The potential and the interpretation of objects

Project C'est la Vie. Photo credits: Andrzej Błaszko
All other images are from the designer's personal archive.

I wrote this text five years ago as an essay accompanying my bachelor design project called C’est la vie, through which I explored issues related to the use of objects by “differing” from the author’s intent and relying on the intention of the very object itself. Out of those considerations, the main question raising was if one is even entitled to talk about the application/function of an object at all. The aspects of a potential which lies in the shapes and qualities, as well as the user’s creativity, and consequently the problem of interpreting the material world and its contextuality - came to the fore. I claimed further freedom in seeing and using everyday things. 

Later, I spent two years in an international design school full of people from all over the world. At some point, with my other Polish classmates, we realised that our way of working was slightly different from the others’. I have to admit here that I am against any type of generalisation; this issue, however, was a result of our observation: we paid attention to the concept while the execution remained secondary, which, as you can imagine, caused us some trouble. We also noticed that we have an innate ability to create things using trash or found objects, working a lot in a metaphorical, non-literal domain. I even argued once with a Danish girl who claimed that the sketching-marker is made for sketching only, and if I want to write, I need to switch it for a pen, because: ‘that’s not the way you use it’. Takes one to know one - I can use it however I want to, even as chopsticks, if that is my need or fantasia. 

We concluded that it might be a national or a regional thing. It may be caused by the times we were raised in, the early 90s, when everything was still a bit sketchy, lots of goods were just lacking, and creating our own replacements was (and to some extent still is) an everyday thing. So the phenomena that are about to be described feel entirely normal, almost natural. Perhaps, that’s just how our Slavic soul really is. 


The sudden need is the mother of invention

The beginning of October is a risky date for a grape harvest (French: vendange). Although the climate of mid-France still gives in to the last days of summer, one has to be prepared for the early-autumn downpours. Not only was the ceaseless rain spoiling the mood and lowering the workers’ morale, but also, more ordinarily, it was simply soaking the clothes. Already after a quarter of the work, completely wet (to the paddles inside the shoes), we could do nothing else but sing Italian partisan songs to cheer up and hope for a break. Due to the moisture in the air, we were not able to dry our clothes for the upcoming day either. All the available places had already been taken and wet pieces of clothing were hanging all around: hooks in the corridor, hangers, chairs, a bench, frames of the beds... But we still needed more ‘hanging places’, as the rain was mercilessly putting us to the test. We thus had to resort to our design skills or, better said, to an ordinary improvisation based on intuition and the knowledge of the objects surrounding us. And so, the shoelaces, just like the belts, became clotheslines. Eventually, we went one step further and assembled a rigid construction out of brooms. This enabled us to dry our trousers by an electric heater without interfering with the objects meticulously placed there by our co-workers. We were using the properties of the encountered objects rather than the objects themselves.

It was then, when, tired after eight hours of grape picking, with a soul sensitive most probably due to the Beaujolais wine, I thought about the intentions which guide a designer through the process of designing, and about their lack of knowledge regarding the inventions performed by the user/consumer.

Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1966) pp. 21-22 back
Levi-Strauss, p. 17 back
Levi-Strauss, p. 18 back
Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics; London: Routledge, (2004) p. 7 back
Dietmar Elger, Dadaizm; Bonn: TASCHEN (2004) p. 80 back
Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” in ed. S. Heath, Image Text Music; London: Fontana Press; (1977) pp. 142-148 back
Through the properties characterising each of them, objects retain immense potential; they are, so to say, continually prone to interpretations often differing from the ones intended by the author/creator and from the intentions of the very objects themselves. The user is free to interact with the objects and, ultimately, will have to manage on their own. Ces’t la vie, as French people say.


Building a ‘base’Our ‘make-do’ with what we had during the grape harvest, it’s a practice that has already been labelled and described in literature. Here I mean the notion of ‘bricolage’, analysed by Levi-Strauss in The Savage Mind, which refers to the act of constructing objects out of the set of available, encountered things or materials; out of the substitutes as opposed to the materials used by professionals. The difference consists, as the author emphasises, in the limited number of possibilities and materials: bricolage ‘builds up structured sets, not directly with other structured sets but by using the remains and debris’¹. An excellent example of bricolage can be building a children’s fort out of the plain-surface of bedsheets, the weight of an encyclopedia, and the broomsticks as extensions – each of these objects is used in relation to its properties.

The idea is to take a look around, analyse the available objects, discover the potential, and use it to solve the encountered problem. ‘His [bricoleur’s] universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always

to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions’ (Levi-Strauss).²

Interestingly, Levi-Strauss compares the case of the bricoleur to a language sign, to the sign whose capability is delimited. As the alphabet is a limited number of signs, out of which one can build words, sentences, and complex clauses, the bricoleur’s set is also limited. Each of the elements has defined properties, defined capacities, which are used by our bricolage adept in their creation. The ‘alphabet’ of properties seems to be quite limited: heavy, empty, flat, long. One could ask if the world does not indeed consist of simple shapes, of few rules that, like letters, combined create almost an infinite number of expressions. A lot of objects can be, in fact, reduced to the same core. A glass, a wardrobe, and a backpack, all differ in form and matter, and so in the function they serve, but all of them are empty, and it is this emptiness which makes up the core of their utility. The goal is to find that core ready to be filled in a backpack instead of just a fabric, a zip, and two arms used for carrying the exercise books to school.


coffee in a jar

Building a massive dryer at the grape harvest was an unusual situation, a story one is excited to tell after returning from the trip. And yet, it’s only partly true. Once I have analysed an average day of my life, I realised that using the potential inherent in things and creating new possibilities of use is a part of everydayness. Moreover, it happens so naturally that I often do not even pay attention to it. I decided to conduct a small research: for an entire week I have been noting down all the unprovoked situations I have encountered, where objects were used not because of their intended purpose but because of their adjusted properties. Here are some of them:

Beers in a sweatshirt, by Krzysztof Matuszak

1. a match fits perfectly to the hole in the wall, I use it to hang my elastic bands there;
2. I forgot the spoon, I am eating my yoghurt with a bun;
3. I block the door with a heavy backpack;
4. I do not have any term-flask, I brew the coffee, pour it into a jar, and take it to work;
5. a jar cap is a soap dish;
6. a beer bottle is an ashtray (classic);
7. the frame of the bed standing vertical serves as a wardrobe;
8. a shoelace serves as a belt;
9. I juggle with three pairs of socks tightly rolled; I do not have the juggling balls;
10. my friend measures the distance using her body (around 170cm) and a finger, which is 10 cm long to calculate the height while working on a school project;
11. a museum ticket is a bookmark;
12. wind blows, the weight of a glass holds the papers;
13. a lady on the bus uses a sock as a phone case.
14. piece of old wooden floor from a befriended art gallery serves as a pad for hot pans;
15. I didn’t take a scarf, so I’m using a sweater instead;
16. found a picture from holidays: beers carried in a sweatshirt instead of a bag (kids carry little cats like that).

note: I’ve noticed the popularity of this phenomenon in the world of clothing; because of their characteristics, textiles are a wonderful material allowing to fulfil many needs and functions, serving as other objects, or other garments. Previously mentioned socks are a good example: they can be used as juggling balls, gloves, puppets, phone cases, or improvised face masks due to COVID-19 pandemic. There’s actually a popular “do it yourself” tutorial on YouTube showing how to create one, using only an old sock. The video has more than a million views in less than three weeks, which could prove that in times of crisis people turn more to such instances or homemade solutions.

In most of these cases, one does not do so unless a need for a specific function in an adequate context emerges: most of the time because something is missing (example of juggling balls or a jar) - the shortage is the driving motor in finding solutions. The second scenario is when one accidentally happens to get hold of something (a match and a nail hole in the wall). These moments are usually happening once, on the spur of the moment, so to say, like using a backpack to hold the door;

but it can happen as well that the seemingly temporary solution to a problem proves to be so good that it lasts for weeks, months, and years. Eventually, one gets accustomed to it up to the point where the object ceases to attract any attention as being something unusual. Instead, it unobtrusively becomes accepted as an ordinary, quiet, and inconspicuous element of life, even if such a solution certainly is at odds with publicly accepted aesthetic or cultural norms.

significant gesture

A significant role is played by a choice one has to make. As Levi-Strauss says: ‘[bricoleur] has to turn back to an already existent set made up of tools and materials, to consider or reconsider what it contains and, finally and above all, to engage in a sort of dialogue with it and, before choosing them, to index the possible answers which the whole set can offer to his problem. (…) A particular cube of oak could be a wedge to make up for the inadequate length of a plank of pine or it could be a pedestal.’³ This potential of an object is not rooted solely in the materiality of the object itself, in its form or properties, but also in the invention a person performs, of the user who deals with it, who discovers it in a certain situation. Here, the crucial role is played by the context in which the object is encountered, but, in the end, it is a person who endows it with meaning and assigns its task, using desire.

The features we experience with our senses: shape, material, properties, temperature, colour, smell, or the sound something produces - are all possibilities, which can be turned into usability. 


structure and contingency

It is worth mentioning structuralism – it sees the world in terms of relationships rather than one of separate elements. As Terence Hawkes says in the introduction to his Structuralism and Semiotics: ‘This new concept, that the world is made up of relationships rather than things, constitutes the first principle of that way of thinking which can properly be called ‘structuralist’.

At its simplest, it claims that the nature of every element in any given situation has no significance by itself, and in fact is determined by its relationships to all the other elements involved in that situation.’ According to this theory, one should not think about particular features, but should instead see them in their context, and through the prism of the relationships they are involved in. As a child, I invented a game, the rules of which were to find relationships and differences between the elements of a set and then exclude one of them accordingly. Me, my mum and my brother wear glasses, my dad’s sight is perfect. Mum, dad, and my brother have dark hair, mine is blond. Mum, me, and dad can’t speak Danish, my brother can. My brother, me, and dad like rice, mum does not. I multiply similar relationships so that everyone can find something in common with everyone else, and so that everyone gets excluded the same number of times.

There is a website called Things That Fit Perfectly Onto Other Things showing pictures of completely random things that fit perfectly onto another. The ten cents coin fits ideally into a ring, a box completely fills the mailbox, whereas the stream of tap-water hits one of the holes in the sink’s drain with ideal precision. Watching these pictures gives an immense sense of satisfaction, but the pleasure is even greater when one encounters similar situations in real life, and discovers relationships between seemingly unrelated objects by oneself. Of course, since they are purely accidental, designers would rarely busy themselves with creating such peculiar relationships on purpose, as they are utterly unnecessary. One, however, has to keep in mind that the sizes and shapes of things are, in fact, unified to a certain degree due to many factors: ergonomics, mass production, or digital design, providing ready-made solutions.

Not without reason, the broomstick is 120 cm long and the chair is 45 cm high – these dimensions match the measurements of the human body, the human scale. All these norms are meticulously noted in the ergonomic charts. Mass-produced, semi-finished products of specific dimensions, ordered by producers, constitute assembly parts of intended final products. This is why the products on the shop display shelves are so similar to each other, often differing only in colour or detail. The dimensions are therefore already established, introducing a specific order. One can say that this uniformity makes life easier: when a broom breaks during spring-cleaning, I can easily buy a new fitting broomstick and finish sweeping; while my vacuum-cleaner bags will fit into my neighbour’s one when she comes all agitated because her son has spilt sugar on the carpet again.

a matter of context

Although changing the function usually happens intuitively, it needs nevertheless some imagination or even a specific sense of humour. The limitations are, so it seems, resulting from a too great attachment to conventions.

Being deadly serious can make the discovery of the potential hidden in objects – and their use for a purpose different from the one originally intended – way harder. I know a man who has forbidden his daughter to use empty tea packings when playing because ‘you don’t play with trash’. But can one even talk about something like an original or right use of a thing?

Surely yes, since a match serves the purpose of lighting a flame. Nevertheless, it can serve as well as a hook, counting sticks, or a toothpick. Although it can play all these functions, it will be visible that it is used only as an ersatz, and so, one can expect biting remarks since, alas, ‘it is not what it serves for’. But why not, actually? After all, it serves the purpose we use it for; it serves for what the context calls it to serve.

It is difficult not to mention Marcel Duchamp, the godfather of avant-garde, who ‘recognised that an object is defined first and foremost by its context and is perceived differently in different environments.’ He turns the world of art upside down when in 1917, at the exhibition of the Society of The Independent Artists, he displays a urinal – an ordinary thing available in millions of copies. Duchamp makes a choice, puts the object on the pedestal, signs his work with the pseudonym R. Mutt, names it, and submits it to the exhibition. According to him, all these elements constitute sufficient conditions to make a urinal into a work of art since he locates it in this particular context, frees it from its function, changes its surroundings, and, by virtue of doing so, changes its meaning and the way to decipher the object.

genius of imagination 

A stick is a great child’s toy given its simplicity and commonness. Long, straight, durable, it does not really ‘break down’ because when it does, it can be assigned a new role or be easily replaced. Hence, one does not need to get attached to it since it requires neither financial expenses, adequate storage, nor waste utilization. It’s an object both encountered and left behind in a park or forest. While playing, its shape can be used in so many ways. Because it reminds of many different things, it has a universal character. It can be a sword, a flute, a spoon, a broom, a magic wand, a cello, a pen, or even a dog. It is possible of course thanks to one’s imagination, but everyone knows that a stick is not suitable for just any role because the advantages of its extension and brittleness are, simultaneously, its disadvantages. When it comes to cups, cookies, or money, stones are surely a better choice. In such cases, a stick or a stone does not have to serve a functional role, since they are used merely to play, everything remaining still in the sphere of imagination.

The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author (Barthes 1988)

In 1968 Roland Barthes published a text called The Death of Author, a crucial essay in the field of literary studies and the interpretation of a text. Concerned with the excessive attention paid to authors over the texts themselves – a key factor defining how one understands a work –, Barthes announces the death of the author. He frees the text from the biographical or historical ways of reading, and, at the same time, provides the readers with the possibility for their own interpretations rooted in the individual act of reading the work and its contextuality. An analogy can be made for objects which possess their original functions, bestowed on them by designers during the process of creation, but are nevertheless dependent on the users’ imagination and the context of their encounter. 

An object speaks for itself, it becomes a distinct being. Seeing its form, we do not consider what does it serve for; we know it straight away, intuitively, thanks to our upbringing in a given environment. Once the author lets the object out of the studio, they cannot be sure if we are going to use it according to its purpose. Neither the author nor the object itself exerts any pressure, they simply suggest what can be done.

The ‘reading’ of an object and its application depend on the user, and their position becomes equally important, next to that of the creator. It is a wonderful feeling to set ourselves free, use our privilege of ‘reading’, stretch the imagination, and, without any remorse, use a sketching marker to stir sugar in a coffee served in a jar.
Ola Korbańska (b. 1992, Poznań, Poland) is a multidisciplinary designer currently based in the Netherlands. In her practice, she uses various media such as illustration, design, or a written text, inquiring the complex nature of objects in the context of utility and changeability. All in a conceptual, a bit duchampian spirit. Her work was published in numerous publications and exhibited around Europe.
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