How would you design an object that cannot be built?
This is not a question that arises too often.
How would you design an object that cannot be built? This is not a question that arises too often. Indeed, if it does, one may think that something must have gone seriously wrong: For if an object cannot be built, why bother with its design?
A laser gun cannot be built, not currently, and presumably not for a long time – at least not the type of handheld laser gun populating the realms of fiction. In the universe of comic strips, films and sci-fi-novels, the laser gun not only exists, but becomes omnipresent as one leaps ahead of time. Han Solo always has a laser colt at hand as he strays through the galaxies. James Bond uses one in “Moonraker”. An early model appears in Flash Gordon. For nearly a century, laser guns have been a staple of space operas.
For being a device of technological prowess, most laser guns appear intriguingly harmless: A beam of light – no bullet, no blood, and no burns. This may be reassuring to parents: When children pretend to be fighting with laser guns they are at least safely placed in the world of fiction. Admittedly, there is no guarantee that this will remain so forever. In principle, a strong beam light can turn into a powerful weapon.
When this project presents sketches of laser guns, we can rest assured no arms producer is sponsoring it. The laser gun is conceptualized as an object of the realm of fiction. This sets it apart. For most objects product designers create have a determined purpose, which shapes their look. While there may be a wide and ever increasing variety of chair designs, all chairs have one thing in common: They are made to be sat on. If they were not, they would not be called “chairs”, at least not by the salesman in a furniture store. Function determines form, at least partly.
With the laser gun, matters are different. There is a dependence of form on function, but it can be eliminated. The evolution of this project’s laser gun designs illustrates this. The early attempts orient themselves closely at the object's function. This seems natural. After all, one understands the words “laser” and “gun” and can make sense of their combination. If nothing else, it seems obvious that every laser gun has to somehow be held and fired, so it needs handle and trigger. Gradually, however, the designs free themselves from the images imprinted on us by the laser guns fired in the world of fiction. And then – there is no limit. Since the laser gun is not designed to be built, there is nothing that prevents its design from going off in all sorts of directions. Nothing stops the three-dimensional visualization of a shot’s sound-wave from being a laser gun, nothing a twisted balloon à la Koons, nothing the plain, rectangular object exhaling a tiny heart.
It was Immanuel Kant who argued that only an object one imagines without any interest in its existence could be said to be beautiful. The reason, to simplify greatly, is that only in this case does one's imagination depend on a feeling invoked in oneself rather than on the object itself; and only in this case can one request that all other humans should agree to one’s non-cognitive judgement, even though one could not provide them with reasons for doing so.
This project offers the rare opportunity of drifting from a purpose-oriented object to a mere form, from the solid material to a visual impression, and, at least on Kant’s account, from the merely pleasurable to the potentially beautiful. Taking this path requires that one attempts what might at first appear senseless – design an object that cannot be built. And indeed, it requires one to attempt this time and again.
Made in collaboration with our dear friend Mario Rütimann.
Text: F. Bieber, Culture Journalist