I have a medium-large grocery list in one hand, and a shopping bag in the other. Moving through the kitchen accessories department of the Ikea store located in Utrecht, I am looking for a new, preferably cheap pizza cutter. My old one was lost in the crypt that is my room, and scissors can only do so much when it comes down to cutting my Albert Heijn pizzas.
Having found the shelf containing cheap plastic pizza cutters (they’re called Stäm), a question arises. What colour to choose? The olive green one, the scarlet version, the bright yellow edition or the rather unpleasing cyan variant? Remembering that I already happen to own a green spatula, I decide on the similarly coloured pizza cutter. While paying for my newly acquired Stäm pizza cutter, I am certain: the olive green colour will most definitely improve my quality of life to a larger degree than the cyan edition.
A seeming elementary choice. We make these rather dull choices all the time. Nonetheless, the other day I was investigating a friends kitchen supplies during a house party. In one of the drawers, I found the same green coloured Stäm pizza cutter. Soon, we were high fiving and felt closer related. After all, we have a mutual preference for a certain commodity. This anecdote can be generalised. In a nutshell: our social relations are based on the products (or, commodities) that we own. According to Karl Marx, that is. He calls this phenomenon commodity fetishism.
More relevant to this writing are the slight variations of a specific object. People like having a choice, as they have their own identity to maintain. All Ikea has to do to meet this need is presenting their Stäm pizza cutter in a variety of colours. This phenomenon has been conceptualised by the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno. He coined the term pseudo-individualisation.
During the last two decennia, a new notion in consumption and production has emerged. Manufacturers increasingly think about sustainability when producing new designs. Artists are responding to this way of thinking as well: exhibitions about sustainability and slow design seem to have become common.
On the twenty-fourth of November I visited the “New Energy in Design and Art” exhibition at the Boymans van Beuningen in my city of birth, Rotterdam. A work that caught my eye was “The Idea of a Tree,” an award-winning project by Katherina Mischer and Tomas Traxler. Basically, it is about an autonomous machine (called “recorder one”) that produces objects using just thread, glue, paint and solar energy. Finished objects are not only functional, as they also reflect the weather conditions of the place and time where the machine has been working. Elaborates more extensively on the project.
The good thing about “The Idea of a Tree” is the fact that it actually works. Too often, sustainable projects by artists somehow feel stuck in the conceptual zone. As a person that classifies most of his own projects as “stuff that works”, I like seeing a relatively simple machine that tries to give a concise answer to the relatively complex question of sustainability.
Moreover, the project doesn’t just work in a mechanical sense. It also effectively combines concepts of consumer culture with ideas coming from the Slow Movement. Using the distinctiveness of local environment factors, objects are produced that are each unique and yet share a common theme. Examples of the objects produced can be found here.
The objects produced by “recorder one” are, as can be seen, aesthetically rather pleasing. They also come in a variety of forms, functions and colours. The seal, colours and even construction breathe the words “ecological design”. People buying these objects will probably identify themselves with some ecological responsible subculture. This is a typical trait of commodity fetishism, though this aspect doesn’t distinguish the “Idea of a Tree” project from most other slow design projects.
The unique appearance of every single object, however, does. Just like the Stäm pizza cutter mentioned in the introduction of this essay, there are concepts of pseudo-individualism to be found in the lovely stools and lamp shades produced in the “Idea of a Tree” project. The variety in thickness, length and intensity of colours found between these objects can be interpreted as the ecological responsible answer to the diverseness colours presented by the Stäm pizza cutter.
People like having to make these kind of choices. Thus, presenting the consumer with an assortment of small differences in the same product makes a great marketing tool. Take Apple, for example: ever since the dawn of the iMac, Apple has presented their products as a smorgasbord of colours and sizes. With the iPod, Apple took pseudo-individualisation to the next step: there are about five different iPods (iPod Nano, iPod Classic, and so on), each presented in a variety of colours. It made Apple one of the most successful companies in the world. The same counts for Ikea, offering rather superficial customisations to the customer. Over and over again, pseudo-individualisation has proven itself as a winning marketing tool.
Green marketing, however, has not. Despite the trend of sustainability becoming “hip”, telling people to buy a sustainably product because it’s sustainable doesn’t work. Just take a look at these links. In the end, people do not want ecological products for the greater good. People want good products that are marketed well. The “Idea of a Tree” project by Katherina Mischer and Tomas Traxler has this potential, especially if it were taken to a larger scale. The products show a clever balance between sustainability and the fulfillment of the rather superficial needs of the consumer. These superficial needs are met using local, environmental factors. It uses these factors to simulate the idea of the growth of a tree, which is – well – cool. Let it be an example for the many inspiring slow designs that are yet to come.