Sam Jacob at Dezeen Live

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Architect and writer Sam Jacob takes the audience at Dezeen Live on a rapid-fire journey from a prehistoric standing stone to the Argos catalogue and USB cigarettes in this interview filmed at 100% Design during the London Design Festival.

“Is the making of objects something that allows us to create human culture and separate ourselves from what we were previously?” asks Jacob, director of architects FAT and author of the Strange Harvest blog, after going to see the oldest human-made exhibit at the British Museum. “Could we be human without objects?”

Each speaker from Dezeen Live at 100% Design was asked to select five images to talk about and Jacob begins by showing an ancient standing stone. “Taking something that exists and shifting it 90 degrees is an incredible expression of becoming human,” he says.

“This is the other end of the spectrum – the laminated book of dreams” Jacob explains, introducing his second image, which brings the story of object culture up to date. “I have always loved the Argos catalogue. I would love to take the contents of the British Museum out and restock it with the contents of Argos,” he muses. “We could look at ourselves and see what it is that we do and make. The Argos catalogue gives us a slice through what we are.”

Jacob’s next image is a heavily filtered Instagram photo. “Instagram tells us a lot about where we are and what we want to do with the world,” he suggests, since it combines digital technology, the internet and mobile devices. “But it’s allied with this sickly retro-nostalgia. It’s like everything is from the 1970s.”

To Jacob, Instagram is an example of how new technology often recycles the past instead of embracing the future, relying on skeuomorphs – redundant forms from earlier iterations of a product – instead of finding new, more appropriate forms. “The idea of a futuristic future must have stopped some time around 1982” he says.

Jacob’s next example is an electronic cigarette, which he describes as an object “on the frontier of something new”.

“They’re the struggle of an old idea through a new form of delivery,” he says.” This is an object that tries to look and feel as much like a cigarette as possible but delivers its nicotine through a completely different system.”

He adds: “They call it skeuomorphic design. You find it a lot on digital products as well, like the notepad on Apple, which has fake yellow paper, fake margins, fake lines and fake handwriting. It’s the point where you see through Apple’s supposed amazing design culture and see that actually it’s just a load of stuff thrown together.”

Apple’s skeuomorphic software design was brought up in an earlier conversation at 100% Design with designer Yves Behar, who declared that “Apple is a little bit behind in that area”.

Skeuomorphic design isn’t new, Jacob points out, giving the example of the earliest cars. “When the car was invented, the idea of the car didn’t exist, so it could only be thought of as a carriage without horses.”

Jacob summarises by explaining his interest in everyday contemporary objects. “My fascination with design is less to do with finding solutions and much more to do with design as a cultural activity,” he says. “I’m fascinated by things like this because I think they tell us about culture. They may be ridiculous, they may be funny, but I think they say something profound about the way we think.”

Dezeen Live was a series of discussions between Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs and a number of designers and critics that took place as part of the talks programme at design exhibition 100% Design during the 2012 London Design Festival.


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