Eolithism and Design


An essay by Hans Otto Storm that greatly shaped the intellectual agenda of the lab. It introduces the notion of “eolithism”: the idea that objects don’t need to have unique, stable, pre-determined functions. This is how ordinary single-function tools can become toys with infinite, unstable identities.

Structures are the product of a building instinct, and to apprehend their nature it is worth while to investigate the way in which a building instinct works. There is a certain program which results in the most conspicuous fabrications of the present moment; it is discussed in books of engineering partly for this reason - partly also because it is the easiest of several to discuss - and it is called the method of design. It presumes that the workman knows approximately what he wants. This being so, there is selected for the material of the structure, a medium whose properties are known and preferably uniform. This certainty and uniformity of the material are extremely important - they affect not only the geometrical result of good designing, but they also affect deeply the mental discipline which the process demands. [1] Thereafter, the material is applied, in thought only, to the desideratum, and the structure, still in thought only, is extended by the use of well-known arithmetical rules, until it makes contact with the existing world. At this point the change is made from thought to fabricable material, and the direction of the operation is also reversed, the physical structure being begun at contact with the existing world and proceeding from there toward that thing which the workman has kept in his mind all this time as being what he really wants. This is the orderly process called design: we begin our thought-structure at the penthouse and work downward, adding supports which become greater and greater as the load augments: at contact with the ground we turn to physical construction, lay a foundation, and work backward over the path laid out. It may sound complicated, as do all processes when closely described in generality - it is no worse, however, and requires fewer words for its exposition, than, say, the process of muscular co-ordination required to get a fork into one's mouth without being stabbed. The design method of producing structures has its virtues and limitations: the number of possible designs is vast, but the execution of even the least of them requires an amount of aptitude and perseverance. Getting materials on the job is rather cumbersome although, once obtained, they go together very nicely. The finished article has a universally recognizable appearance - though it may be thoroughly useless (design proper does not interest itself in this) it will in every case have an internal consistency, a certain "finish," and an arrangement which is, in the highest sense of the word, orderly.

That the design process is sometimes considered as a principle basic and universal to craftsmanship, as an ideal toward which more primitive attempts are but a blundering approximation, is a hangover from a period of thought some seventy-five years past. At that time, it must be remembered, God was conceived of by the devout as making a sincere if somewhat belated effort to catch up with what was being taught in high school. And since the design process had lately come into enormous temporal importance, God, thoroughly impressed, gave it a comparable spiritual sanction and established it as one of the great Natural Principles in his then somewhat constitutionalized domain.

There are, however, and were then, at least two other bases of craftsmanship observable, each of which is thoroughly different from the method of design. The remoter one might be styled the tropismatic, and can be conveniently watched in the building of birds' nests. In this activity one notices two things - first, that the bird goes at the task with an astounding number of false moves, and second, that the movements seem to be more important to him than the nest. The bird picks up a twig, flies around aimlessly, drops it again, picks at the ground, attains a desultory interest in another twig if by chance the twig lands in the nest it is dropped there with what would appear to be an air of studied casualness. If the nest goes wrong the bird will continue carrying things as long as the impulse lasts - sometimes it will even go back to building in the middle of a brood and calmly pluck its feathered young to death to satisfy the desire for carrying something. A certain number of nests get built, some of them rather adequately, but it cannot even remotely be claimed that any nest has been designed. The cat, which does not build nests, spends an amount of time in licking his coat, with the ultimate result of cleanliness. His motive, though, is altogether a matter of conjecture - put your hand in the way, and if he is an amiable cat he will go on licking just the same. Since the cat cannot bring forth his testimony, no non-feline can be certain whether he licks with the idea of getting clean, or because he likes that form of exercise, or in order to get rid of an excess of spit. In fact, we are nicely prevented from analyzing tropismatic craftsmanship because it appears almost exclusively in animals, and even the play of young children has practically passed out of this form.

Tropismatic craftsmanship in man is very rare. It may be observed only in occasional habitual movements, such as the two or three useless blows on the anvil for every useful blow on the iron which the blacksmith makes when enjoying his work, or perhaps in the activities of collectors of books, stamps, crockery, and automobile parts. In ungovernable and unreasonable and unpremeditated impulses toward constructiveness, man ranks low among the animals - below the birds and the beavers, and immeasurably below the social insects. Only in a very specious sense can man be called a constructing or a tool-using animal. He constructs, all right, but he does not do so as an animal. Certain individuals in his species have mastered a distinctly non-animal method of construction - these, who are so few that they may be called freaks or even perverts - carry on for the mass, while the great majority of men prefer to occupy themselves with war, literature, or various negotiations, or else exist by performing the drudgery of workmanship in the manner of a task more or less odious and forced.

But even the minority of humans who are workmen do not all know about design. There is a third form of craftsmanship, and into the nature of this we may inquire with some hope of reward, because it has existed in man before design was thought of, and because it is yet very far from dead. This form may be named the eolithic, if a slightly bastard etymology is not objected to.

Eoliths are pieces of junk remaining from the Stone Age. They are junk now because they are no longer useful, and in a limited sense they were junk at the time of their original contact with the hand of man. They have been defined, aptly, as "stones, picked up and used by man, and even fashioned a little for his use." The important item of the definition from the point of view of method of craftsmanship, and the one which distinguishes the eolithic method fundamentally from that of design, is that the stones were picked up - picked up, that is to say, in a form already tolerably well adapted to the end in view and, more important, strongly suggestive of the end in view. We may imagine that person whom the anthropologists describe so formidably by the name of man strolling along in the stonefield, fed, contented, thinking preferably about nothing at all - for these are the conditions favorable to the art - when his eye lights by chance upon a stone just possibly suitable for a spearhead. That instant the project of the spear originates; the stone is picked up; the spear is, to use a modern term, in manufacture. Not only do the shaft and the thongs remain vaguely in the background, as something which will in its due time no doubt be thought of, but the very need and usefulness of the spear are in a way subsidiary to that instant's finding. And if, further, the spearhead, during the small amount of fashioning that is its lot, goes as a spearhead altogether wrong, then there remains always the quick possibility of diverting it to some other use which may suggest itself.

To sharpen the contrast, let us remember the basic requirement of the designing workman - he must know what he wants. He must, furthermore, before ever the design begins, decide on his material - steel and stone if it is to be a bridge, paper and printer's ink if it is to be the sale of breakfast food. The astute fashioner of eoliths, on the other hand, must have a continually open mind about materials, and he must also be open to reason and particularly to speedy adaptation in the matter of what he wants. He must have a dilettante mind - in the education of a competent eolithologist, nothing is so harmful as overspecialization.

Neither must he be handicapped by an excess of rationalism or by too strict an adherence to theories - one automatically falls into the phrase "theories of design" because theory manifestly belongs in that connection. This is because theory and rationality are susceptible to proof and justification - largely - only in those cases where the materials are uniform, and where there is considerable latitude for properly controlled experiment, so that the craftsman may have frequently impressed on his mind not only what happens according to the theory, but also what else may happen when the theory is ignored. Theory, experiment, and generalization become rather useless ornaments when applied to cases which do not in the nature of things repeat themselves, such as that of the biologist with twins, who had one twin baptized and saved the other as experimental control by which to estimate the effect. Whenever three quarters of the factors governing a result are dumped on the craftsman's hands in a unique and arbitrary form, such a concern with the rationality of things does not, in general, add to the value of the product.

This is not to say that theories, in the eolithic craftsmanship, are harmful. In adapting a piece of driftwood to use as a doorpost, an appreciation of Euler's theory of columns does not impair the excellence of the result. Neither is the result affected by an appreciation of the lunar theory of irrigation, nor by the mouthing of suitable incantations during the progress of the work. And whereas a miscomprehension of Euler's theory might well cause a designed column to give way, so rugged and foolproof is the eolithic method that not even a miscomprehension of Euler's theory has ever been known to cause failure in an eolithic column, and untold eolithic structures have stood up under the use of column theories manifestly wrong. It is simply necessary, where a theory enters, that it be not too wrong, and the permissible latitude of wrongness is surprisingly great, so long as the theory is not rigidly applied to a homogeneous material which is under the control of the theorist from the beginning.

Suppose, for instance, an erroneous theory of columns called for the saturation of driftwood first with shark-oil, and suppose further (I am purposely ignorant on this matter) that such saturation actually reduced the strength of the wood by fifty per cent. In practice it would probably result that the penetration of shark-oil, using eolithic methods of application, was not very deep - further, that whatever slight detriment ensued would be totally masked by the crudity which necessarily inheres in the method of picking up the proper sizes of pillars on the beach, so that all in all a very minute proportion of houses would fall as a result of shark-oil. I have known sailors who thought the tides came at the same hour every day, and mountaineers, outdoor people, who did not know that the fixed stars rose and set. Both of these specimens did from time to time order their movements by these wrongly apprehended natural phenomena, and both eventually muddled through - so that not only they but their theories with them survived into their ripe old age. They carried on the eolithic culture more or less, and continued to find useful articles to which their theories were sufficiently inapplicable, so that they lived on the whole comfortably enough. Their theories were not too wrong - after all, there were tides in the sea, and there were stars in the sky which did not move around very much. And the habit of being aware of these bulky natural verities brought in along with it an easy awareness of a multitude of other things individually quite below the threshold of classification, so that on the whole these people were workable, operating personalities who could get along in the world the way they found it, and whom one could depend on under the circumstances where one found them. In fact, all through the eolithic craftsmanship, rational thinking seems to have been largely a redundancy, exhibiting and using up an excess of competence which in its absence would simply have been diverted to some other form of swank.

Children, when they construct things in play, normally play after the eolithic fashion: a pointed board suggests the making of a boat, and if the toy, in process of construction, begins to look less and less like a boat, it can conveniently be turned into an airplane. Select the child who appears most ingenious in the making of this class of toys, present him with adequate tools and lumber, give him a simple plan which must, however, be adhered to until completion, and usually his ingenuity gives way to a disheartening dullness. Poor children usually do not have this kind of opportunity, and it is notorious that poor children make themselves the best playthings. They have to make them out of scraps, and the scraps constitute variety. They are eolithic craftsmen; it is not only that eolithic craftsmanship can get along without uniform material and plans - it is precisely the non-uniformity of scraps and the absence of set plans which form the circumstances for its best development.

One of the saddest spectacles in professional education is the routing into design channels - that is, into science, certain fields of rational scholarship, and particularly engineering - of good, immature eolithic craftsmen. The great designer of works who spent his boyhood building windmills is a thoroughly established myth, so that the boy who builds things out of scraps is urged to study engineering, only to find out, late and perhaps too late, that the ingenuity and fine economy which once captivated him are something which has to be unlearned before he can do satisfactory work on large projects which involve design. So much more formidable is the stern discipline of design than the genial junk-picking of the eolithic craftsman.

That is not to say that eolithic craftsmanship, the picking up and adapting of things to useful purposes as opposed to the making of them from the ground up, is dead or out of place in modern life. I have seen a cottage built by a Mexican out of the following materials: stone, adobe, wooden timbers, kerosene cans, and a battered tin oil painting of the Madonna. For short times in the histories of peoples - namely for those short times when they are highly organized - design comes into prominence. In the ages between, the eolithic method has supplied man's intimate wants, for the good reason that it remains operable without that wealth of uniform materials and that vastness of informational background which the design program implies and which only a very high social organization offers. Nor, even within the years of large-scale industry, does there attach the mildest opprobrium to the use of the eolithic method, so long as it remains within specific fields. [2]

That the tree which does not bear fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire, and that the unruly ox is readapted to usefulness in the stewpot, are sound principles of husbandry and for long will be such. The reason is that trees and oxen are essentially non-uniform materials existing in a field where uniform materials are quite unthought-of, so that the design process is precluded from entering. Neither the ox nor the fruit tree were designed in the first place, but are presented by nature in their arbitrary forms, and are used by man as pure eoliths, "picked up and adapted a little to his use." The production of lumber, in spite of a high degree of mechanization, remains today largely eolithic - the trees are found and not produced, and the sizes of balks which may be made out of a given log to best advantage are estimated by the sawyer during the instant while the sawing carriage pauses between the forward and the return pass. In the making of poles and piles out of the whole tree, the natural taper is furthermore utilized to good advantage. Roots are used for special curves in boat building, and in some clumsy but extremely rugged little ships built in Central America, whole frames are made of curved timbers "found" for the purpose in the jungle. In all these cases the craftsman has to deal, not with uniform material and limitless alternatives of shape, but with non-uniform material in shapes arbitrarily assigned by nature. Therefore the eolithic program remains in good repute.

The situation where this program is not in good repute but comes into sharp conflict with the tenets of design and therefore with the rules of good taste current among world-conscious people, is that where design methods and materials are thoroughly available, and where eolithism, in the form of an atavistic instinct, seeks to make petty savings by a departure from the method. In this position there is found the junkman, and all his brothers and his cousins and his half-caste children. That the junkman is represented as - and often is - unshaven, dirty, ragged, and of dubious honesty, is of the same nature of circumstance as that the North American Indian is frequently dirty and generally dubious - these symptoms are the inevitable stigma of an alien and receding culture which exists in the face of a culture advancing and dominant. That the junkman is usually Jewish means, similarly, that a trade mildly in disesteem has been left or delegated to a race mildly under persecution or social disadvantage. The fact is that the junkman, buying and selling odds and ends and putting them to naive and unexpected uses, represents eolithism flatly invading the territory of design, and in this role he may not hold up his head among the legitimate tradesmen, except - and this is most important - when he begins to deal largely in the uniform and meltable or melted product. As for the junkman's long attenuating list of relatives, there are the following: the man who builds a yacht out of a Navy motor-barge, the gardener who makes his stepping stones from broken concrete, the frugal wife who trims her husband's nearly worn-out pants to clothe the firstborn. All of these suffer social disesteem, and for a very adequate aesthetic reason, namely, that side by side with the pitiful approximations which they improvise, there exists the possibility of filling the same want by the design method and thereby producing an article not only better adapted to the need but much more elegant - that is, striking to the point with less lost motion. Worse than this, when it comes to eolithic craftsmanship, the citizen of a sophisticated culture is at a disadvantage even beside the barbarian, in that the supply of genuine and natural eoliths has been used up - so that he is obliged to pick up and adapt what is already a second-hand product, abandoned by people of his own culture who are closer to the top than he. The adapted article has therefore always been designed for something else, and usually for something better, and carries with it to the end a poignant human reminder of its one-time purpose, and the very fitness of such an article in its new place seems to have about it something mean and comical.

But at this point there enters into the infiltration of eolithism and design, a factor which causes a good deal of confusion. Design having found uniformity of material enormously convenient, as soon as the process feels its oats it also begins to think of uniformity of parts. And then the fat is in the fire. The uniformity of parts begins with bolts and screws and ends with trousers and tramp steamers. And the more, of course, such uniformity - originated to facilitate design - obtains, the less scope there remains for pure design to operate on individualistic structures. It is as if the grain of the material had become enormously magnified, so that what is now "uniform" is a new super-material, and one so coarse that only projects of a world-wide scope permit its use in free design processes. Moreover, those parts which, in the process of standardization, are to be made uniform, are selected on the basis of a very cruel criterion - are selected neither for beauty nor utility nor universality of application, but for one thing only - volume of production. And so, ironically, it comes about that within a culture where it is possible - at a price - to produce almost anything imaginable, practical men seeking to satisfy their individual wants are often limited to a very meager choice, and must perforce make shift with articles never originally intended for their use. The poet who asks for exclamation points is asked by the typewriter man to get along with a period and what might be described as a capital 8. A man having use for a twenty-gallon tank chooses generally between two sizes: ten gallons, which is the amount of gasoline required for the average automobile trip, and thirty gallons, the average amount of bath water consumed by a family on Saturday night. The householder wishing to construct, within the all-embracing field of the machine industry, one little machine for his own private use, must build it up out of automobile parts, radio parts, or agricultural machinery parts obtainable from a mail-order house - unless, of course, he can afford to hire a machinist and have his parts turned out by the technique of sixty years ago. There seems to be something about living during the full flower and vogue of the method of design, which reduces perfectly serious spirits to the necessity of foregoing that very method for themselves, and utilizing its second-hand products in the catch-as-catch-can manner best developed during the Stone Age. This is, of course, in line with the dynamic and transient character of the effectiveness of this design method, and may be a factor conducing to the briefness of its sway in a given culture.


For example, when it was first propounded that light did not always and from every point of view travel in straight lines, there was raised a fury of protest in a tone which it is no exaggeration to call moralistic. Before the dispute was over, eminent scientists were quoting very dubious poetry, while weaklings deserted their science altogether in pursuit of strange creeds. The reason why so much non-mathematical language was injected into the controversy, and why out-and-out laymen took so to heart a controversy in which they would never be able to measure the minute phenomena concerned, seems to be that an intellectual discipline of moral value was frustrated by an unforeseen lack of dependability in previously "known" relations.

A depraved tendency in house-decoration, at the dictate of which vases are used for lamps, and vessels of more dignified original intent are adapted to use as coal hods, ash receivers, etc., is not to be confused with eolithic craftsmanship, but is to be taken rather as an overt display of the fact of conquest. In these cases of "artistic" adaptation, the adapted article is always from a superseded culture - the chandelier made from a wagon wheel indicates the displacement, peaceful but nevertheless total, of the wagon-wheel system of values - one does not make chandeliers out of automobile wheels. The adapted article is, in this school of conquest-decoration, displayed, displayed either in the lamp, where it will perforce be gratuitously conspicuous, or in some article of definitely menial use - even the gods of violated cultures have been used for match-receivers. By contrast, eolithic craftsmanship is in its essence modest craftsmanship, and has nothing in common with the noise of conquest.