Boundary Objects


By Sarah Kuhn

29 April 2014

After Charles Eames’ death, there was a traveling show about the work of Charles and Ray Eames which I went to see at LACMA. They had dismantled and re-created the reception area of the Eames Design Office as part of the exhibit. It was so odd to see this familiar place from the summer I worked there, rebuilt to scale with the original furniture. But you couldn’t go in it. You could just look at it.

“Design is a form of action.” 

There was a quote from Charles painted on the wall: “Design is a form of action.” I think that is so true, and looking at the re-created office, I had the feeling that I was looking at the shell of a hermit crab or a lobster—the shell was there, but the life had gone out of it. That is what was so lacking in the show. The action that happened within the Eames Office—the performance, the conversation, the interaction—is critical.

The works I chose in this set are sites and objects of action. They allow for different ways of thinking and learning. The Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Design is a site for inquiry and exploration of and with materials, which can lead to innovation. The Office of Charles and Ray Eames (before the physical location was dismantled and put on tour) was a place of collaborative work that manifested in interdisciplinary exhibitions, architecture, and the iconic furniture designs we know today.

It is enormously helpful to have something physical to look and talk about. In social science there is something we call a “boundary object” which is a shared system or physical object that can be used and manipulated by people from different disciplines or perspectives. It is something that members of a group can point to, discuss, and interpret, and use to build shared understanding through discussion. Crocheted hyperbolic planes, for example, can help make advanced mathematics accessible by a route very different from the normal route. They can also be a spur to interesting conversations. The natural history collection at RISD’s Nature Lab can inspire students to solve design problems by showing them how nature has solved similar problems. The Arthur Loeb collection of geometrical models visualizes the structural properties in design science and architecture.

Boundary objects externalize abstract problems, which makes them less threatening. They are enormously useful when crossing boundaries between disciplines. The objects do not themselves have to solve problems, but they can set the ball rolling.