catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 7 :: 2007.04.06 — 2007.04.20


The designed object

Part 1 of 3


Every object is designed, intentionally or otherwise; design is an object’s language.  The intent of this workshop is to explore that language, through how objects come to be, and what we can glean from what we see in them to better inform our choices for what we surround ourselves with.


Industrial designers design objects.  In the process they are always talking about language, vocabulary and how objects and details ‘speak’ to one another.  When you look at it objectively, it’s a strange thing to say, but it is deeply true—things do speak to us, they have a language, and each objects language is unique.  The elements of this language are made up of forms, proportions, radii, planes, surfaces, colours and textures, and they come together to form sentences, telling us what they are for, how you might use them, and how they are made. They also speak to what values they stand for.  I think designers speak like this because we believe in the importance of objects, that they are not disposable commodities, but valuable elements of our lives and need to be considered this way.

A number of years ago I was fortunate to attend a presentation by Lister Sinclair, a prominent Canadian broadcaster—he opened with the statement that everything we say sends a message, whether we intend it to or not—so be careful what you say.  He was referring to broadcasters, but at a design conference.  I think he saw that in the same sense, every object that is made sends a message—so we need to be careful how we design it.  The messages objects send is most often not considered, or at least not considered from a user, or human point of view—balanced, simple, accessible, and useable.

The key points I’d like to make in this presentation are:

  • Objects are important; they enrich our lives.
  • Objects speak, and they can be understood.
  • We can live with them harmoniously.


Ode to Common Things
by Pablo Neruda

I have a crazy, crazy love of things.
I like pliers, and scissors.
I love cups, rings, and bowls—
not to speak, of course, of hats.
I love all things, not just the grandest,
also the infinite-ly small—
thimbles, spurs, plates, and flower vases.
Oh yes, the planet is sublime!
It's full of pipes weaving hand-held
through tobacco smoke,
and keys and salt shakers—
everything, I mean,
that is made by the hand of man, every little thing:
shapely shoes, and fabric,
and each new bloodless birth of gold,
eyeglasses, carpenter's nails, brushes,
clocks, compasses, coins, and the so-soft
softness of chairs.
Mankind has built oh so many perfect things!
Built them of wool and of wood, of glass and of rope:
remarkable tables, ships, and stairways.
I love all things,
not because they are passionate or sweet-smelling
but because, I don't know,
because this ocean is yours, and mine;
these buttons and wheels and little forgotten treasures,
fans upon whose feathers love has scattered its blossoms
glasses, knives and scissors—
all bear the trace of someone's fingers
on their handle or surface,
the trace of a distant hand lost in the depths of forgetfulness.
I pause in houses, streets and elevators
touching things, identifying objects
that I secretly covet;
this one because it rings,
that one because it's as soft as the softness of a woman's hip,
that one there for its deep-sea color,
and that one for its velvet feel.
O irrevocable river of things:
no one can say that I loved only fish,
or the plants of the jungle and the field,
that I loved only those things that leap and climb, desire, and survive.
It's not true: many things conspired
to tell me the whole story.
Not only did they touch me,
or my hand touched them:
they were so close that they were a part of my being,
they were so alive with me
that they lived half my life
and will die half my death.

The author here is speaking of many things, but among them, humanity’s emotional connection to things, the tools for daily life.  He is also speaking of items that bridge between people—things I have touched, and you have touched—that they connect us in some way.  And finally I think, that collectively, they capture our intentions, the character of our age in order to speak to other generations of what we value and hold dear—this could well be rather terrifying, given the toxic nastiness of so much of what we produce and discard.

It can be said that industrial design is to objects, what architecture is to buildings.  Architects need structural engineers and the building trades—industrial designers need mechanical engineers and manufacturers.  Throughout the process, the basic goal of industrial design is to create products that are:

  • beautiful (in whatever sense you can define that),
  • useable (it needs to easily perform the task it is intended for),
  • economical (to the maker and the buyer), and
  • sustainable (in its manufacture, use and end of life)

Unfortunately, not all things that are manufactured or designed are made using the same values—this is an ideal.  These things are not required on an economic or engineering level, just as architects are not required on design|build teams producing buildings that in their own way are disposable commodities.  But if they are, if designers and architects are involved, there is an opportunity to make a connection, and to speak through the objects and places we make.


I think we all have connected with a ‘thing’ at some point in our lives, that we have been ‘spoken to’ by a thing, something that helps to define us.  It is possible to discern values and processes when you experience an object, and I think all of us do this, whether consciously or otherwise…we all have favorite things, we may not be able to articulate it but we know.  At this point I would encourage you to think of a favorite object, something you think is truly wonderful, or something you would take with you from a burning building, or something that speaks to you, and to clearly ask yourself why, why does this speak to you: is it the object itself? Is it what it might do, its function? Or is it what it represents to you, possibly in a sentimental way?  You need not limit it to one.

Below are three items I have selected:

1. Lamy Safari Fountain pen: a beautiful design with tremendous attention to detail.  Being a fountain pen, it is re-useable with a refillable reservoir.  I also selected this because it is a pen, it is not a technological object, for me design is about the development of an idea, and that is always more effective when done manually than with a computer.  The computer is very effective in refining an idea, and communicating an idea, but generating the idea is manual.  From Bruce Mau, in his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth—number 29: “Think with your mind. Forget technology. Creativity is not device-dependent.”


2. Dr. Skud: designed by Phillipe Starck and made by Alessi—this is a brilliant use of the required manufacturing processes to bring fun and life to a banal object—the restriction of manufacturing became an opportunity for poetry.


3. Morrison Kettle:  designed by Jasper Morrison and manufactured by Rowenta—this kettle has a deep attention to detail, a very clear intent and rationalized use of form and material.  Its semantics are self evident, and the form character captures something of the moment, something of our age, while also being timeless, something that is not likely to age poorly.



<— Next:  Part 2 of 3 —> 

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