The 'blobject' comes of age

In the 20th century, physics was king of the sciences, as Albert Einstein and his successors began unlocking our understanding of the physical world. In the 21st century, biology - the ability to understand and alter the workings of genes and living cells - is having a profound effect on society.

The upsurge of interest in biology has influenced a new generation of industrial designers who have infused their aesthetic with fluid shapes and curved forms.

Taking advantage of computer-aided design, as well as new manufacturing techniques and materials, today's industrial designers are creating "blobjects" - playful, bright, curvy, friendly, even cuddly products that also perform practical functions. Their pleasing shapes have been called "pop music for the eyes."

While a good deal of the inspiration for blobjects comes from nature and biological forms - the asymmetrical, fluid, blobby world around us - their wellspring lies within sophisticated computer software, where graphic ideas can be quickly, cheaply, and easily manipulated in hundreds of ways with the click of a mouse.

This ability to play with shapes has created "a golden era for the fluid form," says Steven Skov Holt, a professor of industrial design at California College of the Arts in San Francisco and a former editor of I.D., the industrial design magazine. He and his wife, Mara Holt Skov, an art historian, have cocurated a show now at the San Jose Museum of Art called "Blobjects and Beyond: The New Fluidity in Design."

"There's a sense of possibility in [blobjects] because they can shape-shift," says Mara. That quality, she says, seems to be perfect for this moment at the beginning of a new millennium: "It's an expression of possibility, a new futurism."

Though influential designers were playing with more fluid shapes in the late 1980s and early '90s, the couple points to 1998 as the year that blobjects burst into consumer consciousness: that's when the Apple iMac, the new Volkswagen Beetle, and the Nike Triax watch arrived. "They all made personal connections," she says. "The iMac was the first huggable computer."

Today products from curvy toothbrushes to swoopy soap dishes, bulbous buildings to wavy water bottles, can rightly be called blobjects.

Blobjects are more than a fad, certainly a trend, and maybe even a movement. And though they're common, they're not ubiquitous: Far from every new product qualifies as a blobject. The spare, straight lines of Modernism continue to be expressed in many designs, Mara says. The "squircle," or square circle, as seen in the rounded rectangle of an iPod music player or many digital cameras, represents a hybrid approach, but not a "full on" blobject, adds Steven. As far as he knows, he was the first to coin the term "blobject" in a 1993 article in Esquire magazine. Since then, many designers, most prominently Karim Rashid in New York, have popularized the idea.

While blobjects sometimes may be whimsical and lighthearted, the thinking behind them has substance, the cocurators say. "There's something there that is deeper [in blobjects] than just 'Oh, gee, it's a cool-looking thing,' " Mara says.

Pop culture has helped visual literacy "really increase in a very exceptional and beautiful way in recent years," says Steven, echoing the ideas of Steven Johnson, whose recent book "Everything Bad Is Good for You" argues that engaging with pop culture actually makes people smarter. In the same way, cultural "pariahs" such as video games and MTV have helped people experience design in a deeper way, Steven says.

The earliest expressions of blobjects go back to ancient carvings, even to the curves of the human body itself. After World War II, the Shmoo became one of the first pop-culture icons. In Al Capp's "Lil' Abner" comic strip, the friendly blob-like characters could morph into anything that would please people, a symbol of the dawning consumer age.

The roots of blobjects also can be found in aspects of Art Nouveau, streamlining, Surrealism, even 1960s psychedelia. In the 20th century, artists such as Jean Arp, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, and Henry Moore explored curvaceous, blobby forms. But these were handcrafted, one-of-a-kind art objects. Now those ideas have been transformed into consumer products that are "both tool and toy," Steven says.

At their most frivolous, blobjects take the form of "cutensils" (cute utensils) - small gadgets such as staplers, hand mixers, or watering cans that look like bright, cartoon-like toys but were carefully designed with human hands in mind.

On a larger scale, the San Jose exhibition displays a Smart Car, designed by the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Team in 1998. It features a podlike passenger compartment, rounded nose, smiling grille, and a friendly aura that the cocurators say makes them think of "a pet beagle."

The years since 1998 have seen the high-tech industry bubble burst (for many Bay Area companies, "all that was left was dust and a few Aeron chairs," Steven notes), anxiety over Y2K and the new millennium, and fresh concerns over personal safety spawned by the 9/11 tragedies. Reflecting these events, some versions of the cheery blobject have headed in a darker direction, "toward forms that are mutated and disturbed, morphed and stretched, dangerous and intimidating," the couple writes in a book accompanying the exhibition.

But however it evolves, they say, the blobject will continue to show itself to be "this generation's master metaphor."

"Blobjects and Beyond: The New Fluidity in Design" is at the San Jose (Calif.) Museum of Art through July 10. The exhibition is expected to tour, but dates and venues are still to be announced. A book by the same title (Chronicle Books, $35) explains blobjects in more detail and contains photos of works in the show as well as additional examples.

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