The Daily Heller: Is Function in the Eye or Mind of the Beholder?

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Or: Meditations on a Cuckoo Clock

How much trial and error was needed before an enterprising stone-ager invented the wheel? (Were other shapes tried?) Did original cave-dwellers think the wheel was a stoner’s joke? Did blacksmiths think that Henry Ford was just horsing around? What about flying machines? When Leonardo started his visionary exploration, was he just flapping his wings?

Lunacy is endemic to invention. Lunatic ideas are the root of discovery. Lunacy is what separates quacks from quack. Both are necessary in the scheme of things. As Orson Wells said in The Third Man, “[I]n Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Whether the cuckoo clock was created on an impulse as a lark (by a loon), whether it was designed to be taken as a joke or not, it is nontheless inspiring. I’m inspired simply by seeing or reading about how inventors’ minds work. Whether they produce an intergalactic rocket or a Swiss pocket knife, the process is the same: Make something from imagination that, if successful, will work in the real world for (or against) real people.

My interest is particularly piqued by those who invent conscious (although not malicious) disfunction. The only way to find out what works is to learn what cannot. Jacques Carelman (1929–2012) was a French painter, illustrator and designer, a member of an unofficial group of bespoke proto-steampunk inventor-artists (including Steven M. Johnson, Bruce McCall and Kevin O’Callaghan) who in their own inventive ways satirized machine-age culture. The drawings that follow from Carelman’s first book visualize the mania of his extraordinary imagination.

In 1969, Carelman, a self-taught artist and self-proclaimed critic of consumptive consumption, published Catalogue d’Objets Introuvables (Catalogue of Impossible Objects). “The collection is the creation of a beautifully bright wit and cheek,” wrote Aec Bec in It’s Nice That. Carelman’s most well-known “perfectly useless” design is the iconic, ironic “Coffeepot for Masochists” that appeared on the cover of Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. “Carelman’s work is inspired by the ‘useless machines‘ of Bruno Munari, Magic Alex’s Nothing Box, and contraptions of Rube Goldberg and W. Heath Robinson,” reported UX Journal. It had roots in the 19th century pseudo–science fiction of Alfred Robida.

Carelman’s concepts embraced the so-called “Hostile Object Theory” that argues: “[Concerning] the fundamental misanthropy of the individual’s reproduction of capital, its triumph is the temporary secession from a mass of actors all trying to do the same damn thing, everyone fleeing the same shameful us they wanted no part in, the same us produced in the very act of trying to gain the means to leave it behind.” (Quoted from Socialism and/or Barbarism.) Carelman made his art to avoid being us.

For more of his life story, do your homework. For more of his work, go here. I think Carelman would appreciate ending this appreciation of functional uselessness and expressive futility right here … letting the images allow you to ponder what if … or if what?

Posted inThe Daily Heller