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The Poetry of the Plastic Skin
How the shape of products shapes the world
There is a moment in Thomas Pynchon’s novella The Crying of Lot 49 that has always stayed with me. The protagonist, Oedipa Maas, recalls opening a radio and seeing a circuit board for the first time. What she remembers is an almost mystical experience: the patterns on the circuit board possessed “a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning,” as though “a revelation… trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.”
There is a simple truth behind this strange encounter. Circuits, engines, pipework, batteries: it can be uncanny to glimpse such functional components, because most of us aren’t really familiar with what happens inside the products we use.
Modern design favours the compact, packaging devices within a discrete body: cars, pens, computers, washing machines and sound systems. Technologies are sealed in housings and casings, in shells and skins. They are given a smooth exterior of moulded aluminium, fibreglass or polyethylene plastic. Something similar pertains to the products that line supermarket aisles, and even to furniture and buildings. Artefacts have an outer form by which we know and assign meaning to them, applying labels like stylish or ugly, bold or subtle, old-fashioned or modern. To disturb this form is to disturb their identity.
Saying we live in a world of surfaces sounds like a judgement on our superficiality, but in design terms, it is on the surface that depth is normally found. Of course there are people who appreciate objects for their inner workings – the kind who tune in to watch the latest iPhone teardown on Youtube – and thank god for that: someone needs to understand how things work. For most of us though, the technical composition of a device is a subject of utter banality or esoteric mystery.
These days it’s unfashionable to acknowledge that much of design’s impact on the world comes from presentation, or “styling” as it’s disdainfully called. Making things attractive in order to sell them is not the noble and heroic practice that many want design to be. But however grubby the aims, we should not overlook the magical powers that designers exercise in their form-giving role.
To give something a form is to make it speak. Endowing objects with a body – with a distinct shape, colour and texture – raises them from the enigmatic silence of Oedipa Maas’ circuit board, onto the level of a text. It allows them to invoke associations and ideals, to signify something. Consumer culture is a language of forms, a poetry of containers and casings.
An object of desire must first be an object, singular and recognisable. We do not want Coca Cola, we want a Coke; we do not want mobile computing, we want a smartphone. As the sensationalist critic Camille Paglia has noted, modern capitalism “objectifies persons and personalises objects.” It promotes “the mysticism and glamour of things, which take on a personality of their own.” A well-formed product, like the logo it is stamped with, can have an erotic appeal because we imagine it to be a distinct character.
Paglia sees this as part of western culture’s obsession with imposing order on the chaos of nature. And it’s true that, to the modern eye, there is something grotesque and anarchic about disembodied parts. They seem to lack the quality of thingness altogether. A crystal radio set from the 1920s, with its sprawling wires and exposed mechanisms, resembles a contraption more than a product. The same can be said for Richard Rogers’ and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou in Paris, a building that emphasises our expectations of form by violating them, wearing its mechanical systems on its exterior.
On the other hand, there is an economic rationale for the fetishism of form. The neatly housed item belongs to the world of mass production: it is a unit which can be made to the same specifications again and again. By and large, the plastic and metal shapes we see around us have been extruded from a mould, just as modern architecture wraps its glass facades around identikit structures of concrete and steel. Gadgets, likewise, belong to a culture of efficiency. From cameras to electronic cigarettes, they have made technology – which is simply a method for performing a task – synonymous with the standardised, portable object.
The same principles operate even in the digital world. The widgets that hover on a smartphone screen, or the circles and squares that contain our profile pictures on social media, certainly cater to our desire for aesthetic order. Yet they are also templates which allow a product – in this case software – to be used at scale.
Nonetheless, our relationship with technology is the ultimate illustration of the imaginative power of form. In the early 20th century, it seemed the only way to persuade people to accept new devices into their homes was to disguise them as furniture. Radios were embedded in cabinets and fridges stood on ornate table legs. Then, around the 1930s, designers made a profound discovery. By housing products in shapes that recalled the streamlined bodies of automobiles and aeroplanes, their novel appearance could become a selling point, linking technology to ideals of efficiency and progress.
By the 1950s, gadgets were routinely presented as “modern.” Braun record players and Olivetti typewriters appeared in compact, sculptural shells, echoing the geometric direction of graphic art at the time. These devices were the stylistic predecessors of the Apple products that surround us today.
It is remarkable, when you think about it, how comfortable we have become embracing new technologies that we barely understand. This shows that, in the end, technology is a story, an idea we buy into, as much as a practical affair. And no medium has been more effective for telling that story than the bodies which give our possessions their form.
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