Kitchen Tools and Participatory Consumption

I enjoyed the description of de Certeau’s characterization of ¬†consumption as “not merely empty or passive”, but “contain[ing] elements of user resistance – nonconformist, adaptive, appropriative, or otherwise transgressive tactics” – that becomes “creative acts of their own fashioning.” “By locating such creativity in the user and beyond the conventional role assumed by the designer, de Certeau opens the possibilities of a design attuned to its use, context, and life rather than only its material quality, prescribed functionality, or formal expression.”

I’m interested in objects that ask or lend themselves to such activities, where the designer incorporates flexible affordances so that user acts of adaptation need not be a form of appropriation or transgression. I found it interesting to try to categorize objects according to where they fell on this spectrum, and whether that affected our initial impressions¬†about such objects. Blauvelt describes de Certeau as shifting our attention to “acts of consumption, or use”, away from the historical preoccupation with the means of production, but it is interesting to consider objects that exhibit these co-opting characteristics both in use AND the means of production, etc. in assembly or manufacture. A product, such as a bicycle, a home appliance or a tool, for example, can designed to be fashioned using proprietary parts that can only be contained by one source, or be built in a way such that spare parts are easy to find, modifications/customizations are easy/encouraged and manufacturing/assembly can be easily transplanted to countries adopting the technology or use.

On a slightly different tangent, I’ve been moving homes recently, at different times requiring the purchase of new cookware/utensils. This reminds me of both de Certeau’s “participatory” consumption and the “familiarity of the strange.” A core set of 4-5 utensils lent themselves to a new variety of uses, allowing themselves to be co-opted in different ways or a different variety of dimensions. In a way, the absence of each utensil constrained me and made me more aware of their “absorption into the familiar” – I did not notice their lack until they were absent, and as I purchased each additional tool, the range of preparations expanded significantly. Some tools were clearly more versatile than others, with a sense of diminishing returns as more specialized tools were purchased.

The most versatile “core” tools were:

  • a small pot
  • a frying pan
  • a chef’s knife
  • a bamboo cutting board
  • bamboo spoon

Subsequent tools that expanded the affordances and cooking techniques were

  • a large cover for a pan or pot
  • a deep pan that could be used as a large pot or stir-fries
  • a simple strainer
  • a rice cooker (etc)
  • a toaster

It was surprising to me what a large variety of food that could be prepared with the set of “core” tools, which changed as I went from one to two tools, two to three tools, etc, and different ideas that occurred to me as I obtained additional tools (making pasta with vegetables where I could only make instant noodles before, stir-fries from only fried eggs before, making broth soups with a rice cooker), that were not possible before.

The strange was accentuated for me in an interesting way with their absence – the removal of skins and division into cookable pieces with a tool that allowed the focusing of force, containers that allowed the trapping of water or oil for heating that could be used to transform foodstuffs in very specific ways, flat surfaces (a cover) that could trap moisture to allow different kinds of cooking/heating (sunny-side eggs, slow-boiled soups, vegetables that needed more intense heat). The act of toasting seemed a strange act/ritual that opened up a very specific area of food that other products lent themselves to (fruit toasties, sliced bread), as well as the specific affordances of bread you sliced at home, to divide a loaf into flat sections so you could apply intense heat in both directions in a quick manner to produce crispness and caramelization.


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