Two Typologies


23 September 2017

Within a stone's throw from each other, two mini-displays in Shoreditch have inadvertently circled in on similar territory: explorations of the affordances and morphologies of particular typologies. At the Jasper Morrison Shop, it is the pétanque boule that is the subject of an in-depth display; at Perseverence Works just a block away, it's the common 350ml mug.

Enter the back room of the Jasper Morrison Shop on Kingsland Road, and you'll find a neat presentation of balls upon tables; walls lined with portraits of balls; and a screen showing endless lines of balls being manufactured. While none of the balls are identical, they all have a diameter of approximately 7.05-8cm and share the same fundamental function: they are pétanque boules, dating from before the Middle Ages to the present day. Together they comprise a chronological survey of a very particular sphere.

Guillaume Bloget, one of the seven designers who make up the collective Collections Typologie (the others are Raphaël Daufresne, Adrien Goubet, Thélonious Goupil, Guillaume Jandin, Alexandre d'Orsetti and Yun Li), tells me that the collective chose the pétanque boule "because it has a simple shape but lots of diversity. Also, the history is really interesting." Bloget proceeds to outline this history with reference to specific boules in the exhibition.

"The earliest were in stone," he explains, handing me a weathered boule in solid granite. "We don't know exactly how old this is but it's probably pre-Middle Ages. Humans always seem to have had games involving throwing balls." The boules in Collections Typologie's display have been borrowed from the historical collections of the company Obut, a modern manufacturer of pétanque boules near Saint-Étienne and Lyon.

"Then, during the Middle Ages, they began to use wood boules," continues Bloget. "But they were a bit fragile, so they added nails in order to add weight and protect them. First it was a few nails, then the entire surface was covered with overlapping nail heads." The display features examples of all three stages of this development: entirely wooden boules; boules reinforced with a handful of nails; and boules covered entirely with overlapping nail heads. "Then they started using different steel for the nails, creating patterns so that boules could be differentiated."

Since the 1920s, pétanque boules are made mechanically from steel, with Obut being one of the oldest manufacturers. "You start with a bar of steel which is flattened," explains Bloget. "It's then made into a half-sphere and welded together to another one by machine. The strength of the metal is then reinforced by heating it and cooling in water." This process is detailed in the video accompanying the display, and in a ten-step staging of steel bars in different steps towards becoming a fully formed boule.

The display is accompanied by the inaugural publication of a biannual magazine (more typologies, centred around different types, are to come), in which the boules are pictured in chronological order. "When you flip through the book, you can see the evolution of the boules," says Bloget. The magazine also features an introduction to the history of the boule, and a conversation between a manufacturer, a designer, and a pétanque player.

If Collections Typologie have paid painstaking interest to the morphology of the pétanque boule, the makers of Cup Full at Perseverance Works appear to be more interested in exploring the affordances of the common 350ml mug. The affordances of a thing or environment, wrote the psychologist James J. Gibson who coined the influential term in 1979, "are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill." In this instance, we are the animal, and the mug is the thing.

The display presents mugs used and abused in various ways: filled with double their capacity of coffee and left to overflow; smashed into 100 carefully numbered pieces; filled with paint and poured into another mug, with the process repeated until the paint stopped flowing; stuffed with 18 sheets of paper, the exact number needed to soak up a cup of coffee; and so on. The mugs used for exploring these affordances have a string of interesting mug-related facts printed on them (did you know that a mug can just about contain an average nosebleed?) and are for sale for £10.

Cup Full is a witty ode to the many possibilities of an object so ubiquitous it verges on invisibility. Together, the two Shoreditch typologies are well worth a visit, for the ways in which they make visible the exquisite craft and unexpected affordances of two unassuming human-made objects.