"The digital is a lens through which we can
view the entire history of design"

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"The digital is a lens though which we can view the entire history of design"

Opinion: in his latest column, Sam Jacob argues that hyper-realistic environments created by digital games like The Room give us a new perspective on the history of design.


"I can no longer visit the wine cellar." Frightening words, but luckily not mine. The phrase comes part of the pretty hokey historic-sci-fi plot that ties together The Room, a BAFTA-award-winning game from British studio Fireproof that has been a smash app on phones around the world.

I wanted to write about it partly because I really liked it. But also because there's something like Baudrillard writing about Disneyland without going on a ride in writing about "the digital" without really jumping in. You might get the general gist but its real meaning flashes in front of you in a screaming blur while you're stroking your chin.

The game is set in a series of creepy, dusty, dark half abandoned rooms. But it might be more accurately be titled Furniture as it really centres around a series of strange pieces of furniture. What exactly they are is hard to say. Part desk, bureau, chest, clock, sideboard (and much more) they are nothing so singular. That's because The Room is really a puzzle, one that comes with it's questions, riddles, games of skill and observation encoded into fabric of super-hybridised furniture.

To play, you spin yourself around, zoom in and out, push, turn, switch and slide the features you come across on its super-elaborated surface in the hope that something will happen. Doors open, drawers mechanically emerge, mechanisms turn, objects appear, lights switch on. All manner of details emerge. Scraps of paper, photographs, gemstones and fragments of plot are revealed. There's even (spoiler alert) a maker's mark: Talisman Co.

Its surface is covered in mahogany marquetry and brass tracery, ceramic inserts and pewter devices - it's an incredibly dense agglomeration, like the history of design effects 1700-1910 compressed into a single object.

But at the same time its design sensibility seems more Edgware Road than V&A. As though it's something you might come across in SkyMall, or find in a certain kind of hotel room as one of those complicated teak-tinted hulks that morphs between minibar, wardrobe, TV cabinet, desk, chest of draws and ironing board.

It's Thomas Chippendale (18th century cabinet maker) and John Harrison (solver of the longitude problem), via Ernő Rubik (the Cube guy) and Hiroshi Yamauchi (Mr Nintendo), with a touch of Daniel Handle (Lemony Snicket), all seen through the lens of Antiques Roadshow. Precisely because of all this a-chronic eclecticism, it's something utterly of the contemporary moment.

Of course, being an app, it's all digital. But though it's just polygons, bitmaps and other representational atmospherics - sheen, shadow and sound effects - it has a tremendous physical presence. Even on the tiny screen of your phone, it feels like a thing.

All of The Room's suggested tactility somehow seems to jump through the glassy surface of your phone. Turning knobbled keys in creaking locks or as you caress the surface of brass buttons it's as though your finger is in two places at the same time: both gliding on the super-smooth machined surface of the digital world and dipping into an exaggerated version of the striated physical world. And in this, perhaps we can see something interestingly contradictory that's happening to how we understand and experience objects.

Your phone's surface is textureless, the closest we can get to manufacturing a solid version of nothing. Yet the experience it transmits is entirely textured. One is super smooth (and real) and the other entirely textured (but only exists as a representation).

At the same time, the two things are similar. Think of how an app's code, graphical skin, the data it's connected to and the interface that organises your engage with it all transform the function and feel of your phone. It's this fluidity that seems projected into the carpentry and cabinetwork depicted in The Room. As though it's an object from one world behaving like one from another.

I'd argue that we couldn't conceive of The Room's furniture - despite all its olde worlde patina - without thinking of it from the perspective of digital technology. The digital, in other words, is shaping how we see the world and how we expect it to perform. Gadgets, interfaces and apps have opened up other ways of thinking about the things around us, what they might do and how we might use them.

These impossible collisions of technology may not grace the pages of design magazines. Their historicism would rule them out for starters. Yet there are design subcultures that trade in a strange deal across historical boundaries. Not only in the swampy fantasies of Games Workshop, but in Tomb Raider-type special effects and Game of Thrones art direction. In all of these we see images and ideas fictionalising history, reimagining the primitive through cutting edge technologies.

This of course isn't a new phenomenon. Think of how Sir Walter Scott's 1820 novel Ivanhoe, set in 12th Century England, kickstarted an craze in medievalism. Think of how the resulting gothic revival gave us that bizarre mix of historicism and technology: St. Pancras and Tower Bridge both serving as examples of clunking infrastructural-historical fantasies. Think too of how this trajectory thrusts us forward towards the Art and Craft politicised revivalism and through into the birth of Modernism. Perhaps it's possible even to suggest that Modernism's origins might be filed under historical fantasy romance.

When we try to map the contemporary or the digital into the world we often rely on obvious techniques and translations. Sometimes it wears our algorithms on our sleeve in NURBS based maths built in ways that seem to resist traces of human hands, in order to make it appear as seamless as a model rotating in a Rhino window. Other approaches rely on a kind of over-styled kitsch remake of the futurism we once had.

But I'd argue that it's exactly the strange hybrids of history and technology that we find a real expression of the contemporary in. I'd argue that this kind of ultra-techno-retro rewires our received narratives of design, suggesting new tendencies and possibilities: fast-forwarding while rewinding at the same time.

This seems entirely appropriate given the way digital culture is transforming culture. It's certainly changed how we access design. Flattening traditional scholarly hierarchies, breaching what were once secure boundaries between stylistic schools, jumping across chronologies all in a flurry of Google image searches and Pinterest boards. One might add, given the idea of remaking history, that internet culture has accelerated a certain strand of conspiracy theorising that rewrites history with abandon according to highly specific contemporary points of view.

The Room might simply be a game. But in passing it proposes a different resolution between digital and physical things from that usually posited by architecture and design. It's enhanced textural sensation and dematerialised mutability is as contradictory as it is simultaneous. This formula arranges digitally not as something separate from the world around us (as though it were a 21st century version of Modernism's tabula rasa) but instead as something present in the world. The digital here is not aestheticised into a stylistic effect but conceived as a lens though which we can view the entire history of design. It becomes a way of re-imagining the relationship between people and things that has unfolded over hundreds of thousands of years, all the way back to the origin of objects when one stone was struck against another to create a sharper edge.


Sam Jacob is a director of architecture practice FAT, professor of architecture at University of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, as well as editing www.strangeharvest.com.

  • Branislav Jakovljev

    Nice opinion. I suggest you to look into some “micro worlds” – some MMOs. For you as an architect, I suggest you Minecraft. I’m not into Minecraft but some people are crazy about it. It have many replicas of the world in it created by simple “lego” cubes. You can see some of that on “youtube minecraft” search. Others MMOs are nice to see and study social behaviour of people behind theirs characters. Stay good! Bye.