Usefulness in Small Things

I've always been a firm believer that some of the most interesting design is found in the objects we use everyday. As much as I do love those specific objects meant to be perched on mantles or be the focal point of a room, there's something so captivating about things intended to solve a problem, streamline a process, or just make life easier. In Usefulness in Small Things, just off the presses at Rizzoli, Sam Hecht and Kim Colin introduce a collection of low-cost, mass-produced items gathered from around the world.

These plastic utensils were designed by <a href="http://designmuseum.org/design/joe-colombo">Joe Colombo</a>, one of Italy's most famous designers.

These plastic utensils were designed by Joe Colombo, one of Italy's most famous designers.

Design is everywhere—you don't even have to look for it, but you do have to change the way you think. A Heinz Ketchup bottle may be ubiquitous for those in the United States, but a disposable travel iron from Japan could be a first-time discovery for many, and vice versa. Therein lies the strength of this book: it makes the everyday objects, the "humble masterpieces" of the world easily accessible to anyone, anywhere.

A watering can and spray bottle combination (dubbed a "failure" by Hecht) from Malaysia. Photo: © Usefulness in Small Things, Rizzoli, 2011.

A watering can and spray bottle combination (dubbed a "failure" by Hecht) from Malaysia. Photo: © Usefulness in Small Things, Rizzoli, 2011.

"Some of the items appear odd, but none are about novelty," writes Hecht, a British industrial designer who co-heads the firm Industrial Facility with Colin (the two are also Muji's creative directors for Europe).

A double-headed nail from the United States is an example of the "Locality" section of objects in the book. Used commonly to install temporary wooden supports in the US but not abroad, the nail was uniquely original to Hecht and communicated a sense of pl

A double-headed nail from the United States is an example of the "Locality" section of objects in the book. Used commonly to install temporary wooden supports in the US but not abroad, the nail was uniquely original to Hecht and communicated a sense of place. Photo: © Usefulness in Small Things, Rizzoli, 2011.

Hecht began collecting objects through his travels and searched through local hardware stores, pharmacies, and supermarkets for small objects that would communicate a sense of place. "Each of the objects I found appealed to me for a specific reason: the ability to address and identify a small and localized need, even when some were hopelessly flawed in their execution," writes Hecht. Included in the book are toothbrushes, lighters, paperclips, falafel makers, potato peeling gloves, soft drink bottles, and more gathered from countries including Israel, Japan, Malaysia, the UK, and USA.

<i>Usefulness in Small Things</i> by Kim Colin and Sam Hecht (New York: Rizzoli). Photo: © Usefulness in Small Things, Rizzoli, 2011.

Usefulness in Small Things by Kim Colin and Sam Hecht (New York: Rizzoli). Photo: © Usefulness in Small Things, Rizzoli, 2011.

There's an interesting dialogue in contemporary design about how it should be thought of. Is it an art form, a craft, a functional object? Is it even possible to separate these things or group them under a single umbrella term? "Art is a presentation of thought that makes you think. Design is a communication of thoughts that make you use," writes Hecht.

"A typical clip for holding papers together, but with an ingenious modification. The handles are folded at right angles to the clip so that it avoids obscuring text on the page."—Sam Hecht. Photo: © Usefulness in Small Things, Rizzoli, 2011.

"A typical clip for holding papers together, but with an ingenious modification. The handles are folded at right angles to the clip so that it avoids obscuring text on the page."—Sam Hecht. Photo: © Usefulness in Small Things, Rizzoli, 2011.

Individual objects in the collection weren't conceived with the larger questions about design and art. Yes, these are things you use and throw away, things that are so commonplace that you don't think to think of them, and some are hopelessly flawed, too. Presented as a whole, though, the collection is an interesting commentary on design—a thought that makes you think, to use Hecht's phrase.

"I was starting to realize that forgotten or overlooked objects which held a promise impressed me, and they continue to do so," writes Hecht. We can continue to toss that ketchup bottle into the recycling, or take a page from Hecht's book and become more engaged with the things we encounter on a daily basis.

An eggplant knife from Bulgaria as represented in <i>Usefulness in Small Things</i>. Photo: © Usefulness in Small Things, Rizzoli, 2011.

An eggplant knife from Bulgaria as represented in Usefulness in Small Things. Photo: © Usefulness in Small Things, Rizzoli, 2011.

When soaked in water, this 13cm x 8cm brick of "compressed clothing" from Japan expands to become a t-shirt, pants, pair of socks, and a towel. Photo: © Usefulness in Small Things, Rizzoli, 2011.

When soaked in water, this 13cm x 8cm brick of "compressed clothing" from Japan expands to become a t-shirt, pants, pair of socks, and a towel. Photo: © Usefulness in Small Things, Rizzoli, 2011.

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