing the movement aspect of the garment. In this section, the author is explaining a theory relating to the disconnect between female test subject’s subjective self-evaluation of their arousal and the physical biodata, and a contrasting tendency in men.

The penis is external, its reactions more readily perceived and pressing upon consciousness. Women might more likely have grown up, for reasons of both bodily architecture and culture – and here was culture again, undercutting clarity – with a dimmer awareness of the erotic messages of their genitals.

Motion, then, is indicative of a totally different construct – that of a leveling between men and women. Female arousal, as the article makes plain, is mysterious and often impossible to detect. Arousal in men is, by contrast, apparent, and its mode of expression is through motion. Therefore it is natural to imagine that a prosthesis (for clothing is prosthesis, at its root) depicting female arousal would also exhibit motion.

This passage also suggests to me a powerful justification for the arousal-sensing garment: to conceptually bridge the gap between mind and body for wearer and/or audience. The dress is not intended as a ready-to-wear piece – it’s an exploration into the power of technology to bring responsiveness and emotion to previously static products in our lives. But the idea of using technology to bridge this mind-body gap is very intriguing. One macro interest area for me in my work is the notion of how objects can transform our interactions with others. But perhaps this idea of biodynamic clothing could also hold potential for self-discovery, so that in the process of interacting with an object, you strengthen connections within yourself.

PS: As to why the graphic above, it’s the first pull quote from the article and I just really loved the type treatment!

Victoria Wilmotte: Domestic landscapes

8 January 2009

Another Surface magazine find: Victoria Wilmotte’s ceramic carafes from her domestic landscapes master’s project. According to the article, her goal was to create three-dimensional objects from two-dimensional drawings. Maybe something was lost in the translation of the article (isn’t that what designers do every day? translate drawings into form? or am I missing something?) but regardless I think the forms are really striking on their own and do create a sort of tabletop landscape.

Barbie world

29 December 2008

I learned a ton about Barbie while I was researching a presentation on Mattel a couple months back. For example, did you know that since 1959, Mattel has produced nearly one billion tiny outfits for Barbie? Barbie fashion is especially interesting, because it drives the very shrewd Barbie business model, which creates a nearly endless stream of revenue for Mattel. You may only buy one Barbie your whole life, but the tiny incremental expenses of the many situational accessories will outstrip the doll’s cost several times over.

This is my favorite image of the founders of Mattel, Ruth and Elliot Handler, with their creation.