Single-use plastic cutlery is a symbol of a global throwaway society. Such cutlery will be banned in the EU as of 3 July. The “Spoon Archaeology” exhibition is looking at this issue for the London Design Biennale. We spoke with Peter Eckart and Kai Linke about their collection of plastic cutlery and the need for change.
Interview by Thomas Wagner.
Plastic waste of all kinds and disposable products, including cutlery and takeaway cups in particular, are a global phenomenon. Beyond cups, there are also single-use spoons, stirrers, forks, knives, chopsticks, all kinds of sticks, straws and much more, and they are manufactured en masse, are low-cost and are easy to dispose of after use. Or were. An EU regulation is now going to ban single-use plastic products beginning on 3 July this year.
Mr Linke, you have been collecting plastic spoons together with your colleague Peter Eckart for many years now. What is the story behind this? Why are you interested in spoons in particular?
Kai Linke: We began collecting independently of each other. Peter Eckart probably even started doing it a few years before me. We do not know exactly how it began, but for me – and I think for Peter, too – it was more or less coincidence. I collect a wide range of things; a friend of mine even brought along cocktail stirrers from the 1970s for me once. Back then, every luxury hotel had cocktail stirrers of its own, and this friend found a whole bundle of them in some bulky rubbish and thought, “Well, look at that! That is something for you.”
A bundle of little skewers for those maraschino cherries in your cocktail glass?
Kai Linke: Yes, just like that, for example.
Peter Eckart: And for stirring, too.
Kai Linke: Every Hilton, be it in Paris or London, had its own little stirrers, and that is what my collection began with. Later on it grew to include various eating instruments, but I always had a focus on disposable cutlery. It is something that is basically thrown at you on every street corner. I am particularly fascinated by how different they are, with varying shapes, materials, colours and ways to use them. So, different forks and knives would always end up in my clutches whenever I was on the go, and I would keep them.
What is the story behind your focus on spoons?
Kai Linke: While our collection is now called “Spoon Archaeology”, we are of course also displaying plastic knives and forks or, more precisely, we are exhibiting such cutlery.
Peter Eckart: There is indeed a reason for the focus on spoons. We created a complexity map that shows how the relationship between food and cutlery has developed throughout history. The spoon is to a certain degree the primordial utensil. Even Martin Luther had something to say about spoons. We thought it was a good idea to concentrate on spoons as part of the theme of disposable cutlery.
The collection initially stands out because of its enormous variety of shapes and colours. In addition to these historical aspects, are there also symbolic ones that you have been looking at since starting?
Kai Linke: Due to the variety of the objects in our exhibition, viewers can perceive very different uses depending on the specific spoon or knife in front of them. It makes a difference whether you have a big spoon as opposed to a little spoon before you: you see the eating speed, so to speak, and sometimes you see what is eaten with it. Thanks to their materials and the way they are made, these utensils naturally also convey different symbolic functions.
Peter Eckart: My collection also grew because at some point it turned into an educational object for me. Cutlery is an excellent introduction to study on the concept of “human–object interaction” and a way to explain how design works – with regard to its planned appearance, production and so on, as well as in symbolic terms and in terms of operation and use. There are also many specimens that come from the same brand. For example, people associate Starbucks with its narrow stick, Lufthansa with a particular stirrer – and McDonald’s with that thing you use to eat a McFlurry. These associations are all part of the symbology.
Your “Spoon Archaeology” collection is now being exhibited as part of the London Design Biennale. What is the story behind this?
Peter Eckart: I had written an article about the collection in “form”. Afterwards, Kai and I talked about how we really should make an exhibition out of it. We spoke to various museums and asked if they would be interested, given that the EU ban begins on 3 July this year. Thomas Geisler, who heads the museum of applied arts in Dresden, thought it would be wonderful to present the cutlery as a contribution from Germany’s Federal Foreign Office for the London Design Biennale.
What is the concept behind the presentation in London? Why do you talk about archaeology?
Peter Eckart: We see the exhibition as a critical contribution. At its core, it sketches an image of a society that cannot function as it did before. What we see in a way is the final image of when you look at the situation in a dystopian way and say there needs to be a fundamental change. When the last piece of plastic cutlery has decomposed in four or five hundred years’ time, we will look back on this era – and this is a moment that we have basically brought forward to the present day. That is why we are presenting the cutlery items like insects in cases, elevating the exhibit in a museum-like way, so to speak.
The final image of a civilisation that has destroyed the foundations of its existence – this is quite impressive. Does it involve a kind of archaeology of the present day?
Peter Eckart: The pandemic has brought many things to a head. We now see some things more clearly than before. It is like an archaeology of the present day; that is a good phrase. (laughs)
When you look at the cases full of cutlery, the diverse colours look nice at first. How do you redirect viewer attention to a problematic system?
Kai Linke: You cannot redirect their attention if they are not captivated. Although we may be glorifying our collection in a way, we are not glorifying the system. Instead, we criticise it with the form of our presentation.
Peter Eckart: As an example from the art world, think about Damian Hirst and his cabinet full of pills. Or his famous shark. “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” is the work’s name, I believe. Naturally they idealise somewhat; however, this is also a design tool to create distance. On the one hand, the viewer revels in the aesthetics of consumption, while on the other they are also horrified. The exhibition draws on this simultaneity.
Kai Linke: The ban gives us a great opportunity as it calls on us to rethink as a society, to try out something new and do away with what we are used to – and this in turn offers a great opportunity for designers to dedicate themselves to this task.
Peter Eckart: We have tried to provide an outlook, as it were, not just looking backwards but also looking forwards. The exhibition has three films emphasising this outlook: “Banana Leaf”, by Ray and Charles Eames, which we came across by coincidence; a specially produced film by Julie Gaston and Robin Schmidt, which shows people in Offenbach eating with their hands; and the third film, which we made, looks at artificial intelligence and tries to find out how hands and cutlery could morph into an object of the future – bearing in mind that more than 50% of the world’s population eats with their hands, and does so for cultural reasons, not because of precarious circumstances.
Could we need to think critically about our utensils and maybe go without some of the ones that we invented as we evolved? Might we have to start returning to our bodily abilities, which in this case would be the highly sophisticated human hand?
Kai Linke: Yes, definitely. This is also our approach for a solution. Utensils have constantly kept developing over the course of our culture’s history. However, we can also return to using our highly sophisticated hands as our primary utensil. The stimulus for this is the Eames film, which is set in India in 1972 and demonstrates how people there ate and still eat with their hands. This also continues in Offenbach, where different nationalities eat with their hands, and in the computer-animated half-human objects.
Peter Eckart: The Eames film was like an epiphany for me. It shows how eating utensils are used in different castes. In the lowest caste, the people who have the least, they eat with their hands from a banana leaf. The higher up the caste system you go, the more cutlery and crockery there is. However, the highest level – which only knows spiritual values – goes back to eating off a banana leaf. It is bound to be presented in somewhat of an exalted way; but designers always pay attention to things that can produce new ideas.
Fast-food culture, our nomadic lifestyle – which is often something we do not adopt voluntarily – do we have to rethink all these things?
Peter Eckart: I believe so, definitely. It is all up for scrutiny, and it is clear that things cannot go on as they are. It is typically German to believe that such things can be changed with technology or new materials. Anyone who thinks all we need to do is drive around in electric cars has not understood that there must be a comprehensive change. You cannot cling to the efficiency of existing systems and hope to create fundamental transformation by changing technologies or materials. That will never work.
What specific contribution can design make? What do you think the exhibition in London could bring about?
Kai Linke: Design does not always have to generate an instant solution; it can also describe a set of issues and raise their visibility. That is the main aspect for me in our London exhibition.
Peter Eckart: I believe it is about more. After all, I am a little bit older and don’t have that much time (laughs). With that in mind, I think design really can achieve something. Designers know a great amount about quality, value, materials and their relationships. We can demonstrate that eating is a culture that needs the right food, the right utensils and the right context – where do I eat? How do I eat? And so on. Design can communicate this.
“Design does not always have to generate an instant solution; it can also describe a set of issues and raise their visibility.”
— Kai Linke
Looking at the Eames film and at the scepticism towards utensils in the same context, should the future be a return to the past? Will we come back to the elementary things in life?
Kai Linke: We have studied the history of cutlery intensively, and naturally there are lessons to be learned from history. Where does cutlery come from? How is it used? Should we suddenly start eating with our hands? It was still very normal 120 years ago to take your cutlery with you on your wanderings. Or classic travel cutlery when travelling. Wouldn’t it be good if everyone had their own set of cutlery with them on their lunch break? However, with new technologies and methods, the future offers opportunities for developing things, too.
Does the exhibition offer concrete suggestions as to what a new on-the-go eating culture could look like?
Peter Eckart: Looking back to the past like this is a reflex, of course. However, things were not always better in the past. Every solution should be looked at in its historical context. Plastic did not exist when travel cutlery was invented, otherwise there might have already been plastic cutlery back then. A consistent analysis of the present day is what leads to new actions and processes, not a look back at the past. It is not about cutlery. Rather, it is about interactions with food. This is my view of the future. A plastic fork, for instance, is high-tech, superthin, ultralight and fantastically shaped, so it is always stable. The moment you accept that, you become a person who is embedded in an entire logistics system. Design can move outside of this systematism and say, “No, I will spend 50 euros on my fork and I will keep it for 30 or 40 years or even longer.” It is about suggestions for the here and now and for the future.
So, you are looking for solutions in two directions. Solutions that have proved themselves historically and solutions that are only just gaining visibility?
Peter Eckart: We are all part of a global coexistence. This is a good time to look around at the alternatives there are. One of them might be that we do not need disposable products any more.
Can this be achieved solely by changing awareness? Or do more things need to be banned?
Kai Linke: Prohibiting something can lead people to think differently. However, I believe that there must be a societal change.
Peter Eckart: Our task as designers is already to formulate positive prospects for change. That is why I think it is also a political issue. This is precisely the case for cutlery. If someone wants to make money in fast food, that person cannot simply ignore what happens to the cutlery and tableware.
Thinking about the exhibition now, if you were to wish for something to change the world, what would you wish for?
Peter Eckart: I would truly wish for every item of cutlery and crockery to be designed to facilitate eating and a respect for eating, and not for it to be designed for throwing away. This can only be achieved with materials, good design, a good atmosphere and so on.
Kai Linke: I hope that consumers – and especially those in the restaurant and food services industries – accept this transformation and that the new law sets even more in motion. The new rules will take effect in multiple stages, with the first one kicking off soon on 3 July. I would wish for governments to change the background context more quickly. We cannot wait for the transformation any longer.
“Our task as designers is already to formulate positive prospects for change. That is why I think it is also a political issue. This is precisely the case for cutlery. If someone wants to make money in fast food, that person cannot simply ignore what happens to the cutlery and tableware.”
— Peter Eckart
For more background information, information and films on the London Design Biennale 2021, “Spoon Archaeology” and the designers of the exhibition, please visit the HFG Offenbach website.
With the consumption-critical project “Spoon Archaeology”, the Museum of Decorative Arts of the Dresden State Art Collections (SKD) is participating in this year’s London Design Biennale 2021. Under the artistic direction of the British artist and stage designer Es Devlin, the third Biennale in response to the dramatic effects of the pandemic is dedicated to the question: Can we design a better world?
Homepage of the Staatliche Kunstsammlung Dresden.
The presentation is curated by Thomas A. Geisler, Director of the Museum of Decorative Arts and designed by Kai Linke and Peter Eckart. The show will take place at Somerset House in London from 1 to 27 June 2021. The installations will be accompanied by numerous online programme items dedicated to the themes with a global appeal. Geisler: “Design is a willing accomplice in the implementation of a culture of life that we take for granted. The climate crisis teaches us to change our habits, to listen more to our intuition and to gain empathy in order to resonate with our environment. Design can help us with that too.”
Together with Bernd Hilpert, designer Peter Eckart develops product, information and exhibition design for international companies, public institutions and museums as unit-design, with offices in Frankfurt am Main and Bern. Since 2018, he has been working in the LOEWE research network Infrastructure – Design – Society on questions of future environmentally friendly mobility.
With his Studio Kai Linke , founded in 2009, the designer Kai Linke works in the interdisciplinary fields of product and exhibition design, art direction, innovation consulting and architectural collaborations. Since 2015, he has been teaching at the Kunsthochschule Kassel in the product design department and published the book “Kai Linke in Japan” in 2019.
Founded in 2016 by Sir John Sorrell CBE and Ben Evans CBE, the London Design Biennale promotes international collaboration and the global role of design through exhibitions and installations. This year’s motto is “Resonance” and deals with the consequences of design and production.
More about the London Design Biennale
On the occasion of the “Spoon Archaeology” exhibition at the London Design Biennale, Thomas A. Geisler, Director of the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Dresden and curator, and Lutz Dietzold, CEO of the German Design Council, talk to Thomas Wagner about how sustainability can be successfully realised.
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