A graphic design project looking at the role of objects in shaping humanity

What Do Objects Want?, a research-driven publication by London-based designer Sundeep Yaya, looks at the ecosystem of objects that inform our lives and shape our realities.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Nov 22, 2022

What Do Objects Want? is a graphic design project and publication by London-based graphic designer Sundeep Yaya, that seeks to destabilise the concretised notions around objects, and instead explores the ways in which object design particularly affects our thinking and spaces. Yaya experiments and proposes to make legible the quiet ecosystem that objects have formed with humans, proposing a sense of agency through objecthood, that further extends to questions around posthumanism.

Through his practice-based research process, the artist highlights the Acheulean hand axe—as an introductory element—a prehistoric object that is considered to have been produced between 1.76 million and 300,000 years ago. Since many such ‘hand axes’ were found, the object was likely to have been used as a tool, but Yaya counters this with the observation that there was not much evidence to suggest that the tools were ever used. He proposes instead that they could have had an ornamental function, owing to their obsessive symmetry originating from a tedious craft. Yaya imagines the object as a reflection of the human race—having shaped our hands, while we have sculpted away at them—envisioning a relational and possibly radical ecosystem between humans and objects.

In conversation with STIR, the graphic designer speaks about how objects shape our spatial experiences and relationships, “In the book, I use an anecdote about the Achulean hand axe that describes how it was used for sexual selection and how its beauty was a testament to the maker's craftsmanship. This axe reveals how mankind perceived itself in the objects it created, and how we came to understand that altering and modifying the object may alter how we perceive ourselves. We had come to believe that we had complete control over the objects we created and by extension, ourselves. But the axes we created also had agency over us; while we were chipping away at them, they were chipping back at us and reshaping our hands to the modern human hands.”

View of experiments with 3D objects of earthen pots, 2022, Graphic Design | What Do Objects Want? | Sundeep Yaya | STIRworld
View of experiments with 3D objects of earthen pots, 2022, graphic design Image: Courtesy of Sundeep Yaya

Through the publication, Yaya brings together elements of textual exploration, incorporating critical design thinking—presenting design-based experiments that use dinnerware as a genre, in particular, that serves as an entry point into exploring the ideas proposed. He explores the idea of the ‘counter-form’ or the negative space that is created by the object in question, a dinner plate in this case, and transforms it into a new object based on the concavity produced. Yaya questions the premise of the object and what defines it—the form or its counter form? Is a dinner plate a dinner plate because of its shape or because of the space it creates, and therefore the function that it facilitates, and in turn how we contort our bodies around it?

Speaking to the idea of objects and their agency in shaping us, Yaya tells STIR, “I was interested in the idea that the objects we make and own have some agency over us, and I thought it was important to look at how these objects position themselves around us and other objects, in order to comprehend this phenomenon. I chose to focus on a set of objects that we refer to as tableware and was looking at several aspects of their formal relationships when I discovered the potential for an object-oriented ecosystem. There is a set of images I drew during my research and it is illustrative of how the many types of dinnerware are/might be related. Was there a genesis bowl that we repeatedly iterated on until we got plates and glasses? They all seemed to have been influenced by or emerged from one another. Was there a starting point from which we iterated over and over, until we arrived at where we are today?”

Counterform plates, 2022, graphic design | What Do Objects Want? | Sundeep Yaya | STIRworld
Counterform plates, 2022, graphic design Image: Courtesy of Sundeep Yaya

Speaking to the nature of the research image that he has incorporated into the form of his explorations, Yaya says, “I believe that, like in the research image, items have several invisible connections with one another that affect things like design and utility. Although the existence of such ecosystems in objects may not be absolute, they are indicative of our own position in our ecosystem and may urge us to look around and notice those hidden connections because we are too much like these objects, only an iteration among many.”

Image from series ‘What Do Objects Want?’, 2022, Graphic Design, Sundeep Yaya | What Do Objects Want? | Sundeep Yaya | STIRworld
Image from series What Do Objects Want?, 2022, graphic design, Sundeep Yaya Image: Courtesy of Sundeep Yaya

With the idea of the ‘good neighbour,’ Yaya also facilitates the imagination of an ecosystem of objects that in turn inform a larger ecology of space. The visual artist also uses the example of the Japanese art of ‘Kitsungi,’ to illustrate the fact of a larger completion, that does not rely on the purity or inheritance of function within the object.

An image from the  ‘What Do Objects Want?’, 2022, Graphic Design series| What Do Objects Want? | Sundeep Yaya | STIRworld
An image from What Do Objects Want?, 2022, graphic design series Image: Courtesy of Sundeep Yaya

Speaking further to the post-humanist aspect of assessing objects as part of an agential relation, Yaya says, “The objects we create serve as the lens through which we look at the world. In today's world, the cell phone, for example, has become a complete extension of ourselves, transforming us into cyborgs. Form and counter form play equal roles in influencing how we see a space, and within a place, the form of the objects and how they occupy it determine how we perceive, navigate, and use that space. Although what I have truly been interested in through this project, is the space and counterspace provided by the form of the object. As I have been focusing on dinnerware, I was playing with space and counterspace surrounding dinnerware. Is the counterspace (counter form) produced by the part of a bowl that contains food what defines it as a bowl? or the outer area (form) that gives it shape and is held in the palms of our hands? What would happen if we switched the order?”

Counterform glass, 2022, Graphic Design | What Do Objects Want? | Sundeep Yaya | STIRworld
Counterform glass, 2022, graphic design Image: Courtesy of Sundeep Yaya

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