Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.
What it is: Blobjects for the home. Light fixtures, candles, cat beds, and planters with smooth, undulating, organic forms. Some are extremely sophisticated and others are more playful, but even the most grown-up blobs have a certain cartoonish whimsy.
Why you’re seeing it everywhere: When I first encountered Talbot & Yoon’s pastel “Goober” candles in the Curbed spring shopping guide, I felt an unspeakable tenderness toward them. They are small and round and bloopy, folded over on themselves in such a way as to suggest a noggin and belly. I wanted to cradle one in my hands the way you would hold a bird — to comfort and protect it and, in turn, find myself soothed. I’m not sure whether this means I should look into having a baby or if it’s the exact opposite: that I want to be babied, to muffle the sound of my adult anxieties scrabbling at the door.
Blobby design can be something of a Rorschach test. Mark Talbot, who designed the Goobers with his business partner Youngjin Yoon, says customer responses to the candles have varied widely since they were introduced in 2015. Some people find them perverse and disturbing, and others think they’re kind of sexy. One woman called them “body-positive.”
“A lot of people have told us that they buy them and don’t want to light them. They’re afraid of causing harm to them,” says Talbot.
Amorphous, swelling shapes like these have appeared in art, design, and architecture for decades, exploding in the late ’90s, when designers gained access to computer technology that enabled their creation. But they’re enjoying a certain popularity in home decor at the moment.
The Haas Brothers created a set of towering, lumpy candles in 2015 that are like Goobers on steroids. Concrete Cat’s thick, colorful Persephone planter reaches upward like some sort of prehistoric, possibly sentient fungus (“vegetal takeover,” says Parsons design professor Susan Yelavich when I show it to her); their Persephone dish is more amoeba-like. Glossy black candlesticks by Aesa and shimmering Tom Dixon light fixtures suggest movement, as though they’ve just been blopped down on the table or, like soap bubbles, are wobbling through the air. Who would you become if you filled your entire home with items like these?
Emotion is the lifeblood of the blobject, because these fluid, organic forms seem so alive. Talbot & Yoon created the Goobers after teaching themselves “squash and stretch,” a classic animation technique that makes cartoons look more lifelike, and trying to apply it to 3D objects. The lighting designer Lindsey Adelman describes the bulging glass bulbs in her roughly seven-year-old “Catch” series — which flop over geometric brass sconces and chandelier arms — as “vulnerable,” “humble,” “underdeveloped,” and “innocent.” She likens them to newborn bunnies and a turtle’s soft underbelly.
But for all of the gentleness Adelman sees in Catch, it polarizes customers.
“Some collections are real crowd-pleasers, and others are so specific with the sensation they’re creating that it takes a specific person to want to live with it all the time,” says Adelman. “Catch is one of those. A branching bubble collection is optimistic and safe and familiar-feeling, and Catch is much more like the glass droops with gravity. It’s more melancholic and moody, brooding, kind of introspective.”
Matt Heide, who co-founded Concrete Cat with his business partner (and wife) Shawna in 2007, says that blobby shapes were slow to catch on with customers. It was only about two years ago that they started seeing traction with these objects (inspired largely by mushrooms and the fantastical architecture of Antoni Gaudí), though Heide is unsure what the inflection point was. Today, the Persephone planter is their best-selling blob — fitting, given millennials’ habit of accumulating and Instagramming houseplants.
The art historian Mara Holt Skov attributes the portmanteau “blobject” to her late husband, Steven Skov Holt, with whom she curated the 2005 exhibit “Blobjects & Beyond: The New Fluidity in Design” at the San Jose Museum of Art. Though the show focused on the blobject as a symbol of the turn of the millennium, Skov says it can be traced all the way back to prehistoric sculptures like the Venus of Willendorf, with its exaggerated breasts and belly.
In the 20th century, blobs appeared in the work of surrealist artists like Joan Miró and Jean Arp, who rendered bulging sculptures in materials like brass and marble. Midcentury modern design ushered in some particularly blobby home goods, with pieces like Charles and Ray Eames’s La Chaise chair, which was created in 1948 but didn’t go into production until 1996. In the mid-1940s, Eva Zeisel was making her Town and Country salt and pepper shakers, a pair of glazed forms that seem to be craning their necks this way and that. One big and one small, you can’t help but assume they’re a parent and child.
Each application has its own resonance. For the surrealists, blobs were a way of visualizing dreams and the unconscious, Skov says. Zeisel’s blobby forms transformed the mundane into something deeply emotional.
In the late ’80s and ’90s, designers like Philippe Starck, Marc Newson, and, most notably, Karim Rashid took to fluid forms with enthusiasm. It’s entirely possible to design large, curvaceous forms without the aid of digital software, but when designers did get their hands on such technology in the late ’90s, blobs went viral. By the late aughts, however, the trend began to taper, Skov says.
Blobs have a way of morphing to fit their moment. Maybe the sheer amount of time we spend staring at screens, combined with the environmental crisis, has left us craving objects that evoke the natural world. On the flip side, perhaps the normalization of home assistant technology (Amazon Alexa) and the rise of robots built to provide comfort to aging adults (Hasbro puppies, the Paro seal) are making us more attuned to the prospect of empathizing with our home goods.
It could also be that the turmoil and harsh rhetoric in politics today make us want to fill our homes with soft, sometimes childlike forms — as Skov points out, we tend to seek out comfort when things get scary. When you inspect a blobject, you’re accessing a much different range of emotions than you do while reading Twitter.
“I’ve been presenting blobjects to students for years, and I talk about it as a phenomenon that’s over,” Skov says. But, she adds, the fluidity of the form means that it’s never really going to go away. There will be moments when we gravitate toward it. Skov believes there’s growing interest in it now.
“The golden age of blobjects is well over, but our human need for comfort, especially at home, is never going to change,” she says. “Some sort of blobby form that can shift to meet our needs is always going to be of interest.”
For designers like Talbot & Yoon, it’s a growing business. Following the success of their candles, they’ve released a new set of bud vases (“Kirbies”), modeled on a 1970s Japanese typeface called Peach Boy. One standing upright, one turning its not-face to the ground, and one waddling along, they do look like a happy bunch.
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