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.