(high-resolution digital ink-jet prints, cardboard boxes), 2013:
The Container Store sells space and efficiency. Its inventory includes many containers of varying shapes, sizes, and designs. It markets the possibility of containment, the logic of compartmentalization, and the hope of organization. The promise of a clutter-free, efficient, and spacious home or office lies in each and every container or space-saving device. Its extensive line of corrugated cardboard packing containers, for example, represents, in its thirty-two models, the possibility that there is a perfect place for everything that you own.
The largest group of these containers is composed of a single piece of white cardboard. Each is creased and slotted so as to create six rectangular faces when folded, thereby forming an orthogonal volume. The design of these boxes makes them inexpensive, strong, and efficient, both in their two-dimensional form when flat for their own storage in the store, and then also in their modular, three-dimensional form when opened and folded, ready for packing. In addition, even in their design and construction, these pieces of cardboard represent the actual possibility of the creation of new spaces. Of the thirty-two on the inventory list, twenty-five were in stock during the days that I visited the store.
Itself a kind of container, the store and its mission and inventory, to reiterate, propose that space may not only be bought and sold, but that it may also be created. This logic is evident within the very design of these particular packing boxes. If these boxes are to serve their intended purpose, they require that the user transform the flat, two-dimensional shapes into three-dimensional volumes by folding the cardboard in a prescribed fashion. There is an obvious set of steps:
- visit The Container Store;
- purchase boxes;
- return to your place;
- fold cardboard;
- fill newly created boxes with stuff;
- behold new space!
With the proliferation of do-it-yourself stores and centers, it is an example of a set of actions with which many consumers are so familiar that no real thought is necessary; but aside from an ordinary shopping event and the ho-hum assembly-required experience, there is something interesting at work.
Upon reflection, one might recognize the entire experience as a some kind of artful algorithm, followed by everyone, but to different results each and every time. Who knows where the lady standing ahead of you in line came from or is going with her boxes? Who knows what your next-door neighbor puts in his boxes? Whatever the case, each one of them bought the containers for one purpose, for the future spaces they offer. Very clever, really, those who designed such an algorithm. And curious how such an ordinary series of events can result in something so valuable that a whole company is based upon it, and yet so completely insubstantial, that such a set of actions – a kind of rain-dance or incantation – can open up heretofore non-existent spaces. But are they new spaces? Those who devised the steps have surely created these spaces before.
To speak only of the boxes, those simple steps result in a formal transition that demonstrates an interesting relationship between plane and volume, between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. A complex relationship exists there indeed; however, rather than a sophisticated theoretical or mathematical treatment of the problem, or some kind of geometric proof, it only takes the very simple, dumb action of folding a piece of cardboard to reveal that relationship. The difference between the two, between utilizing geometrical proofs to explicate the relationship between planes and volumes on the one hand, and performing banal movements to make use of that relationship on the other, is the difference between the analytic and the synthetic, thinking and making. But either way, what did we just make (or re-make)? By dutifully following directions, have we not put ourselves into a box that has always already been created just for us and all our needs?
The abstraction of such a varied series of actions performed by any number of individuals into such an elegant set of steps begs the question whether it may be taken to its logical end: might such abstraction allow for the elimination of the boxes themselves? Are they necessary? What happens to those newly (re)created spaces when the container itself is eliminated? Can thought define space? Might contemplation provide for its occupation, or the ability to refrain?
The Container Store offers one proposal as to how to answer such questions: by selling containers that within their design or along with a simple set of instructions, they provide a basic algorithm for the creation of space. In so doing, they certainly provide simple ways for us to synthesize spaces; but they in fact also provide us with new ways to consider those same spaces that we have just ourselves re-created. Perhaps the steps for doing are not altogether dissimilar from those steps for undoing.