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What is important about shininess in design?

By Tom Fisher and Nicolas P. Maffei


What attracts us to objects? Why does ‘bling’ catch our eye, albeit superficially? Why do we value the glow of patina? While all of our senses aid our first contact with material and form, arguably, it is the visual qualities of an object’s surface that first draws us in. It is only later, perhaps, that the other senses – touch, smell, taste, hearing – become engaged. Different lighting conditions and object biographies create varying surface effects from soft matte to shiny gloss – each suggesting its own strongly engaging set of meanings.

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Gold Souq, Dubai

Shininess in art and design history carries a range of, often paradoxical, cultural and historical meanings. We were attracted to the notion that stable meaning could be found in such a slippery phenomenon, one dependent on perceptual instability and, arguably, lacking essence; a phenomenon that is as unstable and fleeting as our own perceptual experience.

In our research, we found that , depending on its context, shininess could suggest a multitude of historically specific meanings: the presence of ancestral spirits (pre-modern), the spirit of modernity (twentieth century), as well as connotations of invasive Western progress (Japan in the 1930s). Shininess could suggest inner health through the glow of radiant hair and skin. It could equally attract and repel: consider the alluring shine of gold and the disgusting shine of slime. A shiny, mass-produced product could seem cheap and throwaway, whereas gleaming gold jewellery could indicate wealth and permanence. Superficial shininess seemed strongly linked to postmodern theory, which identified surface experiences and effects with a new era of late-capitalism. We soon realized that shine is often not inherent in an object but is sometimes derived from labour. So, shined boots, polished silver, etc. fell into a class of worked goods that might connote work or suggest leisured social status.

Shininess is a useful category of study for design history, where many objects are composed of shiny stuff everything from gleaming stainless steel to bright plastic. But we are keen to extend our investigation beyond these familiar materials. We are also interested in challenging the expectations that shiny materials might push the boundaries of design history, for example the seemingly magical shimmer of daguerreotype glass. The motion on the Moscow Metro and the display of health through shiny hair are manifestations of shininess that imply bodies, but in each case the shininess has a different relationship in their subjectivity. Passengers on the Metro inhabit a shiny Soviet sublime in a different sense to an individual playing out the constant battle between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ shine in hair. This subjective element – another instance of the instability of the phenomenon – is mirrored by the effect of broader cultural and social phenomena on the meaning of shininess. A range of themes central to mid twentieth century modernity, including progressiveness, novelty, and technological innovation were materialized in the shininess of both stainless steel and plastics. But just as the authenticity of the shine of stainless steel could be irrelevant in a field of consumption characterized by impermanent glitz, the promise of an a-septic, colourful, glossy world provided by modern plastics was, by the 1970s, ringing hollow in the face of environmental concern.

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Partizanskaya station, Moscow Metro

For us it was these instabilities that became the lens through which to understand our subject. It influences how we acknowledged not just the subjectivity of individual perception, but the ever-shifting light and the constant physical change of materials and surfaces in the context of prevailing ideas filtered through the gloss of myriad surfaces.

Tom Fisher is Professor of Art and Design in the School of Art and Design at Nottingham Trent University. After study in art and design and some years running a small craft business, he took his PhD at the University of York in Sociology, concentrating on the role of artificial materials in consumption experiences. Dr Nicolas P. Maffei is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Design, Norwich University of the Arts, UK. His research has focused on modernism in American design. He has published academic articles in Design Issues (MIT Press), Journal of Design History (Oxford University Press), and Design and Culture (Bloomsbury Academic).

Journal of Design History is a leading journal in its field. It plays an active role in the development of design history (including the history of the crafts and applied arts), as well as contributing to the broader field of studies of visual and material culture. The journal includes a regular book reviews section and lists books received, and from time to time publishes special issues. The most recent special issue is on Shininess.

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Image credits: Gold Souq, Dubai by Ian and Wendy Sewell, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons. Partizanskaya station, Moscow Metro by A. Savin, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

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