Why Do Some Things Last?
On archetypes and parasites
I always find it strange to see children using the same stationary that I once did: the protractors and rulers made from clear shatter-resistant plastic, the index cards in their familiar range of pastel colours, the pocket calculators that are, in fact, slightly too big to fit comfortably in a trouser pocket. So much has changed in the two decades or so since I used these things, it seems slightly shocking that they are still in production. Such items have all but vanished from everyday life, but in the doomed effort to keep children off their phones long enough to learn something, this particular ecology of objects has been allowed to survive in a kind of time warp.
Assuming this arrangement can’t last forever, it is difficult to imagine anyone bothering to substantially redesign such basic stationary products. (The boutique and specialist stuff is another matter of course). They have likely reached the final stage in their evolution as objects, much like the cordless landline phone or the rectangular plane tickets printed at the check-in desk. Then again, it is difficult to imagine how one could redesign something as simple as a ruler. This is a question which has long tantalised designers and practitioners of various crafts: can an object achieve not just its last, but its ultimate form?
In a crowded marketplace, where even small differences can be crucial in distinguishing one product from another, there is always an incentive to reinvent things. But some tools seem to do their job so well that they outlive even the most ingenious designers. We are more likely to redesign the educational model that demands rulers than the ruler itself. One can say something similar about the basic form of the sewing needle, the egg carton or the four-legged chair. In a world defined by the aggressive pursuit of innovation and by change in general, such items have a peculiar persistence.
Early in his career, Le Corbusier developed his philosophy of purism from similar premises. What he called “type-objects” were, supposedly, the best possible solutions to particular design problems; timeless, universal forms that modern engineering and mass-production were bound to discover in their quest for the most economic responses to human needs. Though these type-objects were anonymous industrial goods, the idea was deeply mystical. Le Corbusier drew a parallel between Darwinian natural selection and the “mechanical selection” which resulted in perfect artefacts; he imagined the latter sharing a Platonic harmony with the physical and mathematical laws of the universe. Stripped of useless decoration, the products of the machine age were free to realise the beauty of the purest architecture of earlier epochs. It was on this basis that he likened automobiles and grain silos to the Parthenon.
This notion is dubious to say the least. Mass production does not, of course, have an inner logic which tends inevitably towards particular designs; formal change is generally driven by economic conditions and commercial strategies. In fact, most of the “type-objects” displayed in Le Corbusier’s famous Pavillion de l’Esprit Nouveau of 1925 were, like products coming out of the Bauhaus at the same time, specially commissioned pieces that merely imitated a mass-produced appearance.
Still, we have to account for the apparent maturity of certain forms. Deyan Sudjic calls them design archetypes: things that turn out to be not just objects but “a category of object.” His examples include the clock face, the wine bottle, the dinner plate, the balanced-arm desk lamp, the rotary-dial telephone, the tap and the key. To become archetypal, an object must meet some minimum standard of usefulness, but that is not enough. There are presumably other, equally practical ways to serve food, lock a door or illuminate a desk. Archetypes also rely on an emotional resonance for their survival, and in particular, the appeal of familiarity. “Even if our possessions do not age well, and we continually replace them,” Sudjic writes, “designs that evoke archetypes offer a consoling sense of continuity. They introduce a ready-made history for an object.”
Consider the school stationary again. Whatever their functional merits, there is undoubtedly something reassuring about the formal persistence of these items. They suggest a basic continuity in what it means to be a child across generations. This may be a silly conclusion to draw from the contents of a pencil case, but that is the point: familiarity exerts a powerful force on our intuitions.
That force presents one of the most profound challenges to innovation, and to creativity in general. It is not just that familiarity can motivate resistance to what is new; it defines what is new. If archetypes are essentially default forms for a given object, then attempting a different form means drawing a contrast with the archetype. This is another way of saying that something which breaks a rule does not only derive its value from its own qualities, but also from the rule it has broken. It cannot be otherwise. A square plate will never be judged as a square plate; it will be judged, for better or worse, as a plate that is not round.
Challenging an archetype is therefore a delicate process that can easily go awry. One way to understand a gimmick, or a mere novelty, is as something which relies too much for its impact on a contrast with the archetypal. It thereby reveals itself as parasitical on the very familiarity that it pretends to reject.
And yet, according to this same dialectic, the archetype itself can become a kind of parasite, its value inflated by efforts to challenge it. Once the familiarity of a form is sufficiently entrenched, most attempts to do things differently will be regarded as pretentious gestures that only confirm the validity of the original. You may have envied that other child with the fancy folding ruler, but could you really pull that off? This helps explain why, in a world where people are always trying to innovate, some things turn out to be surprisingly immune to change.
The Pathos of Things is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.