Post-industrial bricolage

Look with all your eyes, look! —Jules Vernes

The Parisian corn cart affords a table and a secure storage area. It is mobile. Its metal mesh allows for ventilation, while minimizing weight. Combined with tensioned lumber, the mesh can secure a tin can. The can, with two large perforations, serves as a brazier. The child-seat backing serves as a grill. The support and holster combine to form a buffer, avoiding burns. Elements can be positioned in transversal increments of an inch, as well as placed at three distinct vertical positions. Signage can be attached with ease.

The corn cart is exemplar of post-industrial bricolage. It takes advantage of existing infrastructure (shopping cart, industrial lumber, and tin can production), distorting it to new unimagined uses. In recycling mass-produced industrial dejects, it takes advantage of economies of scales. Under conditions of duress, it is easy to acquire. It is a tactic that sustains economic life.

Each salesman has their own cart: It is simple to use, and easy to replicate. The design process did not begin with platonic forms or user research. It was not designed. It was conjured inductively through use, by the users. It does not impose a particular way of use. There is no instruction manual or training. On close inspection, no two carts are the same. Everyone maintains their own. New innovations are disseminated by word of mouth. It is hard to imagine a formalized process reaching comparable levels of fit between form and context.

If we cannot design these objects, then what should we learn from them? At the very least, that when one looks at the world, the amount of tacit knowledge in folk practices far exceeds what has been formalized. When a technology is created, even for a particular commercial need, a set of affordances is defined. These affordances constitute a system which enables a nexus of possibilities larger than conceived. Humans are excellent at finding ways to make what they need out of it.

Being perceptive about what a technology actually affords is difficult. We often resort to doing old things with new means. This is the hubris of a designer who tries to solve problems by deploying the latest fad. As new sets of affordances are adopted, they will spawn their own bricolage. The designer must look to understand what it is truly for. The user, in exchange, must not be afraid to misuse. A fetish for craft disarms the user from action and encourages consumption of sacred objects. What can we do with what we have ready to hand?

Cristóbal Sciutto, August 2023.