Design & Make

The Meaning Behind Super Normal Design

by Laura Palmer Peach June 05, 2018
ReadThe Meaning Behind Super Normal Design

Nearly a decade ago, a design movement was born when a set of stools at the Milan Furniture Show were mistaken for everyday objects.

As product designer Jasper Morrison was walking through the fair, he watched as weary attendees began sitting on a trio of aluminum stools—not noticing that they were, in fact, part of the exhibit. Morrison was so impressed with how seamlessly the stools were integrated into their environment, that he quickly deemed them “Super Normal.” He ran up to their designer, Naoto Fukasawa, to express his admiration. Fukasawa was taken by surprise, as he had been feeling dejected that his stools were not under the spotlight.

“Designers generally do not think to design the ‘ordinary,’” Fukasawa writes. “If anything, they live in fear of their designs being ‘nothing special.’” This reflection was recorded in the book Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary, which was published in 2007. The slim volume was a printed edition of exhibits that Fukasawa and Morrison pulled together in Tokyo and London in 2006 when they collected and displayed over 200 everyday objects—from calculators to drinking glasses to coat stands.

Fukasawa and Morrison re-examine designed objects that are “nothing special” and re-define them as having special power. They put paperclips on a pedestal, elevate rubber erasers and highlight wire hangers, explaining how each of these ordinary objects, when put to use, have an extraordinary efficiency. The beauty of thought put into their design and fabrication can immediately be felt, Fukasawa and Morrison attest.

“The appeal of Super Normal lies in the idea that our relationship with things we usually aren’t aware of is richer than the things that are viewed in terms of design,” Morrison writes. He describes a set of hand-blown wine glasses found at an antique store that became, for him, something more than nice shapes: the glasses set the atmosphere of the table, and changed the pleasure in drinking the wine. After several years of use, he feels a noticeable lack of enjoyment in his meals without the glasses. Morrison notes that a Super Normal object has the capacity to conceal its features until they become virtually invisible, and contains the mysterious and elusive quality of being an object with an aura, an atmosphere, a spirit.

Our bodily sensors are instantly engaged by Super Normal objects—the designers call out how the flavor of fresh milk overlaps with the shape of the glass milk bottle, and the mere sight of a barbecue’s black orb causes one’s mouth to water for smoked frankfurters. Subtle, barely noticeable changes to everyday objects that reveal a deeper consideration for the user are also deemed Super Normal—for example, a wastepaper bin that is slightly tilted towards the hands that would be depositing rubbish inside.

The Super Normal object knows its place in the society of things—it is the result of a long tradition of evolutionary advancement in the shape of everyday things. These objects are not attempting to break with the history of form, but rather try to summarize that history. Both normal and exceptional at once, so exceptional they seem normal—Super Normal transcends itself.

Super Normal is a quietly seen unseen, a refreshing surprise that re-awakens us to the values in design that we already held important: an unobtrusive ordinariness, an inherent usefulness, and a streamlined simplicity that allows the objects to easily become, and stay, a part of our lives.

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