November 2008

The dream of every little boy and girl: Their very own Hands-free Ear Light.

Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, or MAYA, is a design axiom meant to capture consumer preference for the familiar. New designs should look new, fresh, like the future incarnate, but shouldn’t be so alien that consumers can’t imagine themselves using one. Hands-free flashlights have been around for decades—think miners’ headlamps—but the Hands-free Ear Light capitalizes on the design, orientation, and use of bluetooth headsets. Why? Because headlamps, while old, weren’t something you’d wear on your ear.

Exaptation, cross-pollination, variables and constants. The magic of cheap labor and economies of scale.

Why this is being sold next to vitaminwater is anyone’s guess.

(Notice also the aisle information sign in the background. Why the cutting trapezoidal shape? A designer’s best guess, or market research at work? I’m guessing the former, but would really like to see a video of the focus group behind the latter. “The rectangle’s just normal, I guess. Trapezoids make me feel kind of cutting-edge.” And on that wisdom, we remodel our worlds.)

Selling ideas, selling concepts: The product is secondary to the ideal, the image, the lifestyle.

The verbal talismans we brandish to keep our monsters away. The useful gnomes we invoke to justify our actions.



Ad hoc solutions.

Using The Wrong Story to pull the curtain back a little; delving into irregularities to more fully illustrate reality. Aggregate data, specific conclusions. The essential story so often hidden where we least expect it.

THIS MATERIAL WORLD will be on a Thanksgiving hiatus in Paris this week. Entries will robo-post while I’m gone; expect a glut of travel- and Paris-related posts on my return. Have a great holiday!

My campus post office has a bulletin-board wall across from the PO boxes for flyers. The wall has separate spaces for each day of the week (so that you can look at one day-section and see what events are going on that day) and an 8.5×11 grid system (so posters stay [relatively] organized; you can see the white lines above). I was checking my mail and found that a collection of posters had taken over part of the bulletin board, displacing announcements seeking subjects for psych studies and flyers advertising cultural events. Write To Someone, the posters instruct.


The installation is made up of individual pre-stamped postcards, four to a perforated sheet, forming the cells of the larger image, which itself represents a postcard. Or write to me, they offer, giving the anonymous artist’s address: PO Box 200131, New Haven CT, 06520.

The bulletin-board take-over is a compelling manifestation of how we annotate physical space, following some of its rules and bending or breaking others in order to use it to our own ends, in order to see ourselves in the walls and spaces around us.


There’s a compelling recursive geometry to this collection of posters, that while the large image of a postcard is formed from smaller real postcards, the message remains consistent. And there’s an element of decay: The message is loudest when the postcards are collected en masse, as they are now; the installation will slowly lose its power over the viewer as viewers collectively participate, taking away postcards to write to the artist, and, in so doing, destroying the installation. The postcard will slowly fade out, reabsorbed into the patchwork of flyers.

Implicit rules, implicit restrictions: Take one only if you intend to use it, leave postcards for others to take. The assumptions we make about material interactions; the obligations we feel (or don’t).

The message, too, is interesting: This isn’t a request to write back to the artist, post-secret style, but a command to write to someone, anyone, a reclamation of the power of the written word. (So what does it say that I’m blogging about it?) I took one thinking I would write back to the artist, but as I started thinking about people in my life—people nearby, far away; people I talk with daily, people I’ve lost touch with—I realized that not only are there a lot of people I should write to, but I don’t have to choose between them. The postcard I took is a physical and metaphorical invitation to write—not just to one person, but to many.

It’s easy to think of the built environment as (relatively) static, as fixed, as unchanging. To do so discounts the whole building, that is, the building in its entirety. We must learn to see buildings four-dimensionally. To understand our buildings, we must travel with them through time—both through centuries and through seconds.

The above sign is a rare one because the four-dimensional building so often operates in a kind of permanent pantomime, hiding its inactivity, its off-peak periods, its resting state behind a façade of liveliness. That feeling of walking through a lobby early in the morning, a grocery store late at night, a stadium after the last fans have left—that quiet feeling of intrusion, of behind-the-scenesness, that is the building at rest. This is different from abandonment (which is death? coma? When is a building dead?); the restful building still has a feeling of low-level activity, a buzz of preparedness about it. The building is inactive, but ready to be active again.

We are constrained by our biases, our modernist tendencies for perfect lines and clean geometries. Nothing is perfect; less is clean. Like our bodies, like our world, our buildings have a cycle to them, an ebb and a flow. We learn the cycle when we see four-dimensionally, when we can look forward as clearly as we look back. Doing so is necessary to understand not just how our world looks, but the processes by which our world operates.

To misquote Stalin: One million deaths is a statistic—and one million tragedies.

I left my laptop sitting in the library for a few minutes while I went to get a book and found this flyer next to it when I returned. While similar flyers posted around campus and table tents in our dining halls carry the same message, those are addressed to a plural, general, anonymous audience—this flyer was meant for me, and no one else.

The leaving of this flyer, like the hypothetical theft of my laptop, both have to happen when another person intrudes into my space, into my life.  This is classic show-don’t-tell advertising: Instead of drumming advice into someone’s head, demonstrate to them what might happen if they disregard your advice.

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