Saturday, 6 February 2016


It is a small object. It could easily be argued that it is a piece of kitsch, but the proposition is that the little sailing boat is an example of a lost understanding in design. One only has to look at the works of other eras to see how the eye could once capture remarkable parallels in forms and purpose in our natural word; how these could be adapted, incorporated into the precise functional resolution of an object without distorting the original identity of the inspiration, or compromising on the function of the proposed piece in any way. Indeed, the identity of the original source was frequently enhanced along with the function that it formed. Humour, or trying to be smartly clever or canny was never the intent. There was always respect for both image and function. So one sees the acanthus leaf column capital; the duck jug; the rooster weight; the hand knob; and the like presented as functional objects. The idea is frequently categorised under 'decoration,' or 'ornament,' (c.f. Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament), but it is more than this. The incorporation of the matching needs and expressions is not merely adding an auxiliary piece of prettiness into or onto a working object: the work, the object, becomes the integrated thing itself in every way possible, and more.

Marsh Arab (Madan) Mudhif, Iraq

This concept carried matters to another level of operation beyond the idea of form being shaped for function, the Sullivan credo that anchored theory for modernism. The function being shaped by the selected form could have a relationship with the concept, the parallel reference that gave it form, by way of analogy or other inference. For example, the milk cow jug seen in various forms over the ages. This is not an unusual occurrence; indeed, it is much the other way around: it was nearly commonplace. The Greek classical columns have, we are told, their origins in bundled reeds. The capitals, is has been suggested, have references to the heads of the reeds bound for strength; the bases, to the stands the reeds were placed on for durability. The other pieces of decoration on the Greek temples have links to timber detailing – the triglyphs and the entablature itself. The principle is that ideas develop from other forms to give new possibilities. That images, ideas and functions eventually might come together in different ways is nothing unusual – well, it used not to be. We have many examples. Some pieces are playful in their referencing, others symbolically serious: c.f. the cock opium weight touching on the 'crow' of the drug. Others are a matter of simple necessity in the organic development of the parts with time and new materials.

Opium weights

Coomaraswamy talks clearly about symbols. Symbols do not refer to another thing as signs do, by directly referencing them or 'pointing' to them, be this physically, diagrammatically, graphically or linguistically. Symbols are actually that other thing, one particular aspect of it. Coomaraswamy gives the example of the lion as being a symbol of the sun. The sun's presence and power are the lion, and vice versa. The lion is not a 'sign' of the sun. In the same way a functional object can take on aspects of another identity by becoming its form: the jug is the duck; the duck is the jug. Both readings tell us more about the thing itself and its reference: we learn more about the duck in the same way as we learn more about the forms of containment and pouring.

Lutyen;s nursery lights for his Rashtrapati Bhawan

This notion is something that we find difficult to understand in our era that seems to want to mock anything that might have some 'naturalistic' identity or reference, apparently with the claim that the involvement is not sufficiently intellectual – not 'arty' enough to be considered interestingly original. Lutyens frequently played with twin meanings in buildings, forms and details, (c.f. the hen/egg nursery light where the bulb becomes the egg: see - and his reference to Indian architecture in his Rashtrapati Bhawan, formerly the Viceroy's House in Delhi). He was much maligned by his contemporaries, and mocked by the later followers of the modern 'masters' who spurned decoration, so much so that it was not until the sixties that he came to be understood and appreciated – in Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture Museum of Modern Art, 1966. Abstraction was and still is the vogue: clever, 'creative' theoretical generalisations that are framed with language that manipulates concepts in order to try to explain how some idiosyncratic form, a personal, different and contrived image, is so very, uniquely meaningful for all: and this is accepted unquestioned: see –

Lutyen's nursery lights


What is meaning? How do we see? The interaction of the eye and the mind is made reasonably explicit in visual illusions. Escher frequently played with twin and irrational perceptions. Wittgenstein wrote of the duck-rabbit in Philosophical Investigations. The twin face profiled cup is an illusion familiar to most. Aldo van Eyck spoke of 'twin phenomena' – see: van Eyck was referring to concepts of place that were much broader and inclusive than the idea of, say, space in a building. It is this complexity in things that is familiar to us in older cultures. Today we seem to be returning more to the singular notion of interest and concept; c.f. Gehry's distortions that seem to exist just as deformations, strange aberrations, nothing else. The capability of the brain, the body, to make cohesive sense out of minimal, fragmented information is analysed in The example is:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Does this provide the logic for this notion of twin forms: how ideas can have roots in a jumbled recognition that makes sense in many ways? Here with the duck-vase, (one recalls Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit), we have a jumble that is recognisable in different ways as with the letters. One can see a part and a whole; a duck and a vase; a mess and a reference. There is a fertile relationship between known parts, the first and last letters, and the jumble of in-betweens, the out of context items that go to make the scrambled word. This rich muddle makes total sense of the whole, or 'teh wolhe,' to give a collaged completeness that is richer than any singular, 'correct' word from. Consider 'rdanieg' from the Cambridge text that reads as 'reading' to the eye when considering the whole rhythm of the sentence in the paragraph, but is difficult to make sense of when isolated. It has the correct 'r' and 'g' in the right positions infilled by 'dan' and 'ie' both of which make sense in their own right: 'dan' - a Christian name or a karate rating; 'ie' - code for 'that is' or a part of other letters, reminding one of the chant 'i' before 'e' except after 'c;' consider, for example, 'their.' The letters in 'reading' become a far more complex entity when jumbled in this 'Cambridge' manner: and so too design in art and architecture that embodies messages and functions in such a manner as to allow both to declare a presence without compromise, just delight; just more, as in the little sailing boat/serviette holder.

It was this small object that seemed to me to be capable of illustrating this complex idea in a most straightforward, transparent manner. It stood on a craft stall at a 2012 pre-Christmas event in the Baltasound Hall on Unst. The little boat caught the eye that immediately saw the function - a serviette rack; maybe a letter rack: both would work, but serviettes fitted better for some reason. It was well-made by an Unst man, Ian Henderson, who stood alongside this and his other works, all in wood: a child's seat; a small traditional Shetland wheelbarrow; other small toys. The little boat sat with others in a small flotilla. One was selected and paid for. Just why this strange object was chosen was unclear. It could be simply that it was kitsch, a coffee table talking point; but it was prettier, richer than some crudely cynical or entertaining game. The concept of 'kitsch' carries with it something smartly clever; a mocking superiority, like that seen in the elite fashion styling adopting a worker's worn clothing as an expensive fashion image: c.f. ripped and worn-out jeans, and how boro has become modern patchwork: see - The little sailing boat had been carefully made, honest and true. It was still being cared for, as instructions were given to us on how it should be wrapped to protect it from breaking when packed.

When home, the serviettes on the table were folded and placed into the boat-holder. The woodwork craft item was simple and functional, sturdy in its own way, and managed its task well. After a few days, the holder settled into the general clutter of things on the table to become just something else in the set of necessities and novelties. Then one day it was noticed. The serviettes had become the sail. The 'wooden' sails of the model boat held the slight swelling that could have been the shaping of the wind, maybe a swollen mainsail or headsail, but the paper was the sail, a white, triangular, layered fluttering. Looking at the holder from different directions, one could see subtle parallels in sails and paper presence in form and folds. This little wooden boat had been enlivened by its ordinary use. The twin wooden 'sails' acted as a holder of other things, paper serviettes that became flat 'sails' while ironically, the swell of the wind was captured in the wood. It was totally intriguing how the simple idea of a boat/serviette holder could be enhanced by its use in such an obvious but ordinary manner.

It is this twin interplay that we seem to have ignored today in favour of more ad hoc and somewhat pretentious strategies: consider Gehry. That we might come to understand our world better by seeking to shape things by way of analogy or ordinary formal reference, seems too quirky, too, well, unfashionable. Yet it is an enriching experience to see understanding cohere as an object without any distortion to, or distraction, destruction of function. Take Chris Trotter's work as an example. Chris uses found trash from a metal recycling yard and anywhere else to make his sculptures. He started making birds and animals. The kangaroo is one. Here a bolt, a car part, a spring that are all clearly identifiable, are welded into new juxtapositions that allow them to be seen exactly as a kangaroo; yes, exactly, for the sculptor's eye has seen the precise analogy between the parts: the nut and the eye; the gesture of the arm and, say, a spring; and more. Here a life force is acutely, accurately embodied precisely in other things without changing anything, and we can read everything without interpretation, or any accommodating or forgiving 'reading.'

Chris Trotter's Fossil Fish

Chris Trotter's Kangaroo

The little boat did the same thing in another way. It was carefully made as a sailing boat that, when used for its purpose, only became more of a sailing boat, complete with more acute resemblances that confirmed the original concept to make the serviette holder in the shape of a sailing boat. One might wonder: What else could it be; should it be?

The real challenge for designers is to make our world richer in a more subtly complex manner that embodies experience and comprehension in a coherence. These juxtapositions can confirm our understandings of our world and enliven them with a dance that continues to intrigue when the 'creative' visions of the 'genius,' the uniquely personal and different concepts, have all passed on as yet another diversion into a chaotic diversity that seeks only attention and praise. The little sailing boat is something well done, sensitively, with much love and ordinary humility that is exemplary. It gives joy to what is really a very mundane service, a simple functional piece, like the little lemon squeezer bird. These simple, elegant delights make other 'design' efforts appear just too much, pushed too hard; forced. Here there is a genuine lightness in delight beyond the phonetics and the spelling. We need to discover this for the everyday, everywhere in the simple manner that the serviette holder has done. Imagine a world rich in twinness. It is a world that needs love and care to be seen, made and appreciated. Is this the problem?

This ancient piece maintains its rich fun even today . . . .

 . . . .to become more: a kettle!

Alessi Bird Whistle Kettle by Michael Graves


A variation in rigging

The boat with its necessities and novelties

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