Blobjects: A Short History

Design has always aimed to strike an emotional chord in its users, but perhaps no style does this better than the amorphous blobject. At once organic, tactile, and ergonomic, the blobject is inspired by the curvy shapes in nature—the human breast, a weathered stone, tear drops—but forged via cutting-edge technology. An exhibit of these curious forms is on view through July 10 at the San Jose Museum of Art. Entitled Blobjects & Beyond: The New Fluidity in Design, the show highlights the style through a provocative array of products, graphic design, architecture, and art.

“Blobjects are not stuck in old patterns of thinking about design,” says Mara Holt Skov, who, along with husband Steven Skov Holt, curated the exhibition and authored an eponymous companion book. “They offer an innate sense of optimism and hope.” Just one peek at Marc Newson’s curving, embryonic-like aluminum Lockheed Lounge, which flanks the entrance, and it is hard not to agree.

“Blobs can too easily be seen as superficial, but in reality they are the answer to marrying ecological concerns, emotion, cultural expression, and state-of-the-art technology” adds Skov Holt, who has followed the form’s progression since the late 80s. Yet, while the history of the blobject is relatively short, the curators consider the exhibition a retrospective on the form rather than a definitive marker of where design is headed next.

Three products introduced the new blobby form to a mass audience: Apple’s splashy iMac, Volkswagon’s new Bug, and Nike’s sleek Triax watch. All these products were designed in 1998, at the height of the dot-com boom, when consumer culture was riding an unprecedented high. The exhibition—and in particular, the companion book—take note of this shifting acceptance, examining blobjects’ birth, context, and symbolism within both design and consumer culture, as well as by both corporations and individuals.

While attention is given to works by artist Rex Ray and fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, the exhibit focuses primarily on industrial and architectural design. Usual suspects Ross Lovegrove, Philippe Starck, Mark Newson, Greg Lynn, and Karim Rashid carry much of the exhibition’s weight, although a host of newer talents, such as Yves Béhar, Marcel Wanders, and Marc Schamburg and Michael Alvisse of Shamburg + Alvisse, enhance the visual exchange.

By grouping pieces together based on color, form, and function, the curators have teased out relationships between the products; the section titles are often just as provocative as the works themselves. In “Kandy-Kolored,” fuseproject’s luminous Philou shampoo and conditioner bottles share wall space with Karim Rashid’s method dish soaps. In “Trans/parent, Trans/lucent, Trans/formed,” the pillow-like National Space Center in Leicester, England is set against the sleek Nike Triax watch, while Lovegrove’s undulating Ty Nant water bottles and Rashid’s amoeba-like Soft Carpet practically kiss. Further along in “Cutensils,” childish, cartoon-like products such as the Pipe Dreams watering can by Jerszy Seymour and Soft Iron by National Design Group, Panasonic Design Company make housework almost seem fun.

Lest one get too carried away dreaming about the adorable Smart Car, the exhibition also includes pieces that are more skeletal, confrontational, and menacing. Lovegrove’s Praying Mantis-like Go Chair, Wander’s Airborne Snotty vases (which take their shape from the digitally scanned sneeze of a cold sufferer), and Crye Associates’s foam-based Project Scorpion military armor speak to a colder potential for blobjects.

More than just a collection of prototypes, design objects, and buildings, the works on display in Blobjects & Beyond address our increasingly visually literate culture’s needs, desires, and hopes. As Skov Holt says, “More and more people use objects to define their identity, if not largely to tell the story of their whole life.”

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