In his book Hertzian Tales, Anthony Dunne explored the idea of products as “material tales.” Each and every product, he argued, will inevitably change the way we act, think and feel in a given situation. Each product, thus, tells a different story and thereby suggests slightly (or more considerably) altered versions of reality. He uses this insight as the starting point for designing unfamiliar products, which primarily work as artistic commentaries on current social and technological practices – his exercises in “critical design”. Interestingly, Dunne noted that his products do not reveal their full power to change, exactly because they are treated rather as pieces of art than being actually used in the context they set out to reflect upon. The question, which intrigues me, is: Can we tell critical tales through everyday objects, using them to subtly comment and maybe even change current practices?
Swantje Kraus recently provided an interesting example. Her diploma project was to design a new type of improved “bucket” for the grape harvest. Typically, grapes are picked by hand, gathered in a bucket, which is then emptied in a larger container. This bucket is clearly a tool; its design a tough exercise in practicality and classical ergonomics. However, Swantje added an interesting feature beyond obvious practicality: The bucket can be transformed into a seat. The vintager can take a rest from the physically demanding work.
This seemingly small detail is interesting for several reasons. First, the bucket embeds both gathering grapes and taking a rest on an equal level. By this, it communicates that taking a rest is accepted – an integral part of the overall activity. Second, the bucket has to be empty to be transformed into the seat. This reflects upon the admittedly puritan ideal of “business before pleasure”, but functions as a clear signal for the “appropriate” moment to take a rest (after having picked a bucketful of grapes, 8-12kg, and having brought it to collecting point. In addition, Swantje’s design makes it impossible to work while resting. You either pick grapes or rest, but resting and still doing a little bit of work, such as cleaning or sorting grapes, is impossible. Both aspects imply a clear separation between work and rest, which is a psychological requirement for having a truly recreative break from work. Third, the bucket also suggest a certain way of taking a rest, namely in the vineyard, contemplating and enjoying the views or having a chat with colleagues. Instead of avoiding the place of work it seeks to emphasize its good parts: being out in the nature with good company.
All this details are actually a feature of the bucket. Alternative uses, according values, and particular experiences are embedded into the product and ultimately told through it – material tales under the disguise of mere practicality.