The Mighty Tumbler – A Question of Design

I teach sculpture and design at a local university in addition to my work as a glass artist in the studio.  If you know me, you will know that while I work daily with design in making good functional pieces as well as more higher end artglass, I am not a snob when it comes to design.  I have my opinions, yes, and they show up in the choices I make when designing new work, but I know that the day that we say there is only one way to go about design is the day I hang up my blow pipes and call it a life.  You see, while I know that many people in the design arena are very opinionated about what is and is not good design, I am aware that there is no right or wrong way to go about it.  The moment that someone says “You can’t do it that way” is just the same moment when someone comes along, bursts your rigid paradigmatic bubble, and shows that it can and does work “that” way.  There are lots of stories about people looking on in disgust at the likes of Degas and Van Gogh and Monet.  Brush strokes!  How dare they!  And then a hundred years later, the same thing is repeated during the Op and Pop eras on into the Post Modern age of art.  And the same goes for design movements as well.  If you are in the business of good design there are a lot of things to consider and nothing is absolute.  I’ll use the tumbler as a case in point.

When I was coming up in the glass field I noted that there were lots and lots of wedge-shaped tumblers where the foot was narrower than the top and the walls were a perfect straight edge line from tip to bottom.  Visually, this clues you in that the maker has control of his or her medium.  And yes, we may be used to seeing these basic shapes AS tumblers should be.  Or should they?  Visually, they might have a look that up-and-coming artisans then seek to emulate or copy.  And yet, the truth is, there is more than just how something looks that goes into the design equation.  A tumbler can look great but be miserable to hold in your hand.  I actually have some examples of these.  I made them. They sold pretty well, but why is that when they feel so unnatural in the hand?  I will be bold and tell you that they are that way and popular because people just don’t know any better.  They are pattern recognition machines and base so much of their choices on habit and following others, just like our emulating glassblowers with their straight-lined tumblers.  Truth be told, good design is a matrix or fusion of many considerations, not JUST visual.  A meal dressed up to look nice to the eye is nothing if it tastes bland; that’s because it really does need to LOOK good AND taste good, too.  It should delight as many of the senses as possible, and this goes for design as well. When it doesn’t, you get a poverty of SOMETHING somewhere along the line.  Someone buys the tumbler and then never really realizes how nice a different shape would feel, so they just never get to experience that eventuality.  They missed the boat.  And yet, it is we, the designers, who are involved in that boat leaving, or better; never even arriving in the first place.

I hate straight-walled tumblers for the very reason that I know the single best feeling tumbler to my hand and to many of my guests in my home and clients that I seek to impress with this one simple truth is that a tumbler needs a shape that is in harmony with the hand that is going to hold it.  As a result, this most often means that a tumbler needs to fit the hand in its girth.  A smaller hand wont feel as comfortable wrapping around a tumbler made for a Viking Goddess as it does a smaller version based on the physiology of the person grasping it.  The other side to this equation is that no one hand is going to be the same, so the question in design is how to find the happy medium where big and small hands will rejoice in the feel of your tumbler no matter who is grasping it that day.  And then there is the overall shape of the tumbler.  It is true that the top should be wider than the bottom in order for the hand to properly “catch” the vessel in a sound grip.  A simple tube is simply hard to hold onto.  Get a little salad dressing on your finger and sloop!  There it goes sliding out of your hand and onto the floor!

What I have found is most often the single best feeling tumbler to the hand is an hour-glass shape.  It allows the hand to grasp it closely whole also giving the hand a way to keep it from sliding up or down out of its grip for some-any-reason.  It is a result of this realization that I most often make tumblers with some form of curve in them while taking the overall size into consideration.  Overtop all of this, the surface decoration or color must play as well.  So what do you get?  You get a shape that you simply do not find very often in most stores. And I ask you; why?  I know the reason and it has to do with a lot of old regurgitated ideas about what makes a GOOD tumbler.  This is where we stagnate on many levels.  We stagnate-unknowingly- as users, and we most certainly stagnate as makers or designers.  And how do we change this?  We are brave.  We are willing to do just as I have done and sought to do what one of my last workers used to say when he saw something he thought was ridiculous.  He would say “I call bullshit!”  I had never heard that term before, but it really hit it on its head.  We have to be willing to question the status quo and ask the obvious question about that elephant in the room.  Of course there will be people who will look down their noses just as many have done in the past with anything new, but this is as it has always been with such dry and crusty pattern-recognition machines!  Eventually, though, a new idea takes hold and then suddenly everyone was the big supporter of it back when it really counted (winks).

So I know this is a lot to wrap around our humble tumbler, but its also important.  Its important for the chairs we must sit in, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the homes we live in and the ads that we have to view each day.  Most often, we THINK what we are seeing is something we like until something new comes along that shatters the old thinking.  But I say that all of this matters because it has to do with quality of life issues. Design should make life better, not uncomfortable.  It should function well while also looking….interesting. Clothes should wrap you and caress while also making you look great.  Cars should look sporty and stylish while also getting you there safely and comfortably.  We don’t need to compromise; we simply need to innovate!

I tell my students that they have to be willing to stand up and question everything, even me, if it comes to it.  I tell them that if they can explain why I am wrong and why another way is better or why how they did something was so great and should be considered, I am all over listening  in an honest and considered way.  After all, in a profession where the new ideas come from being bold and being willing to stick your neck out some, we all need to reward our new designers for being willing to try new things and to question what has come before, even if it does result in a tumbler my hand simply hates.  You gotta try.  You do.

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