Object of the month: La Bomba

PICNIC BASKETS NOT BOMBS!

How Helen von Boch’s La Bomba reveals the Nature, Nomadism, and Violence of the 1970s

La Bomba, Helen von Boch (designer) for Villeroy & Boch, c.1975, 45 cm, melamine.

INTRODUCTION

La Bomba is neat set of plates, cups, and cutlery stacked into a tube and strapped together to create a nifty, playful picnic service. It is shiny and secretive, containing more than a picnic set behind its plastic façade. Violent yet playful, environmentally detrimental yet nomadic and outdoorsy, bringing together pop culture and traditions of domesticity, La Bomba is an oxymoronic object, and the contradictions embodied by the picnic service reveal the environmental, cultural, and political tensions that were present in the 1970s. This paper explores the history of the cultural tradition of the picnic and the picnic service as an object, examining its material production and subsequent mediation of La Bomba, to reveal how it embodies a past discourse and reflects the conditions of the present in which it was produced.

The 1970s saw the rise of free love and the Green Party in contrast to anti-feminism and a “New Right”. It was an era in which a nature-loving cultural spirit was juxtaposed with a strong political backlash to the open-mindedness of the 1960s. In the United States, the liberal activism of Gloria Steinem and second wave feminists was being countered by the reactionism of Phyllis Schlafly and conservative “STOP ERA” campaigners. The housewife was suddenly in the spotlight of debates that had advanced from voting rights to domestic liberty. In Western Germany, the Green Party was transforming from a movement of the extreme left in which some members sympathized with the militant Red Army Faction toward a more moderate party ready to work within the political system instead of against it[1].

By contextualizing these events through the production and consumption of La Bomba it is possible to draw new connections between disparate topics, from feminism to consumerism an and to reveal how these actualities were manifested in the homes and minds of the average consumer. Beatriz Colomina’s Domesticity at War presented the concept of the domestic sphere as a place of conflict, with a focus on architecture and spaces, and her theory provides a basis from which to examine a single object and its mediation in relation to the idea of domestic war[2]. The emphasis on mediation and consumption is inspired by the works of scholars such as Dick Hebdige and Sarah Cheang, who employ advertisements as enlightening primary sources in their scholarship, and shift the study of consumerism and commodities from a predominantly Marxist discourse toward broader cultural and political topics[3]. Following these methods, La Bomba can be deconstructed as a sign that points toward specific events and highlights certain sensibilities of its time, as well as ours.

 

THE PICNIC AND ITS ACCESSORIES

The original picnic was not a leisure activity but a daily routine. Farmers and peasants working outdoors did not have the luxury of time to return to their homes for the midday meal, and instead would eat in the fields before returning to work until the sun set. Until the 20th century, this tradition continued to be predominantly working-class, as industrial workers, with only 30 or so minutes for break, brought a lunchbox so they could eat on site, bringing to mind the image Lunch Atop a Skyscraper. And the picnic cannot be discussed without mentioning Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, which has been controversial for so many reasons, ranging from suggestions of Manet’s incompetence as a painter to accusations of painting men with prostitutes. In any case, it reveals the romanticized idea of the picnic as a pastoral space in which to lounge and muse, which was not necessarily a reality at the time, but set the stage for the leisure activity the picnic has become today. These images and ideas are tied up in La Bomba picnic service, and it can be seen as a successor of the lunchbox, or featured in a modern reimagining of the Déjeuner scene[4].

The picnic service is perhaps more directly descended from the 18th century nécessaire, intricate cases of instruments that ranged from tea sets to makeup kits to writing gear, all fit cleverly into a box for easy travel. The oxymoron of a necessary accessory embodied in the frivolous function of the nécassaire is echoed by La Bomba, which is redundant as a service because the owner already has a set of dishes for use in the home, and ancillary for a picnic, because you don’t forcibly need plates and spoons in order to eat. Why, then, does it exist as a commercial object? This is an important question for La Bomba because, although it is now found in museum collections, it was originally produced, marketed, and sold. It was not design for design’s sake, but design for the consumer’s sake. This aspect is the key to understanding how such an object connects to its contemporary situation. Its history is rich in aesthetic and social connections, but it is ultimately the present situation that determined its design.
Designed by Helen von Boch for Villeroy & Boch in 1975, La Bomba is made of melamine, a durable plastic, and probably weighs no more than a few kilograms. It is a little taller than a bottle of wine, and small enough in diameter to be carried under one arm. Except for the straps looping around to hold it together, La Bomba looks a bit like a toy accordion, or, as the name suggests, a mortar shell. When taken apart, the set breaks down into a few dozen separate pieces (fig. 6). There is a 12-piece set of flatware that includes spoons, forks, knives, and tiny dessertspoons. The cutlery is metal, and about the length of your little finger. The orange ends are revealed to be bowls, and the white and black are Frisbee-like dishes, which can be used as plates or shallow bowls, depending on which side faces up. There is a small, oblong white pitcher with indents for gripping, a lip for pouring, and a lid. Three simple cylindrical cups in pink, purple, and orange complete the set. Each piece is marked “Villeroy & Boch avant-garde, Made in Western-Germany”. When correctly stacked, like fitting a simple puzzle back together, the cups and plates and flatware disappear securely into the reformed shell.

 

THE MATERIAL AND ITS CULTURE

Beyond the impressive engineering required to create such a system, the material object includes a number of remarkable features. The first is its material, which seems at odds with its production in different ways. For starters, Villeroy & Boch is known primarily for ceramics. Established in 1748, the company comes with a lengthy heritage, and generations have been involved in its development[5]. Helen von Boch, a designer from the generation that was up-and-coming in the 1970s, had recently produced La Boule in collaboration with the Italian designer Federigo Fabbrini. This Italian influence may have been the inspiration for the bright colors and playful design, but Fabbrini was also known as a ceramicist, so the shift to plastic cannot be attributed entirely to him. It could be purely practical—hard to imagine having a picnic with porcelain. After deciding to design a set for use outdoors, Helen von Boch needed to find an appropriate material that was lightweight, durable, and could be molded into the specific shapes required by the puzzle-like design. Melamine was often used in home products in the 1950s, but increasing environmental awareness had turned favor against highly chemical materials, including many varieties of plastic. While practical, plastic came with its own problems, and this complexity is highlighted by the fact that La Bomba is situated between two oil crises, an issue that will be revisited later, in more depth.

The second remarkable feature is that the service is marked as “avant-garde.” While far from the Neo-Dadaism that was evolving in the United States, La Bomba does mark a break from tradition. Its design is progressive, compared to Villeroy & Boch’s lineage of fine ceramic ware produced for the bourgeois table, with its playful colors, bubbly shapes, and outdoor function. An advertisement for the service shows a woman happily schlepping it outside, free from the domestic toil of the kitchen, off to explore the world with nothing but her wits and her trusty picnic service. Such imagery reflects the emerging trend of nomadism, a movement towards a more adventurous and outdoorsy lifestyle, a return to simplicity and the fostering environmental awareness, seemingly in contradiction to previous visions of a life centered in the kitchen or an office. But nomadism was not the opposite to a life of consumption and domestic goods; it was an alternative, with its own set of consumer goods to go along with it. “’Peace in ‘70” for $2.75” says an ad for Coca-Cola. With the economy stronger than ever since World War II, the rise of consumerism was in full swing, and new audiences were targeted in order to expand the market.

Although slower to recover than Britain and the United States, by the 1970’s Western Germany was ready to establish itself as a modern Western presence. While critical design groups like Archizoom and Superstudio in Italy were interested in critiquing social and political systems, designers in Western Germany were engaged on a different level, negotiating their new relationship with the United States as liberator and supervisor while haunted by the ghost of a Nazi Party past[6]. Western Germans were eager to demarcate themselves from their communist counterpart, and the solution to many of these issues seemed to lie in consumer culture. If communism meant a controlled market, then democracy must be reflected in capitalism. Andy Warhol’s celebration of consumer culture via pop art had a heavier meaning in Western Germany, where the ability to drink a Coca-Cola was recognized as a privilege, compared to life behind the grey wall of the GDR. La Bomba, as an “avant-garde” product, embraced pop aesthetics and consumer culture, pushing the boundaries but not too far, a reflection of the emerging character of Western Germany.

 

THE ENVIRONMENT AND ITS DOMESTICATION

As an object that crosses many boundaries, La Bomba reveals how they cross each other. It is a domestic object intended for use outside of the home. It is a plastic object framed by two oil crises, whose design is inspired by the desire to return to nature. It lets you eat outdoors while contributing to environmental destruction. The environmentalism it promotes is imaginary, not practical. La Bomba is designed to be carried—unlike the picnic basket popular in America, which was set in the trunk of the car for trips into the countryside or to the beach, this picnic service is an urban object, compact for easy storage in an apartment, and allowing for a quick getaway to the park, just grab the set! The park is an idealized space constructed for urbanites to have the sense that they can return to nature. In the same way the “avant-garde” of La Bomba was progressive within limits, so too is the nomadic lifestyle it promotes. The public, democratic space of nature or the park is commodified by objects that are required in order to properly enjoy such spaces, what Colomina called “commodification of the exterior”. Mass production of the picnic set not only contributed to environmental damage, but led to privatization of public space. It went beyond simply bringing the interior tradition of the meal to the exterior, by actually converting the natural exterior area into a domesticated space.

La Bomba also crosses boundaries within issues of domesticity and gender roles. The feminist/anti-feminist dichotomy can be seen played out on La Bomba. The picnic service invites the woman out of the domestic sphere, showing that she is no longer part of an interior system, but free to venture beyond. It equips her with all the necessary tools so she doesn’t have to worry about putting everything together into a basket; it’s a readymade picnic kit that can’t function unless all the pieces are put together, so you can’t forget anything! However, as Cheryl Buckley pointed out, many of the contraptions designed to make women’s lives easier actually complicated them[7]. La Bomba may be a self-contained unit, but it sets a new standard for what is expected at the picnic, and turns it into a performative activity for the hostess. Like the nécessaire and other complex 18th century objects discussed by Mimi Hellman, La Bomba requires a certain amount of knowledge for proper use, and since the sleek shell contains all the utensils, the picnic becomes centered around the woman who carries it, and relies on her to deconstruct and distribute all plates and cutlery, as a kind of mistress of the ceremony[8]. Putting La Bomba in a woman’s hands gives her some liberty to access the outside world, but it also relegates to her a new role with new requirements. The push and pull between agency and obligation found in the picnic service shows how debates over women’s rights and responsibilities were present in consumer culture, with that embodied aspects of both sides of the debate.

 

VIOLENCE AND ITS SUBVERSION

In the era of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Red Army faction, it is no surprise that the idea of violence infiltrated daily design. These conflicts did not directly affect much of the population, in the same way that bombing raids, food shortages, and national drafts had in the past. Bombings were few and far between, but with the increasing spread of information through newspaper and television media, isolated events could be broadcast into living rooms across the country. While abstract, major conflicts were never far from the surface, and this tension was manifested in unique objects like La Bomba. Its bomb-like shape is a direct contradiction to its pop culture aesthetic and nomadic-inspired use and marketing. Why would an object of leisure bear resemblance to something so violent?

Well underway in the 1970s, the space age started with the development of technologies for military purposes, intended to promote national power and threaten national enemies. These developments had a great internal impact as they were absorbed into popular culture via science fiction in movies and literature, and entered the home in the form of funky bars, nifty radios, and, of course, bombastic picnic sets. These objects normalized the ever-present threat of war from above, allowing it to seep into the living room and kitchen in peaceful and even playful ways. Using La Bomba means deconstructing the frightening image of the bomb and the regular threats of terrorist attacks or nuclear war into a means for relaxation and leisure. It allows the user to confront their fears, break them down, and eat off of them. Although they could be seen as extemporaneous, objects like La Bomba offered more than their surface function. They were tools of survival, a means of asserting human and artistic design over that of violence and militarism. If fear cannot be ignored, it can at least be assuaged and subverted through integration with the quotidian.

 

CONCLUSION

Today, at the end of 2016, fear seems to be winning. People are afraid of the Islamic State, afraid of the people fleeing it, afraid of the new president, afraid of old administrations, afraid of each other. It feels like there is nowhere left to turn. Art, music, movies, novels: nothing seems to offer the answers people are seeking to explain the current situation of world affairs. Perhaps part of the answer can be found in design. La Bomba can seem to be a relic of a time when “rad” and “groovy” were common adjectives, when colorful plastics and prints were as trendy as bell-bottoms and faux-fur. But the conflicts it embodies are as relevant today as they were then. Women are still struggling to negotiate their public and private identities; capitalism is no longer the conqueror of Commies but the system that got Donald Trump elected. Environmentalism is still culturally trendy but massively overlooked in consumption and policy.

 

NOTES

[1] Joachim Jachnow, “What’s Become of the German Greens?” in The New Left Review 81 (2013), accessed December 8, 2016. https://newleftreview.org/II/81/joachim-jachnow-what-s-become-of-the-german-greens.

[2] Beatriz Colomina, “Domesticity at War,” Discourse 14 (1991): 3-22, accessed November 9, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41389198

[3] The methods of Hebdige and Cheang are exemplified in their articles on the Italian Scooter and Chinese goods, respectively. Dick Hebdige, “Object as Image: The Italian Scooter Cycle,” BLOCK 5 (1981): 44-64. Sarah Cheang, “Selling China: Class, Gender, and Orientalism at the Department Store.” Journal of Design History 20 (2007): 1-16.

[4] Information on Alain Jacquet’s artwork from “Généalogie d’une photographie: « Le déjenuer sur l’herbe » de Manet,” from the blog Ledeunffgwen, accessed December 12, 2016, https://ledeunffgwen.wordpress.com/2015/02/15/genealogie-dune-photographie-le-dejeuner-sur-lherbe-de-manet/

[5] “About Villeroy & Boch” on the Villeroy & Boch website, accessed December 8, 2016. http://www.villeroy-boch.com/shop/aboutus

[6] William Cook, “The Unsung Heroes of German Pop Art,” from the BBC Arts website, last modified November 10, 2014, accessed December 8, 2016. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/rQPfxYgPydtWCFlS5MRKPp/the-unsung-heroes-of-german-pop-art

[7] Cheryl Buckley, “Made in Patriarchy: Toward a Feminist Analysis of Women and Design,” in Desgin Issues 3 (1986): 3-14.

[8] Mimi Hellman, “Furniture, Sociability, and the Work of Leisure in Eighteenth-Century France,” Eighteenth Century Studies 32 (1999): 415-445.