How many surfaces does an object have?

in homage to Benoît B. Mandelbrot

By Tamar Shafrir


Our basic conception of surface is paradoxical. On one hand, it is reduced to two dimensions, devoid of depth, infinitely thin: if material is volumetric, then the surface is by necessity immaterial. On the other hand, it is our primary mode of encounter with the world around us: physically, the contact between our skin and the environment is a matter of two surfaces interfacing. To penetrate an object—by disassembling its components, by carving into it, or by breaking it down chemically—is to fundamentally transform that object, and thus the observations or interactions we might gain by that breach correlate to a different thing entirely. An oak table is a massive, weighty thing, but our relationship with it is entirely determined by surface (until we try to move it). Chopping into the wood might reveal something about the material—its density, its knots and grain, the way it has been sanded and treated and varnished to form a usable plane—but it tells us little about the table as such. As a functional archetype, the table surface remains the enigmatic answer to our inquiries.

 In post-modernist terms, this assumption provided the foundation for a detached, critical, and speculative approach to design. The object became readable as a text, its surface filled with a coded language of historically-positioned signs and symbols that the designer could employ as a writer would use metaphors and quotes. In the architecture of the Vanna Venturi House, the facade was unlinked from the actual division of space within; in the designs of the Memphis Group, the surface was made up of playful colours, layered synthetic finishes, and a trompe l’oeil of material allusions with no intrinsic connection to the base material. The early modernists, in their insistence on honesty and functionality, did their best to deny the surface even existed, but post-modernism effectively revived design as a multi-channel approach—the basic question of purpose and function, of course, but a parallel investigation of the object as a signifier. Thus, the surface became doubled—one was the material limit, and the other was the envelope of content. After all, the messages encoded in the surface could not be simply peeled off from the object. They were intrinsically embedded; the surface was simply the proof. And thus, maddeningly, the surface continued to elide our understanding.

 The rise of conceptual design has complicated the situation even further. At the heights of post-modernism, the attention-seeking objects were still useful, if oddly or even barely so; their power as signifiers made them desirable as possessions with which to decorate one’s home—indeed, the self-conscious use of such furniture was the most powerful way to project one’s identity. But conceptual design has progressively loosened the object’s material reality from its communicative power. The use of an archetypal object such as a chair, teapot, or lamp to make an “artistic” statement, with only a tenuous link to its original purpose (sitting, drinking, lighting), has become firmly entrenched in contemporary culture as an accepted mode of expression. Furthermore, that statement gains little additional power from the use of the object, so function becomes (at best) peripheral and (at worst) a vestigial burden, an appendix threatening to burst. The original function is translated into a volumetric canvas for the projection of a theoretical concept, in addition to the surface as the boundary of matter and as the landscape of visual symbols—the surface, thus, in triplicate.

 Lest the reader get too comfortable at this point, be assured that the question of surface is about to get even more complicated: in fact, it is on the brink of an exponential complexity hitherto unmapped. Let us return to the object for a moment. It once had a maker and an owner; it sat in its place in the home, in the workplace, or in public; it had a price and a purpose. The new breed of conceptual objects is different: it travels from gallery to private collection to exhibition booth, resting foam-wrapped in wooden boxes in the off-season. But this activity is simply in the physical realm; simultaneously, the object populates the printed pages of magazines and books, appears on computer monitors and touchscreens, and is projected onto white walls in lecture halls and museums. For some designers, films and images are the only motivation for and record of the object’s short-lived physical existence. Now the meaning of surface is ambiguous: it might refer to the material, iconographic, or conceptual layer of the object itself, but it must also account for the two-dimensional translation of the still or film camera, and the specific material and tactical properties of the medium of visualisation. The very nature of surface becomes fractal.

 In his book Real Spaces, David Summers posits two diametric events as fundamental to the history of art. The first is the invention of the image as a way of “[making] present in social spaces what for some reason is not present” physically. The hand-stencils and wild animals painted on the walls of the caves in Sulawesi, El Castillo, and Chauvet in the Palaeolithic era were the first attempts to understand and order the world via the surface and its capacity to create spatial relationships, frames, orders, hierarchies, ratios, and perspectives. For the next thirty millennia, art would develop these powers towards the production of a pre-digital mediated reality, completely mastered by the image creator. The second event is encapsulated in René Magritte’s La trahison des images, a painting of a pipe above the words “Ceci nest pas une pipe”—this is not a pipe. Magritte reveals that the illusion is merely an image surface. But if he disproves the surface as a window into another world, he therefore reinforces the surface as a real object in our world.

 If the objective or character of design in the present day seems nebulous, it may be that we are looking at it through the wrong lens. If surface has become fractal, then we must employ a different focus at each dimension, at each scale, in each medium, from the molecule to the icon to the pixel. Rather than thinking of surface as the aforementioned infinitely thin immateriality, we should recall the etymology of the word itself—from the Latin superficies (above + face). Like a set of nested faces, each surface has directionality, expressive power, and communicative agency, at the level of the object, at the level of the recording device, at the level of the screen. The question for designers is what they want each one to say.