From ink-pellets to orange-peeler knives: A meditation on the design of carefully curated found-objects
Words and images: Harpreet Padam
I don’t remember when I first started bringing things home.
The very first possessions I laid claim to weren’t purchased. They were found—on the hazy edges of playgrounds, under park benches and sometimes even in the community garbage dump. So what was it I picked? Broken toy parts, a doll’s plastic shoe, a Lions Club badge, the small metal balls from bearings, bottle caps, and sometimes if I was lucky, marbles. If even for a second the poor lost object thought it had reached the end of its life, it was wrong. With me, it lived again. It even found a home in a box I owned.
For many years in between then and now, school and study ate away precious collecting years. The Box retreated into the hazy background of a supposed education. A while later, thankfully, design school changed things for the better. We celebrated, appreciated, discussed and even dissected things there. I realized I had always been headed in this direction from the point I first noticed the usefulness of pockets. I could now even create things. And so it began again.
I could suddenly afford to buy the things I liked. To add to that, there was travel. The Box returned— only it was Boxes now. Lots of them, sorted and labeled with the names of places that led to their existence.
The Japanese call it zakka— ordinary everyday things that choose to silently inform of the pleasure of their use. The designers are always anonymous. In most cases, just like the Eames Lota, there is no singular designer to be credited. And isn’t that the best kind of design.
Here are some of the things I have picked from my recent travels, at least some that I have taken pictures of.
In a busy walnut wood factory in the heart of downtown Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, I spotted a red tin perched high atop a shelf. On opening it, I discovered these small tablets within. Ink tablets. Though slightly green in appearance, dissolving one in water creates royal blue writing ink. What a splendid product that unfortunately has been a victim of developments in writing technology. Maybe from a time when a single pen served for life. We cannot even count the number of pens we use in our lifetime anymore. As for the tablet, a great compact way to carry or store your ink supply with you. With the permission of the factory owner, I kept one piece.
These brass ladles were picked while I was conducting a craft design workshop in Bidar, Karnataka. One of the tiring evenings after work, I was strolling along the local bazar in the old town when I walked into a kitchen and puja vessels store and asked for the oldest items in the shop. The man brought out these, saying they were left with him for repair by the owner who had never come back for them. I bought them for 150 rupees each. I admire them for their generosity of material used and the proportion of their form. They’re simply not made this way anymore.
These aluminium ladles were spotted in a Gujjar hut somewhere in the Aru valley area in Kashmir, very close to the banks of the Lidder river. We were a group of designers on a craft design workshop in Kashmir and one of us arranged for this fortunate visit. The mud hut was filled with objects of agrarian value, a reflection of the relationship between people and the land they live upon. While many things in the hut were intensely functional, these ladles seemed almost extravagant in their decorated handles. Perhaps for the occasional special occasion. I did not have the heart to take them away from their surroundings. I could not even ask the owner if I may.
In Shillong, Meghalaya for a student evaluation, I figured I did not have enough time to travel to the numerous sights and trails around the city. And so I decided to pay the local bazars a visit. Thanks to the tips from students and my host at the homestay, I could quickly reach the heart of the bazar, which is where I picked these things. I liked the small folding knife for its beaten iron texture paired with wood. The brass tumblers were from a puja supplies vendor, but I saw them as a great option to deliberate vases. The bundle of pinewood was so fragrant (it still is) and I simply couldn’t resist it at fifteen rupees. The tweezers were from a singular street that sold only metal tools. Despite the evident hand-made feel, the edge is absolutely aligned and sharp. The almost intended crudeness of the aluminium ladle was what drew me to it. I like it when handmade objects challenge machines with a beauty that can only be derived from the hand. Lastly, the bamboo pen was a gift from a student. Despite the obvious irregularities of the material, it closes and works perfectly.
I found this strange knife like object in a small Chinese store in Singapore. Apparently, its a knife for orange peels. I tried it and it works. A thing that looks as good as it works. Even though I like my oranges peeled in the familiar disorganized way that I am used to.
On another evening yet again in the hill town of Bidar in Karnataka, a friend and I decided to visit a travelling craft fair. While it was hard to spot anything local, we came across stalls selling utility items made in China. The red object is a kitchen knife grinder, one can simply run the knife through to sharpen it. The pencil is a childhood memory. A flexible plastic pencil that may also be used to play self-invented games in school. At first I did not understand what the three pronged chrome saucer was for. Its a multi-incense stand derived from simply altering a steel saucer that may have originally been used for serving or eating from. An example of fast, intelligent, anonymous design. The plastic comb is a favourite. The rim folds to wrap around your palm as you run it through your hair. I wish we could innovate on these simple levels in design school more often.
It’s strange that urban Indians tend to use white or light coloured handkerchieves. I couldn’t resist buying a pack of these Been (pipe) brand handkerchieves in an assorted set that excludes white. The shop owner in Bidar did attempt to show me some pastel alternatives, but my mind was made up. From a textile rich country like ours, our handkerchieves should be the most exquisite explorations of textile. And yet they’re not. Such a possibility, unexplored. I haven’t used these yet. They’re so ordinary, they’re special.