Spoon Archaeology treats plastic cutlery like historical artefacts – because soon they will be
German designers Kai Linke and Peter Eckart are presenting their vast collection of plastic utensils at this month’s London Design Biennale by way of examining their design traits, and impact on the planet.
- Jenny Brewer
- 10 June 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
It’s Nice That is the official media partner of the London Design Biennale 2021, taking place at Somerset House from 1–27 June 2021.
Plastic cutlery is among the most common items to wash up on European beaches, and therefore one of the items being banned by the EU from 3 July. It’s also the subject of a fascinating archival project by German designers Kai Linke and Peter Eckart called Spoon Archaeology, wherein a huge collection of these ubiquitous items have been treated like historical artefacts. Partly because the designers believe that’s where they belong – in the past. “Plastic cutlery is a global phenomenon and also a global problem,” Peter tells It’s Nice That. “As disposable products, they are mass-produced, cheap, easy to transport and can be disposed of just as easily as they have been used. Ultimately, they are a symbol of our globalised logistics and throwaway culture.”
Their collection of plastic cutlery “started by chance” and has been amassed over nearly 20 years separately by the two designers, each of them owning around 700 pieces; Peter even gives lectures about his collection as part of his professorship at design university HfG Offenbach. They both say their collection began of pure curiosity, but later became driven by intrigue for the objects’ range in design and what they symbolise of our cultural evolution. At the German pavilion at the London Design Biennale this month, their joint collection is exhibited in museum display cases, categorised and laid out meticulously in rows much like the rare and precious items discovered in an archaeological dig – except instead of carefully preserved Roman spoons, you might find those little neon plastic spoons usually stuck in the top of your ice cream, for example.
As such, the exhibit causes us to see these commonplace things in a new light; they are nostalgic, universally recognisable and sometimes even beautiful pieces of everyday design, but when presented on mass hint at the devastating problem they’re part of. “At first glance they seem good, practical… at second glance their destructive scale becomes apparent,” says Kai. “We can learn a lot from plastic cutlery: how it was produced, what was eaten with it, which material was used, and how dangerous the use of plastic in disposable products is. We don’t need them anymore. That feels good and this step was long overdue.” The sheer volume of the collection also aims to provoke designers and consumers to think how unnecessarily reliant we are on plastic – “an expression of our economically driven culture” – and how our adaptation to life without plastic should go further, and faster.
The idea of presenting them as “today’s archaeology” (their term) also makes us, as viewers, anthropologists. It’s an age-old science; eating tools have long been investigated to shed light on developments of human life and are thus “significant factors in our table and dining culture as well as in the history of technology,” Peter says. These little rows of rainbow coloured sandwich sticks, sporks and drinks stirrers are no different. “Staged as archaeological remnants, curiosities, and objects of fascination they are contemporary witnesses of an era that has just ended and provide information about the state of the global consumer society,” he adds. Also part of the exhibition is a so-called Spoon complexity map which Kai says presents the “manifold influence and history of each decision we take in design process,” using cutlery as a way to explore how items come into existence. The collection shows in lots of ways the pragmatic and aesthetic cutlery solutions made for all kinds of food, used by billions of people around the world.
Alongside the collection, three films are also on show. One titled Fingers and Food by Peter and Kai with Julie Gaston and Robin Schmid, depicts how enjoyable and natural it is to eat without cutlery at all. Shot in Offenbach, a city with over 159 nationalities of people and the highest percentage of people with a migration background, the film explores the hands as eating utensils, acting again much like anthropologists in examining international eating habits, and looking at ways to change our behaviour in order to tackle the disposable cutlery problem.
Another film, Beyond Spoon, by Peter Eckart, Ken Rodenwaldt and Armin Arndt, watches an AI attempt to generate one typical shape of spoon, based on a vast archive of spoons from around the world. And lastly, Banana Leaf, a film by Charles and Ray Eames made in 1972, provides yet another perspective on the status people attach to their artefacts, and how we need to alter the way we treat our waste items.
Spoon Archaeology is on view at the German Pavilion, curated by Thomas A. Geisler from the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, at the London Design Biennale in Somerset House until 27 June.
GalleryKai Linke and Peter Eckart: Spoon Archaeology, exhibited at London Design Biennale 2021. Photos by Heiko Prigge (Copyright Kai Linke and Peter Eckart, 2021)
Kai Linke and Peter Eckart: Spoon Archaeology. Photo by Helena Reinsch (Copyright Kai Linke and Peter Eckart, 2021)