12.4.12 | Transblog
It’s iconic. A single piece of thick white paper, creased and folded into a pint-sized box, held together by a simple handle of slim metal wire on top. The square base expands ever so slightly as it rises upward, allowing easy access for the inquiring handheld utensil. The four standing walls culminate in four simple edges, folded into almost leak-proof closure as one might wrap the edges of a birthday gift. Two identical, opposing edges bent down first, the remaining two swiftly follow, providing a final top layer easily and securely fastened by slipping the minimal ‘hook’ of one edge into the discrete slit cut into the other. The Chinese takeout container: an object of supreme functionality with non-descript decoration, the perfect canvas for the American imagination.
I have always felt a nagging ambivalence toward this object. Frustratingly irritated with its redundant equivalence to cheap in movie (Hollywood) after movie (or indie), and yet simultaneously content with its dignified and unadorned staying power.
Obviously as an American of Chinese ancestry my experience with the object stretches beyond its aesthetic and material qualities to the greater cultural and symbolic significations. More importantly however, as a transdisciplinary designer the symbolic and cultural is what is most interesting about the object. Though we might attempt to strip the design of its association with Chinese, the cultural signifier is integral to its description. Ask someone to envision a takeout container and perhaps a few options will come to mind. Ask a person to envision a Chinese takeout container; we get one and only one silhouette.
I find it amusing that despite its cultural connotations, the container is an American invention. In a NY Times article by Hilary Greenbaum and Dana Rubinstein titled, “The Chinese-Takeout Container Is Uniquely American,” the design is accredited to a Mr. Frederick Weeks Wilcox, citing that “On Nov.13, 1894, in Chicago the inventor…patented a version of what he called the ‘paper pail’.” I wonder how the inventor would feel about the object today. Would he be glad it is still in wide use over a hundred years later? Would he be confused by its descriptive Chinese adjective? Of course we will never know. I believe it fair to assume however, that we can be sure he had no intention of such a legacy.
Designing objects is very much like a performance or film in this way: you never have full charge of creating the meaning. Even with the most astringent control over viewing experience, the audience always has the last say. Likewise, try as we might to design a foolproof (fill in the blank) experience, the user will do as she pleases. I am curious then, how does cultural significance refract meaning back onto the aesthetic and material qualities of an object? What filters do we unconsciously bring to our analyses of designs as useful or good? How do politics, culture, material, subversion, and memory play into shaping our imaginative capacity as designers? What prejudices are we unaware of? What biases are we stuck on? What are solutions we already have, but simply fail to see?