Viscerally and deliberately unsettling product design

13.38, Thursday 14 Jan 2021

I’m picking up on a trend of viscerally unsettling product design. My guess is that it’s scouting ahead of the coming wave of robotics.


  • Lim Qi Xuan’s seashell (2021) with sculpted, realistic human tongue and discarded teeth.
  • Marc Teyssier’s MobiLimb (2018), a robotic finger attached to the back of smartphones for them to point, crawl, and prop themselves up (as previously discussed in my call for cyborg prosthetics).
  • Brecht Wright Gander’s lamp (2020) that is switched on by sliding a phallic conductor inside of a puckered, rubber opening at which point it lights up.
  • This construction of an animatronic tentacle lamp by The Monster Maker (2019). No, I don’t know why he does his YouTube wearing a prosthetic hairy head with realistic but impossibly wide-set eyes. I don’t even know how can see.

(That last one via the SoftRobotCritics tumblr which is excellent for tracking this world.)

I have to say, I enjoy this sense of discomfort. Absolutely some products should make me feel queasy. My smartphone feels all too smooth and familiar in my hand when I’m indulging in something societally toxic, such as scrolling Facebook, and a soft fabric smart speaker in my home is at odds with the fact that it’s an open mic connected to the cloud. At least when I’m refuelling my car, I have to suffer the unpleasant fumes.

It’s necessary and timely to explore naturalness and physicality, and to map the boundary with creepiness, because we’ll clearly have more and more robots in coming years – and the approach right now is either self-driving plastic boxes, or biomimicry, whether that’s robot arms or dancing dogs and humans with backpacks. Maybe there are opportunities in escaping the obvious archetypes.

So pornographic lamps are not just about tapping into the absurd. It could be that these designs are a systemic probes of the Uncanny Valley (that’s a translation of Masahiro Mori’s original essay) – and if we see it that way, what else is there to investigate?

I would usually ask for pointers to more examples, but I’m not sure that’s a smart idea.

In the meantime:

Perhaps we should expect this nascent trend to come into the mainstream and also into the home, just as the original Bondi blue iMac triggered a wave of translucent blue plastic in all categories of product. Existenz-style dishwashers. Giger lightswitches – which may have some advantages over a standard binary switch in terms of the degrees of control, as you would be able to control both the brightness and hue simultaneously simply by inserting your finger into the wall-mounted orifice.

Follow-up posts:

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