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Thinking about Tools

As previous posts have made clear, I’ve got a bit of a thing about thinking about tools.  A new project has enabled the chance to explore this further, and got me thinking about some of the different ways we conceive and classify tools as particular object types.  What follows are what can best be described as tool thoughts-in-progress…

1. Tool vs Gadget

Instrument, utensil, implement, tool: all words that denote a sense of sensible seriousness, of necessity, conceived according to an often unthinking manifestation of form-follows-function that became a modernist mantra.  Yet the tool, the archetypal useful object, has a close cousin - the rather more frivolous gadget.

In an article originally published in a 1965 edition of Industrial Design, the rather wonderful design critic Reyner Banham, who saw no subject as outside of his intellectual gaze, set his sights on the gadget - or gizmo, as he was equally prone to call it.  In “The Great Gizmo”, Banham identified the gadget as the archetypal American object, in a distant echo of the nation’s pioneer origins:

A characteristic class of US products––perhaps the most characteristic––is a small self-contained unit of high performance in relation to its size and cost, whose function is to transform some undifferentiated set of circumstances to a condition nearer human desires. The minimum of skills is required in its installation and use, and it is independent of any physical or social infrastructure beyond that by which it may be ordered from catalogue and delivered to its prospective user. A class of servants to human needs, these clip-on devices, these portable gadgets, have coloured American thought and action far more deeply––I suspect––than is commonly understood.
Reyner Banham,
"The Great Gizmo." in Sparke, P. ed. 1981. Design by Choice.

We don’t have to look hard to find examples of gadgets today.  Yet what is notable is that the boundary between essential tool and gratuitous gizmo isn’t that well-defined.  Take the Swiss Army knife, originally conceived in the late 1890s to replace the German-made knifes Swiss army officers were equipped at that point.

The first Offiziersmesser Swiss army knife, made by Victorinox, 1897. Photo: The Telegraph

Who can argue on the necessity of a multi-purpose object that performs such essential tasks as picking out stones from horse’s hooves - or, in my experience, opening up tins of baked beans in the absence of a can opener (a tool I’m guaranteed to forget when in the great outdoors - or at least Glastonbury).

Yet at what point, or rather at the addition of how many individual tools, does the knife transform from the one to the other?  When, in other words, is it a tool too far?

Swiss Champ, manufactured by Victorinox.  Photo: Swiss Knife Shop.

The Swiss Army knife shows that tools are not a stable category, but what about the more general question of what a tool is - and why it is an omnipresent, and 

2. At Hand vs of the Hand

A necessary dive into the realm of theory here, to compare what I consider two of the defining twentieth century ways of thinking about our relation with tools, and what this says about our relationship with the world in general.  At least this was what the controversial yet highly influential German existential and phenomenological philosopher Martin Heidegger argued, most famously in his book Being and Time, first published in 1927, in which he offered some of the most compelling ideas on tools that are useful here.

In Being and Time, Heidegger argues for an  understanding of the type of ‘things’ that tools are - a form of ‘Equipment’, defined by their being essentially supplemental objects.  Focusing on the example of the hammer, Heidegger stated that: 'The kind of being which equipment possesses - in which it manifests itself in its own right - we call “readiness-to-hand” [Zuhandenheit].’ (Heidegger, 1927)

Holding hammers around the world: an excerpt from Man Transforms exhibition, curated by Hans Hollein, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 1976. Photo: taken by author.

If Heidegger argued that tools were defined by their servile proximity to the body, then  the media theorist Marshall Mcluhan goes one step further, to argue that tools are actually a prosthesis of the body - this is what differentiates the tool from the machine:

As contrasted with the mere tool, the machine is an extension or entering of a process.  The tool extends the fist, the nails, the teeth the arm.  The wheels extends the feet in rotation or sequential movement.
Mcluhan, M. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.

While Heidegger and Mcluhan help us shed light on what type of objects tools are in general, the question remains of classifying amongst different forms of tools.  The below helps us get to the point of this - quite literally.

3. Blunt vs Sharp

I’ll admit it is a bit of an odd one this one, and new to my tool-time thinking.  It was prompted by a blog post by Richard Coyne, a professor in computing at the University of Edinburgh.  According to Coyne, it is overwhelmingly ‘tools prone to bluntness’ that mediate our experience of reality; tools such as the infinite range of wedges that we use to do such vital work as ‘hold window frames in place, split stone slabs in two, hold up arches, constitute tools for marking up sheet materials, sharpen pencils, and stop doors from slamming.’    

These types of instruments all have one thing in common - they require adjustment, fine tuning, or sharpening.  Which brings me to one of my most curious recent internet finds, David Rees’ Artisanal Pencil Sharpening Service.  

Poster for the David Rees’ Artisanal Pencil Sharpening service.  Photo: Details

David Rees at work. Photo: A Myriad of Jeremy

For a fee, individuals can send in their pencils to Rees, a New York craftsman, and receive back their hand-sharpened pencil, complete with the shavings and a “certificate of sharpening.”

Selected References

Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962, reprint. 2000) 
MANtransFORMS: An International Exhibition on Aspects of Design, Conceived by Hans Hollein [and] Sponsored by The Johnson Wax Company, for the Opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Design, Cooper-Hewitt Museum (New York: Cooper Hewitt Museum, 1976) 
Mcluhan, Marshall, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul ltd, 1964) 
Sparke, P. (ed.) Design by Choice. (London: Academy Editions, 1981)

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