Political changes can extend beyond government officials or state elections. Works of art, in this case, object design, has had a long history of taking a closer look at understanding and reinterpreting values and citizenship throughout the world. Some pieces can be more direct and explicit in expressing political statements, while others can be more subtle and off-handed.

When it comes to object design, an object can be political through:

  • The signals the object itself sends us with its outward appearance
  • How the object acts upon us, or shapes our behavior
  • The way the design and manufacturing process was seen to be carried out
  • Its wider impact (the way it is discussed, marketed, sold, used or misused and disposed of or recycled.)

With that in mind, historical events over time have also incorporated the ways an object can make political or renewed statements.

Ornate Objects: The Renaissance (1300s to 1600s)

With the rise of a prospering financial economy in the Italian Renaissance, both middle and upper classes gained new opportunities. The rise in wealth led to more secular and lavish inclinations into the early 15th-century. The expanded construction of palaces made royal and high-ranking nobles seek out ornate, domestic objects to inhabit their homes. Artisans and craftsmen would then be commissioned to build grand pieces of furniture, like chests to seating arrangements that contained stiff forms and elaborate depictions of biblical motifs.

Michael Pacher’s Mary of Burgandy, 1490. This early Renaissance painting shows how even clothing and jewelry were tailored with fine, elaborate details.

Birth trays also became a significant object and family heirloom during the Renaissance. A desco de parto, or birth tray, would be provided as a gift in the rare celebration of a successful birth. In the shape of a shallow bowl, one side of the tray often had a painting of a mythological story, while the opposite side bore a family’s emblem.

The personalized trays were displayed in the family’s home to commemorate the birth of a child. Initially made of wood, the objects were later made with ceramic and decorated with more domestic, birth-related narratives. Materials themselves even shifted from coarse to delicate standards.

The Renaissance brought an intense ambition to make the impossibility of perfection into a tangible form. Moving away from religious ideals, objects became symbols of royal comfort and indulgence.

The Industrial Revolution and Machine Aesthetic (1700s to 1900s)

The Industrial Revolution brought mass production to the forefront. Handmade objects were replaced with machine-made, commercialized products. Factors like the scientific ideas from the Enlightenment and a rising need for textiles led to the beginnings of the factory system, with cotton paving the way.

Prior to the factory system, objects would be individually assembled by rural producers within their own working spaces. Mechanized tools like the steam engine or sewing machine helped produce goods more efficiently and in a larger scale.

Textile and other specialized factories turned mass production into the standardized mode of manufacturing objects. Decorative objects could be reproduced quickly and cheaply, making them available for purchase among more people. This also led to the rise of shopping culture in the early 19th-century; the ornate was no longer limited to the wealthy and objects served to create other objects.

The innovation of mass production continued into the early 1900s with the growing popularity of machines and the machine aesthetic. Machine aesthetic referred to being related to a machine either in appearance or production. Objects adorned reflective metal surfaces reminiscent of classic interpretations of robots. Everyday objects such as teapots to pencil sharpeners, even the art movements of that time, all shared a homogenized, sleek finish.

The machine aesthetic objects were purposefully devoid of frills and extravagance to differentiate itself from that of expensive goods. Designers sought out to form products and tools purely out of functionality and simplicity, leaving decorative presentation aside.

All of these objects share the polished stylization of the machine aesthetic.

Ethical Transparency (Present)

In today’s world of heightened social consciousness, we feel a responsibility to advocate for morally-just standards.

Now, more than ever, object design is at its most politically significant. The joint forces of consumerism, advertising and technology has shaped our world into a product-filled society, and we have become aware of how those products can affect our everyday lives. Those effects can be for personal gain, although we also want our products to benefit the future of the world around us.

The incorporation of biodegradable or ethically-sourced materials among a range of objects reflect the shifting attitudes towards object design. Designers are making their own political statements by connecting with their audience’s needs, bringing change and transparency to pre-established methods of object production. We are making conscious decisions in being aware of the full lifespan of an object, from production to disposal, all so we can progress into a more sustainable, responsible future.

This content comes from the program Making Meaning: An Introduction to Designing Objects by School of the Art Institute of Chicago. To learn more about the history and cultural significance associated with designed objects, join the first course below:


Making Meaning: An Introduction to Designing Objects, Part I

School of the Art Institute of Chicago