January 5th, 2008


Towards a consumerism of the uselessly functional

On the coldest day of the winter so far, Hisae and I took refuge yesterday in the Ostbahnhof branch of "Profi-Baumarkte" Hellweg. The main draw was the pet shop, but I got pretty bored looking at the fluffy bunnies and drifted off to the power tools section.

Now, I'm an aesthete. For me, the forms of power tools primarily summon up some kind of mysterious otherness. I frame them in purely aesthetic terms -- I love the colours, the weird shapes, the rational insanity of them. I also throw cultural frames around them -- the coolest stuff at Hellweg is kit by Einhell, a German brand with a very German solidity and conservatism to its forms. (And yet isn't there something funky, almost Nu-Rave about it too? Remember Altern 8?)

Here, then (from Einhell, but also Silverline, Makita, Sealey) are wondrous strange garden spreaders, sawing tables, electric generators, compressors, lathes, submersible pumps, bench drills, stick electrodes, gas heating reflectors, abrasive cut off saws, welding tools, aprons and gloves in primary colours, air accessory kits with quick couplings, dust free systems, shortwave infrared paint dryers, suction feed paraffin spray guns, nitrile gauntlets for use with thinners, and all sorts of other wonderful things I'll never, ever use, but am happy to stand and gawk at -- the way you might gaze in wonder at technology from a vanished superpower (Soviet-era space equipment, for instance).

Call it a "consumerism of the uselessly functional". Call it an ostranenie operation carried out on consumer desire in general ("Lovely, but what would I do with all this kit?"). Call it a poignant tension between the useful and the useless, the macho and the gay, the rockist and the pop. You can't help thinking of putting this stuff in an art gallery, but of course Koons has already done it (with his fetishistically clean industrial vacuums).

You also can't help (well, if you're me, anyway) remembering the kerfuffle that occurred at the London Design Museum in September 2004, when vacuum cleaner innovator James Dyson resigned as chairman of the board of trustees, accusing the museum of promoting "empty styling" over "function-led, problem-solving design". There's a gender element, an element of pure machismo, in the story: the final straw for Dyson, apparently, was the museum's replacement of a display of inventions and functional design products with an exhibition on 1950s flower arranger Constance Spry.

As I pointed out when I wrote my article on design rockism for AIGA Voice, matters aren't always that simple:

"Post-protestants desire functionality in ways that go beyond the merely pragmatic, and stray into the areas of the ethical, the cultural, the aesthetic, the psychological, the irrational. Jerry Seinfeld has a sketch about how men go and just watch other men when they’re doing DIY, because they have a magnetic attraction to the machismo of tools. Sure, it looks functional, but it’s also an aesthetic attraction, an irrational impulse deep within a certain kind of man. The rockists in the Dyson affair are incensed that the Design Museum should stage a flower arrangement show, but they don’t consider that their own attachment to functionality may be just as subjective, as aesthetic and as irrational as any response to Constance Spry’s flowers."

Think of today's beautiful collection of power tools, then, as a sort of "flower arrangement for men". Can't you just smell the suction-pumped paraffin?