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Skin Care: The Sensual Surfaces of Objects

Prasad Boradkar

Aesthetic modification of objects through design activity is akin to molting; as the skin ages, it is exfoliated. Redesigning product forms with minimal improvements to utilitarian value is not an uncommon practice in design. Viewed in evaluative terms coined by Marx and Baudrillard, the skin of the object, in such cases, becomes the receptacle for its exchange-value and sign-value rather than its use-value. Creative operations are performed on the skin to add symbolism, stimulate desire and valorize capital, but are often justified as attempts to satisfy a wider range of user needs. This research attempts to study the skins of objects by drawing from the discourse of commodity aesthetics found within and outside design. Perspectives offered by Walter Benjamin about the spell cast by commodities on innocent flaneurs in the shopping arcades of Paris will be discussed along with Wolfgang Haug's explanation of aesthetics as mere "appearance of use-value".

These object-skins serve as boundaries and can be seen as signifiers of protection, desire, symbolism, deception, etc. Boundaries often signify separation between cultures, but if permeable, they can sometimes serve as metaphors of amalgamation full of rich multiplicity. The primary objective of this research is to treat the shells of objects as borders between the material and immaterial, between utility and fetishism, but always rich in meaning. Various types of skins, such as rigid, translucent, permeable, elastic, and flexible will be discussed in material, symbolic and cultural terms through theory, empirical information, as well as case studies.


Skin, Object, signifier, Fetishism, Symbolism