Man, that most egotistical of animals, has the capacity to find his own image in virtually anything he regards. This narcissism allows us, for example, to look at a mixer tap and see a pair of mismatched eyes and an elongated proboscis, to see a cartoon smile in an E-mailed jumble of colons and brackets, or to descry the face of Christ in the congealed blobs of Worcester sauce on a slice of cheese on toast. And therein, too, lies the appeal of Objectivity. It is ostensibly a collection of intriguing tools assembled by David Usborne, arranged in broad categories according to the actions they perform (Hitting, Gripping, Rubbing, Spreading – you get the idea). But the title hints that this is not just a hoard of esoterica – Usborne invites us to forget the purpose for which these objects were designed, whether that be straightening cucumbers or expanding piston rings, and look at them instead as abstract shapes with their own, independent beauty.

Because the human mind delights in association, these functional objects thus become Rorschach ink blots, throwing up imagery that was quite unintended by their makers. Any pair of dots or circles tends to suggest eyes: the screws of a coconut-slicing blade turn a chopping board into an approximation of an elongated African Fang mask, while an Acid House-style smiley face beams out from a device for measuring the circumference of a hat. Similarly, the symmetrical splay of handles or joints often evokes limbs, so that various callipers, tongs and specula seem to stride and dance across the page.

We are firmly in the territory of Folk Art here, scrutinising utilitarian objects with an eye to their sculptural value. And just as conventional artists feed off Folk Art, so art history informs the way we regard Usborne’s collection. A metal needle used by fishermen to mend their nets looks more like a figure from the cave paintings at Lascaux performing callisthenics; a Portuguese cobbler’s anvil brings to mind Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North reaching out for a hug. Thanks to decades of rust, an 18th-century flax-carding tool – a spiky hand with six Struwwelpeter fingers – has the same corroded patina as a Giacometti bronze. As a visual game, Objectivity offers endless permutations. It is possible for us to see the Egyptian god Thoth in a fishmonger’s ice-pick, or a spiny blowfish in an aluminium motorcycle cylinder head – but the question is, does the process ever happen in reverse? When David Usborne sees a cockatiel, does he think to himself: that looks like a pair of surgical secateurs?

First published in World of Interiors issue 334. Reproduced with permission.

Objectivity: A Designer’s Book of Curious Tools

by David Usborne  (Thames & Hudson)

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