Appreciating semiotics in Design

One morning, as the chair was waking up from anxious dreams, it discovered that it had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. Its upholstery, now a brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly.

Ricardo Blanco was one of the most famous Industrial Designers in Argentinan design history and he designed the Metamorphosis bench in 1992, inspired by the famous Kafka novella. It is perhaps the greatest example of semiotics applied to a design object that has ever been made.

I’ve always found it fascinating but it wasn’t until very recently that I had a chance to see it in person. Fortunately I was only accompanied by my wife, otherwise I would’ve gotten a lot of weird looks for being so visibly exhilarated by seeing a bench.

Ricardo Blanco’s Metamorphosis bench

As it was previously mentioned, the chair is inspired by the famous Franz Kafka story ‘Metamorphosis’ -from which the chair also takes its name- in that story a man wakes up to find out that he has been transformed into some kind of bug.

Ricardo Blanco, a great Kafka aficionado translated that story into his other great love: Chairs. Creating this bench that clearly mimics a nondescript bug. This was made for a Franz Kafka exhibition in 1992 that Blanco participated in amongst other Designers and artists.

The Metamorphosis bench is one of those objects I’ve always admired as they exhibit the designer’s mastery of the craft because to design and produce something like this you have to know not only a lot about chair making but also have a impressive understanding of semiotic structures and its relationship to form.

What is most fascinating about it is that this mimicry is achieved through the use of visual elements intrinsic to the chair making process. For example the way the upholstery is overlapped in order to simulate a bug’s exoskeleton.

Metamorphosis bench detail

And this is the most important thing about this chair. While there are some other great examples of semiotics in design (like the Winnie the Pooh furniture by Nendo) this is the only one that I can remember that doesn’t use external elements to communicate its meaning. Most other products convey meaning using either graphical elements like patterns and materials or they rely on formal elements often exogenous to the product being designed, that are just there because of their symbolic value.

Winnie the Pooh tables by Nendo

The Metamorphosis bench on the other hand relies on subtle but noticeable details of its construction to get its message across. It doesn’t need add extra elements. A detail that I love is how the legs are slightly rotated along the body so that they face different directions, just like bugs legs are disposed along their bodies, and also giving the bench a sense of movement. Again, this is done with legs that wouldn’t look out of place in a furniture workshop yet they are subtly shaped to convey an almost subliminal ‘bug-likeness’.

Just for fun, I quickly cobbled together a little comparison on Photoshop. Here you can see the difference to perception that removing just these two elements make.

Methamorphosis bench with its symbolic features removed.

It’s fascinating how easily this chair walks between two symbolic worlds, it clearly mimics a bug but at the same time it never stops looking like a regular chair. The message is both subtle and explicit at the same time.

It makes me wonder why we don’t see this kind of symbolic representation more often in our everyday products. I get incredibly inspired by all the little details, symbols and rituals human culture produces and I’d really love to see those elements inspire more and more products in the future as there is a lot to love and appreciate about heritage.

Designer with a passion for design and culture

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