Excerpt: Book
Usefulness in Small Things

Yesterday on Sight Unseen, we featured a London design couple whose work seems to flourish under the very weight of their creative differences. Today, we turn our attentions to a London design couple whose outlooks are so similar, and whose work so beautifully streamlined, that it can often be difficult to tell where the mind of one ends and the other begins. We’ve been fans of the work of Industrial Facility’s Kim Colin and Sam Hecht since the very earliest days of our design journalism, but while the book they released earlier this year doesn’t include a single image from that output, it speaks volumes about the way the two begin to design together. Usefulness in Small Things: Items from the Under a Fiver Collection brings together the couple’s collection of mass-produced, locally sourced, everyday objects that Hecht has been amassing for nearly 20 years — cheese knives from Japan, plastering tools from Greece, vomit bags from the UK, wine bottle sponges from France, and the like, all chosen for their ability to tell Hecht when he traveled something about where he was. “Each of the objects I found appealed to me for a specific reason: the ability to address and identify a small and localized need, even when some were hopelessly flawed in their execution,” he writes in the introduction.

Almost everyone we know with even the mildest case of design obsession picks up local wares on their travels, but the items in Hecht and Colin’s collection stand out for their very ordinariness: They may have interesting packages, but they are not always beautiful; they may be brilliantly thought-out solutions to everyday problems, but they may also be good ideas that have been poorly executed, as in the case of a Malaysian watering can/mister whose nozzle is too distantly placed to successfully water any plant. Each item has clearly been studied by Hecht and Colin to decipher why precisely it does or does not work, and that kind of knowledge has gone on to inform their work, which has always exhibited a knack for elegantly announcing its intended function at first glance.

And in fact, the objects collected in the book were originally displayed alongside an exhibition at Design Museum in London of Hecht and Colin’s own work in contemporary industrial design; the point of the exhibition was to show each project as a process, but the two proudly presented this collection as integral to their work. As Design Museum curator Deyan Sudjic puts it: “The collection is not about nostalgia, or a celebration of pop culture or craft, or about pattern making. This collection is a chance to tell us about what design is from the point of view of inspired, working designers. For most of us, they need to tell us something about what these objects mean, or what they represent. They need to explain the purpose of the two-headed nail, the oyster-shucking glove, the watering can cum spray misting device, the electric socket with integral switch, or the paper urinal. And by doing so, they open up the eyes of all of us to the kind of invisible, undemonstrative ingenuity that is at the root of all real design.” We’ve included nine of our favorite designs and their subsequent explanations at right.

Excerpted from Usefulness in Small Things: Items from the Under a Fiver Collectionby Kim Colin and Sam Hecht. Copyright 2010 and reprinted with permission from the publisher, Rizzoli. Photos (c) Angela Moore.

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Hecht and Colin divide their collected objects into five distinct categories: those that exhibit an unusual degree of Care in their manufacture or materials; existing products that have been Modified slightly in their function; objects that share a down-to-earth, Straightforward simplicity; Situation, for objects that meet the needs of a specific locality; and Duality (shown above) for single objects that share two functions.

lightswitch

Terracotta light switch, Italy: "This is one of those objects that we needed to convince the shopkeeper to sell because he had only a dusty one left on display. It was almost buried in the window of his shop—a small specialty store devoted to electrical goods in a suburb of Milan. It's quite remarkable as it is a light switch for garages or apartment hallways... but is made entirely from terracotta. Even the rotatable switch is made in terracotta, and this makes sense—ceramic is a good insulator from electrical current: strong, sturdy, cheap and in plentiful supply. The material choice is not born out of an aesthetic desire even though the result is odd and beautiful at the same time, because we're more accustomed to seeing it used for objects like flowerpots or tiles resting on the floor, rather than being used on walls."

polish

Shoe cream, Mexico: "This is from a supermarket in Mexico, and was found on the same aisle as chocolate, so you can imagine just how confusing it was! Context can sometimes belie a product. In addition, the graphics and packaging are both of such high quality that it is surprising to discover the contents to be shoe polish."

urinal

Paper urinal, UK: "This disposable and biodegradable urinal is a good harmony of form and material despite its use. The paper does not dissolve immediately, and has just enough time to be poured into another receptacle before being thrown away."

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Knife scissors, Japan: "Knife scissors takes the idea of duality to another level because it combines two potentially lethal objects—a knife and a pair of scissors—the things that we're always told to be careful of. Not to over exaggerate the safety of one or the other, but when you compare it to some of the other dual function objects, knife scissors is odd in both the way it looks and what it represents. Does it matter that a little bit of space is saved by combining the two functions? Functional questions like these are a little inconsequential. The bigger question is why there continues to be a burgeoning desire to search for something new in objects so basic as a knife and a pair of scissors."

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Watering can and spray bottle, Malaysia: "The watering can/sprayer combo is evidence that a lot of manufacturers present something to the marketplace that appears incredibly optimistic, however, in practical application, doesn't work very well. The spray from the nozzle is far too distant to actually hit the plants, because the spout gets in the way. When something comes along that has a certain oddity to it, people do get excited and buy it. There is an attraction to it, however this is not necessarily in line with the manufacturer's intent."

teething aid

Baby teething aid, Italy: "This was found in an Italian toyshop. It's a small piece of plastic that looks just like a potato chip, something safe enough that babies can chew on. It came with a frankfurter and a chocolate bar — all very life-like. But the potato chip was by far the strangest for the fact that it was rather sad-looking. Perhaps it's because we're used to seeing a bag of them rather than just the one. Its function, to give a baby something to chew on while they're teething, is not too unlike giving a plastic bone to a dog."

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Eggplant knife, Bulgaria: "Another graceful form, this time made of wood. In Bulgaria they supposedly eat a lot of eggplant and developed a knife made of wood, for cutting with a similar action to an axe. Wood is used because a carbon metal knife would blacken the vegetable."

nail

Double-headed nail, USA: "This object is called a double-headed nail — a nail with two heads. Construction workers in the US use them to install temporary wooden supports during building. The second head of the nail always protrudes, so that when the temporary supports need to be dismantled, the second head allows the nail to be easily removed. It's a striking example of locality, when what is normal to one country can be so uniquely original to another. For a lifetime you might think that nails only come with one head."

foil

Silver foil, Jordan: "This is perhaps one of the most unintentionally bizarre pieces of packaging graphic in the collection. It was found at the foothills of Petra in a dusty corner shop, stacked high behind the shopkeeper. We spotted it immediately — how could you not? What is it? It's cooking foil with slightly haunted graphic design. We have no idea of its reasoning for the words 'Get a New Foil.'"