Handy Containers

While we may have rejected the box as the standard architectural form, we’re more dedicated to it than ever.

Karrie Jacobs on Boxism

Have you heard of “boxism”? It’s the great design movement of the last century or so. It’s not to be confused with modernism, which has undeniably been one of mankind’s great progenitors of boxiness. Nor is it the inertia that management consultants are trying to defend against when they entreat their clients to think outside the box. It is something greater, more universal, an unacknowledged global belief system.

You haven’t heard of boxism? That’s because I just made it up. Every thought that’s currently in my head has been colored by the experience of my recent move. It was a short hop, from Brooklyn to Manhattan, but moving—even a mile or two—is always traumatic. Conceptually speaking, it’s a direct way of experiencing change, the shock of the new and all. But really, there’s nothing conceptual about it. It is a purely physical task. You just have to muscle a lifetime’s worth of random stuff from point A to point B. Which means you’ve got to put it in boxes.

So I was trying to figure out how to procure the ridiculous number of boxes I needed. Movers charge a premium. Grocery stores are too unreliable. I did a Google search (“moving boxes nyc”) and found a whole host of companies that do nothing but dispense moving boxes from simple Web sites. I ordered some, and the next day a guy drove up in a van stuffed with cardboard and dropped off what seemed like plenty of boxes. The transaction struck me as an odd confluence of smart and dumb technology, the electronic box and the cardboard box.

When, inevitably, I ran out of book boxes, the maintenance guys in my building supplied me with a steady stream of used FreshDirect boxes salvaged from the basement recycling pile. These excellent boxes from the online grocery store were small, easy to handle, and standardized to make their technology-driven food-distribution system move smoothly. They did the same for me. All the messiness of my life, which had been contained—just barely—by a 550-square-foot shoebox of an apartment, could be neatly packaged in cardboard.

Yes, I have boxes on the brain. But it occurs to me that all of design history is about embracing or rejecting the box. Order or chaos. Symmetry or asymmetry. Minimalism or maximalism. Packing or unpacking. This is the essence of boxism. Come to think of it, the ism itself is a kind of box, a way of taking the unruliness of life’s grand pageant and containing it. Design history, in particular, is a treasure trove of misplaced isms, all intended to force the messiness of design happenstance into a neat package.

Sometime in the late 1980s, I interviewed the designer Massimo Iosa Ghini, who had created an unusually angular chair. He presented it as an exemplar of a movement he called “bolidism,” from the Italian word bolide (a fast-moving projectile). Bolidism was a 1980s gloss on 1930s futurism, and I only remember the slight, unremarkable chair because it was presented in such a grand package. Later, the brilliant Dan Friedman, who died in 1995, came up with the concept of “radical modernism” to explain his journey from graphics to corporate logos to art furniture to graphics. And Constantin Boym, together with the artists Komar and Melamid, cooked up Searstyle (think of it as Searsism) as a way to understand the most mundane aspects of American design.

But maybe the best packagers of design thinking were the designated box-busters of the late 1980s and early 1990s: the McCoys, Michael and Kathy. Respectively, they ran the industrial-design and graphic-design departments at Cranbrook Academy of Art. When Kathy introduced her students to poststructuralism, a literary theory that denounces linear thinking, the result was some sublime box-busting. The designers she trained tended to ignore the constraints of symmetry or the modernist grid, with multiple layers of type rampaging across the page.

Michael encouraged his students to design with the assumption that function would take care of itself and, therefore, appliances could have new shapes driven by cultural reference. This was “product semantics,” an ism in all but name. And suddenly, humidifiers were tall and reedy, TV sets were soft like pillows, and a radical new type of phone (designed by Lisa Krohn, a Cranbrook student, with help from the industrial designer Tucker Viemeister) was shaped like a thick plastic Filofax, with a different function every time you turned the page. Krohn’s Phonebook was the hot design object of 1987, winning the prestigious Forma Finlandia prize. It was, in a way, highly predictive: phones would soon have so many functions that it would require Herculean design efforts to make them intelligible. But Krohn and Viemeister got it right while getting it wrong. The correct metaphor was not the book but the box that McCoy’s students were so assiduously trying to banish. The ergonomic old Bell handset was destined to be shrunk into a much less expressive form.

Indeed, the efforts of the McCoys to bust the box were but a short detour on civilization’s drive to reinforce the primacy of the rectilinear. In the 1990s, we began a search for new kinds of boxes. AOL, which was how many of us first experienced the Internet, introduced a new landscape of boxes, the e-mail and the chat room, in which type had never been so linear or hierarchical. Then the Mosaic browser, released in 1993 by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, drove the development of the World Wide Web. All the now routine attributes of the Web browser were there: the navigation bar and toolbars. The browser became the rectangular window through which we were able to see the world. It was the most powerful organizing tool (at least since the invention of the book) for life’s infinite complexity: the ultimate box. And coincidentally or not, by the mid-1990s our passion for the architectural box—pure modular-inspired modernism—had again begun to surge.

So here we are in the second decade of the 21st century, and the world has never been less boxy. Design culture is endlessly effusive. Everything is highly fluid. Objects—sofas, coffeepots, light fixtures, bicycles, running shoes, water bottles—have taken on forms, often computer generated, that Michael McCoy’s boldest students couldn’t have imagined. We’ve rejected the box as the standard architectural form, instead bending and shaping buildings into swoops, pyramids, and Möbius strips. The world around us has become as unpredictable as a mescaline dream. At the same time, we are more dedicated to the box than ever.

Our physical environments might be all spirals and volutes, but the box remains triumphant. We go to a restaurant where everything undulates, where fluid walls change colors according to mood, where every surface has its own custom-programmed texture. But what are we all doing in this amazing environment? We’re studying the little boxes in our hands: texting, checking our Facebook feeds, tweeting. We’re uploading pictures of our meals or transmitting our locations to Foursquare. The world around us is expressive beyond our wildest dreams, but we don’t much notice because we’re deep in our boxes. Our iPhones, our Kindles, our BlackBerries, our iPads: all of them are containers, slim but rectilinear, that synthesize and modulate complexity. And it’s not just one box, either, the satisfying chunk of glass and metal that we reflexively cradle in our hands. Each box contains a universe of boxes, charming and colorful, arrayed row upon row. Apps, after all, are a way of taking each of life’s tasks—unwieldy, unpredictable, messy—and packaging them, much as FreshDirect fits a disparate assortment of groceries into a precise little container. Boxism rules!

Boxism’s central tenet is this: every time we try to think outside the box, we find ourselves deeper inside it. As long as we feel compelled to manage complexity, there will be a box. There’s no escape. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, box to box.

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