Blobjects in design and architecture

The blobject reflects the shapelessness of the invisible, intangible world of zeroes and ones. It’s a hunk of ether you can hold in your hand.

Remember ectoplasm? It was the luminous goop that supposedly oozed from the ears and mouths of trance-channeling mediums back in the heyday of spiritualism (roughly, 1880-1920). Skeptics dismissed it as cheesecloth coated with glow-in-the-dark paint, but to spiritualists it was proof positive of an afterworld.

The “blobject” is the ectoplasm of our age–a manifestation of our turn-of-the-century fantasies and anxieties. Blobjects began popping up in the ’90s, their fluid contours, jellyfish shells, and Gummi Bear colors a striking departure from the tech-noir minimalism of the ’80s. They’re the signature products of our moment–the Hector Guimard Metro entrances of our iMac epoque.

The Apple iMac, introduced in 1999, has become the quintessential blobject and source of the design DNA for countless clones. Now the consumer landscape is crawling with sinuous, squishy-looking products. The sleek, ergonomic Oral-B tooth brush is a blobject. So is the Cybiko PDA, with its rippling, grippable shape, and Microsoft’s IntelliMouse Explorer, whose undulating silver carapace and trailing cord give it the look of a bulletproof trilobite. The Balladeuse, a portable light designed by the Tokyo-based Ixilab, is a blobject par excellence: a fluorescent bulb immersed in an oozy polyurethane gel and sealed in a PVC bladder, it’s designed to be hung or slung just about anywhere. “They’re fluid, they crawl, they work their way through the chaos,” the company’s website rhapsodizes, making a lamp sound like something that should be skulking around a hydrothermal vent.

The blob aesthetic has oozed into interior design: the writhing fiberglass walls of the Ost/Kuttner Apartment, designed by Kolatan/Mac Donald Studio and celebrated last year in “Design Culture Now,” an exhibition at the CooperHewitt Museum, are like something out of a David Cronenberg film. There’s blobby architecture, too: the bizarre, invertebrate structures dreamed up by Asymptote in New York and Greg Lynn FORM in Los Angeles offer glimpses of a biotech aesthetic in the birthing.

One way to get a grip on the blob aesthetic is to think of it as information age ectoplasm. An attempt to square spiritual yearnings with scientific skepticism, ectoplasm was a metaphysical oxymoron: the immaterial materialized. The blobject reflects the shapelessness of the invisible, intangible world of zeroes and ones that our work, our economy, and even our social lives seem to be disappearing into. It’s a hunk of ether you can hold in your hand.

While they make information concrete, blobjects also sing a song of speed –of the head-whipping acceleration of a world synchronized with the inhuman pace of digital technology. Next to blobjects, the gleaming, streamlined commodities of the ’30s appear to be standing still. The stereotypical blobject looks like a Raymond Loewy pencil sharpener that has engaged warp drive.

To be sure, the organic aesthetic that defines the obscure objects of consumerist desire isn’t a pure product of postmodern whimsy or information-age anxiety. It’s equally the result of a revolution in synthetic materials. Weird new chemical resins, artificial foams, and plastics like TechnoGel, the semiliquid polyurethane that imparts a butt-hugging squelchiness to Werner Aisslinger’s Soft chaise longue for Zanotta, for instance, are inspiring products that look as if they were vat-grown in some Blade Runner biotech lab.

As important are computer-enabled breakthroughs in manufacturing processes. The five-axis, computer-controlled milling machine has automated the creation of irregular shapes that until only recently would have required costly handcrafting. Then, too, software has radically transformed design itself, allowing designers to stretch, squash, fold, and fuse 3-D models. Consumer goods now look born rather than made.

Architecture has been shaken to its foundations by the digital revolution. “Before computers, you’d start designing using shapes of cubes,” Greg Lynn recently told The New York Times. “Now, I can start with something like a handkerchief.” Oran embryo. Lynn has created some stunning digital models of the Embryological House he’d like to build, a mutant dwelling with gills for windows and a sphincterlike front door that irises open and closed. Using cutting-edge manufacturing techniques, the builder would be able to “bulge and gastrulate” the floor, in Lynn’s words, to form furniture. All this bulging and gastrulating would give the house’s interior a decidedly fleshy feel, somewhere between intrauterine and intestinal. “You should feel as if you’re living in an animal,” says Lynn, who actually cites the 1958 movie The Blob as an inspiration for his work.

In the science-fiction classic, the all-consuming ooze of the title is a textbook Freudian terror, bubbling up out of the collective id of Perma-Prest’ 50s culture to slime everything in its path. Likewise, today’s blobjects symbolize the return of the repressed–in this case, nature, in all its chaotic unpredictability and gooey physicality.

Nature was always there, of course, lurking in the shadows of the sunny, scientific rationalism ushered in by the Enlightenment. The industrial aesthetic of the late 19th century was paralleled by the erotic frenzies of Art Nouveau, both of which reached their dizzy heights in Gaudi’s orgies of architectural omamentation. In the Machine Age ’30s and ’40s, biomorphic artist/designers like Isamu Noguchi and proto-blob architects like Frederick Kiesler rejected the hard-edged geometry of the skyscraper for the pulsing outlines of the amoeba. Now the biomorphic aesthetic is back, in all its polymorphous perversity, just in time for the biotech century. In our brave new world, the blobject’s mixed metaphor is fast becoming reality. The surreal conjunction of technology and biology, mechanism and organism is made literal in the SynerGraft heart valve, composed of engineered tissue, and the remote-controlled “RoboRoach,” created by implanting electrodes in the brain of a cockroach. Today, a monkey with a jellyfish gene; tomorrow, baboon-to-human transplants and micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) that live inside the body.

Whither then? Bioengineered fleshtech like the skin-crawlingly creepy virtual-reality game pods in the Cronenberg movie eXistenZ? Don’t laugh. Walking through a subway station in midtown Manhattan recently, I passed a billboard for the high-tech venture-capital and consulting firm Accenture. “Computers that run on bacteria,” the tagline predicted. “Now things get interesting.” It sounds like a threat. Or a promise. Or both.

Mark Dery is a cultural critic whose articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Red Herring. His latest book is The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink (Grove/Atlantic).