After seeing “Objectified” at the Gene Siskel Film Center a few weeks ago, I will never look at a toothpick the same way again. Especially if it’s one of the Japanese-style toothpicks, in which case I will snip off the top with aplomb, newly enlightened to its significance.
The film, from Gary Hustwit (“Helvetica”), explored the meaning imposed on objects, from potato peelers and toothbrushes to computers. Though I’m typically attracted to objects’ aesthetic beauty, this film made me appreciate objects for the simple beauty of their functions. (And with this revelation I remembered once spending a good hour trying to figure out how to operate the can opener that came with our Prague apartment; I finally resorted to YouTube, where someone, thankfully, had posted a video with instructions.)
In the words of one of the experts on camera, design “should be plugged into natural behaviors. It should be intuitive.” It should exist without calling attention to itself—and that invisibility is wherein its beauty lies. Hustwit let us glimpse Hella Jongerius’ wonderland studio and Apple’s facilities, not to mention the inspirational spaces of several other design leaders (oh, to work in a delightfully disheveled and über-chic Parisian studio…). Style was a matter of importance, but, as one designer put it, “there’s no excuse for an uncomfortable chair.” What is an object without utility? (I believe the answer is art—but even art has its role.)
Present-day concerns about function aside, designers mused on the best way to ensure that today’s designs don’t end up in tomorrow’s landfills. Tackling this “cradle to grave” predicament, Karim Rashid brilliantly suggested that tech objects be crafted from cardboard or sugar cane. Why spend so much on an iPhone only to toss it for the next best thing? (Frankly, the idea of eating it sounds more appealing to me.)
When thinking about the meaning of objects—and the problem of their transience—New York Times writer Rob Walker put it best: A hurricane is coming and you need to leave your home. What objects do you take? What objects reflect your personal narrative? Those are the objects that matter.
If a hurricane came, I’d take this 1950s bartender toy. Not only is he a bit of our home’s mascot (an affable fellow who makes martinis–who wouldn’t keep him around?), but he holds our wedding bands when we do the dishes.