No Randomness 19.03.15

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An exhibition at the French event provided an insight into the hidden design within everyday objects and the implications of taking standardisation to the extreme

Why does an A4 piece of paper measure 210mm x 297mm? Why is a stop sign shaped like a hexagon? And what's the reason for a pint glass's ungainly bulge? Seeking these and other universal truths is French designer Oscar Lhermitte, whose petite but inquisitive show No Randomness opened last week in St-Etienne, part of the French city's impressive biannual display of design.

Lhermitte's investigation covers 19 design standards in everything from food and maps, to currency and car tyres. The effort is an appreciation of the hidden design within everyday objects – and a marvel at the efficient details and coherence of the systems we've come to adopt without question.

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Each coin in the euro is round, with a weight and size that corresponds to its value

The thrill of enlightenment – as you learn that bulging pint glasses can be stacked without getting stuck because they allow air to pass between them; or that paper sizes are standardised to fold into each other and make for easier weighing; or that a stop sign's angular shape denotes danger (and is the same the world over, apart from Quebec) – is somewhat addictive. Here are the titbits of worldly information that could one day make you king or queen of the pub quiz, or at least able to answer a few difficult questions from your children.

There are a couple of soft digs at the UK: our half-hearted adoption of the metric system, compared with total use of decimal-based measurements in Europe, and the shortcomings of the pound compared with the euro's systematic beauty. Each coin in the euro is round, with a size and weight that corresponds to its value. This makes both coins and notes recognisable by touch. The same reasoning underlies the pound, but the British currency's piecemeal development has led to some quirky anomalies: a two-pence piece is larger than a five, and a 50p has seven sides to compensate for it being larger than a pound coin.

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The catering industry's standardised "long egg"

One exhibit tips over into standardisation madness. Used by the catering industry, the "long egg" (an unappetising image that's hard to forget) is made by separating yolks and whites and reforming them into one long cylindrical mould. It's an exercise in reducing waste and providing a perfectly even ratio of egg yolk to white when sliced up for salads and sandwiches. It's also mildly disturbing. If No Randomness is a celebration of universality, modern progress and rational ideals, the long egg shows the future of this practice in the extreme. By designing out the inherited quirks of nature, culture and history, what do we stand to lose?

For a full report on the St-Etienne Biennale (on show until 12 April), see Icon's June issue – available from 1 May



Riya Patel

quotes story

Bulging pint glasses can be stacked without getting stuck because they allow air to pass between them

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