Reinventing everyday objects to provoke thoughts

Sophie Bergeret (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in Media and Communication (Data & Society).

bf6d37b4f9d14bb133d91b0cc6be7999c0d1e26bMan Ray, The Gift

“Man Ray never destroys, he always modifies and enriches” (Shwartz, 1977:208). This essay will use Man Ray’s Gift as an embodiment of post-war Surrealism, to examine how objects may be designed to serve more than their primary function. The Gift, a multidimensional object, comprised of a 1920’s iron (the kind one should leave on the stove to heat up), with fourteen sharp nails glued onto its ironing surface, nails facing up, rendering the iron useless, is an everyday object whose primary utility was overturn to produce a work of art designed to make people think. We will look at Gift as an incarnation of the European post-war period, which witnessed the expansion of Dadaism and Surrealism, two currents that emerged to question traditional conceptions of art through rule-breaking and humour, a concretisation of the desire to reinvent and add meaning to objects and events in light of the sombre episode that had just happened.

Defining design and material culture

           Before focusing on Gift, we must define design and material culture. Buchanan describes material design as the “traditional concern for the form and visual appearance of everyday products – clothing, domestic objects, tools, instruments, machinery, and vehicles – but has expanded into a more thorough and diverse interpretation of the physical, psychological, social and cultural relationships between products and human beings. This area is rapidly evolving into an exploration of the problems of construction in which form and visual appearance must carry a deeper, more integrative argument that unites aspects of art, engineering and natural science, and the human sciences” (Buchanan, 1992:9). Lian and O’Grady further this definition by emphasising the use of design a “search process in which a satisfactory design solution is produced from a number of alternatives” (Lian, O’Grady, 1998:945). They also break down the process of design in four stages: the conversion of “specification descriptions to design descriptions ready for implementation”, the “process of attaining wide latitude and narrow variance”, the search process to find a satisfactory outcome, and the “continuous interplay between what we want to achieve and how we want to achieve it” (Lian, O’Grady, 1998:943-944). As such, material design differs from that of “symbolic and visual communications”, of “activities and organized services”, and of “complex systems or environments” (Buchanan, 1992:9-10), and has a symbiotic relationship with the physical world.

          Tilley defines material culture as “a manifestation of structured symbolic practices meaningfully constituted and situated in relation to the social” (Tilley, 1994:70). He goes on to explain that analysing material culture is analysing the relationship between things, as opposed to things only. A relational tool for conveying social relationships and meanings, manifested in the form of man-made objects, material culture is “a framing and communicative medium involved in social practice. It can be used for transforming, storing or preserving social information. It also forms a symbolic medium for social practice, acting dialectically in relation to that practice. It can be regarded as a kind of text, a silent form of writing and discourse; quite literally, a channel of reified and objectified expression” (Tilley, 1994:70). A central aspect of material culture is also its reciprocity with the humans that inhabit the society, through their participation in the creation of the material culture, that, in turn, informs about the culture.

The Gift

          Man Ray’s Gift, created in 1921 in Paris, is a multidimensional object, that is not designed to evolve over time, it is not organic, nor does not produce any other object such as smoke or light. Its purpose is artistic – it is currently residing in the Tate Modern Museum in London, as part of an exhibit on Materials and Objects. The decision to focus on an object like Man Ray’s Gift came from the desire to assess the place of an object whose primary function had been diverted to assume a different cultural role and meaning. Examining Gift was also an opportunity to focus on an object that is socially and culturally – and perhaps, debatably, politically – relevant, as a questioning of the social norms and functions of things and people in a time of great turmoil.

Re-defining functionality

        Indeed, the XXth century saw the design community’s focus shift from a primary concern with functionality, to a desire to explore the experience and emotion resulting from a user’s interaction with an object (Eggink, 2011). At the same time, Surrealism and Dadaism emerged in the art world, the expression of the will of some artists to introduce humour and emotion in an art that was otherwise regulated and subjected to restrictive norms. Heskett (2002) reinforced the post-functionalist discourse by highlighting that the significance of products had become more important than their utility. As such, Gift is a strong example of ‘unruly design’, that is, a design in which “all objects (…) are designed with the intention to undermine the existing design-paradigm of the functionalists” (Eggink, 2011:2). In this new paradigm, “the meaning of an object is formed through the associations that the object is eliciting in the context where it is evaluated by the viewer” (Eggink, 2011:3); the object becomes a trigger for these associations, and benefits from a new function: that of messenger. Eggink further comments that many designers who take part in unruly design use objects that are already culturally significant, especially in popular culture, and minimise their utility to emphasise their newfound significance. In this scenario, the original context and primary significance of the object (the significance associated with its primary utility) cannot be erased, and, as such, the designer builds upon this original significance to add their own to it, creating several layers of sociocultural understanding and symbolism.

          While it is hard to know exactly what Man Ray’s objectives truly were when he created Gift – he has written about it in his autobiography, but focused more on the process of creation, rather than why he created Gift – it is safe to assume that he had an idea in mind when he designed Gift. Indeed, most artistic endeavours begin with the desire to transmit an emotion or idea to the public, to assert an opinion and/or make people think. With their end in mind, the artist will then go on to think about the medium which they would like to use, and which they believe will best serve their objective. Finally, they go through a process of transformation, whereby they alter the primary medium they are using to create a thought or emotion-provoking object. This process is very similar to the process of design as outlined in Lian and O’Grady’s article, and described in ‘defining design and material culture’ above. The logic of design is thus applicable to that of artistic production, representing a process to be followed to produce a desired outcome.

The meaning of Gift

        There have been arguments about whether objects should and do carry meaning or not. We will argue that they always do. While Knappet underlines that some theorists, such as Flannery and Marcus, “assume that the practical cannot be meaningful, symbolic, or communicative; presumably they would also maintain that the reverse is true, that the symbolic cannot really be treated on the same terms as the practical” (Knappet, 2005:8). However, Holder argues that “the functional meanings of artefacts may sometimes lie in their capacity for communicating information, presumably through ‘symbolic’ processes” (Knappet, 2005:8).

          It is interesting here to take a little side-step to examine how symbolic power relates to the design of objects as examples of material culture. Indeed, symbolic power relates to the production and dissemination of “meaningful symbolic forms” (Thompson, 1995:16) that, in turn, are used to shape social reality. They do so by establishing frames of reference and the content contained in these, that will help individuals communicate and identify with each other. With that in mind, any cultural object, be it a pen or a work of art, carries a symbolic power, has been turned into information through an institutionalisation process, and serves to bring people together around a shared meaning and narrative.

           As such, the object, as a means of conveying a meaning as opposed to a basic utility, is therefore a carrier of symbolic content. Knappet responds to this by opposing the argument that this vision of design assumes that the producer of the object has knowingly encoded information into the object. While this is true, it is also problematic to assume that the object carries no significance or meaning at all, regardless of what the producer has intentionally encoded into it or not. To understand why that is, we can rely on the concept of polysemy, namely the notion that one object cannot have only one single meaning that is and will always be associated with it. Tilley explains that “any object has multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings. The meanings depend on a whole host of factors. One appropriate example is the safety-pin in contemporary Britain (Hodder 1985:14), which, according to who wears it—an infant, a grandmother or a ‘punk’— changes its meaning. However, this is only part of the story. The meaning also changes according to the context in which the interpretation takes place (a kitchen or an underground station); who is carrying out the interpretation (to various people the safety-pin may mean aggression, pity, children or bondage); and why they are bothering to interpret it in the first place” (Tilley, 1994:72). Here lies our interest in Man Ray’s piece, specifically. At the junction of art and design, Gift is a perfect example of a designer weaving a number of symbols and pieces of data into his work, as well as relying on the inherent symbols and significance associated with the different components of his objects – nails and an iron – opening the doors for various interpretations that will likely have more to do with the viewer than with the object itself.

         Indeed, “Man Ray’s assemblages dramatize the violent and erotic potential of physical contact with things. (…) Man Ray activates the art object as a provocateur, an antagonistic love partner that asserts control over its make/viewer and then in turn succumbs to the power unleashed by its own aggression” (Mileaf, 2010:55). His use of the iron, a household object, “conjures the feminine in both shape and function. The pleasing curves of the iron analogizes a woman’s body, yet this body is armed and dangerous” (Mileaf, 2010:56). Man Ray also spoke of a young black woman whose dress he’d ‘ironed’ with Gift, and had subsequently damaged, and, while she danced with the dress on, her body looked like a beautiful ebony sculpture (Mileaf, 2010). Thus, the Gift’s appearance is riddled with meanings, all different and all equally relevant, that the viewer must infer and process individually. In addition, Man Ray, who was also known for using his art as a sort of confessional, clearly did integrate many different meanings in his work, so much so that “these stories fail to contain the objects” (Mileaf, 2010:57). In 1921 France, women were becoming emancipated as a result of the Great War, violence had been resounding in France for years, and old social norms were becoming obsolete. Gift, as a complex object representing aggression and femininity, utility and obsolescence, and certainly much more, epitomises the struggles of its time.


We have therefore seen how the process of artistic production follows the same logic as any process of design. Man Ray’s Gift is a strong example of material culture, for it represents a physical rendering of social questioning and norms of its time. In addition, Man Ray uses his object’s symbolic power to interrogate and provoke thought about the social norms and signification associated with the primary objects he used, as well as with the end result. The brilliance of Gift lies in the fact that, almost one century later, the debates ignited by Man Ray remain relevant, albeit in a different manner.


1) Buchanan, R. (1992) Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, in Design Issues, 8:2, pp 5-21.

2) Eggink, W. (2011) The Rules of Unruly Product Design, in Industrial Design Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, University of Twente, the Netherlands.

3) Knappett, C. (2005) ‘Thinking through material culture : an interdisciplinary perspective’, Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press.

4) Lian, W-Y., O’Grady, P. (1998) Design with Objects: an Approach to Object-Oriented Design in ‘Computer-Aided Design’, 30:12, pp 943-956.

5) Mileaf, J. A. (2010) Man Ray Object to be Destroyed in ‘Please Touch: Dada and Surrealist Objects After the Readymade’, Darthmouth College Press, Lebanon, NH, pp 55-84.

6) Rittel, H. W. J. (1987) The Reasoning of Designers, University of California, Berkeley and Universitaet Stuttgart, pp 1-11.

7) Thompson J. B. (1995) The media and modernity : a social theory of the media, Location: Polity Press, Cambridge.

8) Tilley, C. (1994) ‘Interpreting Material Culture’, in Interpreting Objects and Collections, Pearce, S. M., Routledge Editions, London, pp 67-75.

9), last visited on November 16th, 2016.

10), last visited on November 17th, 2016.

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