241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

It was easy to revive the dead in the 18th century: just insert a tobacco resuscitator into the rectum and deliver a quick puff of smoke. The body would be stimulated back to life.

The kit comprised a bellows ­­– originallya pig’s bladder – a tobacco pipe, a mouthpiece, and a cone for insertion. The technique gained popularity in 1746, when a drowned woman was resuscitated courtesy of a rolled piece of paper and a sailor’s pipe; a success story that saw ‘The Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead from Drowning’ install the kits at various points along the Thames, and build a centre by the Serpentine in Hyde Park to rescue drowned skaters.

Doubts about the credibility of tobacco-smoke enemas led to the phrase ‘blowing smoke up your arse’, no doubt after experiments, including a mass resuscitation effort in a Paris morgue, failed. Yet the object was standard medical practice across Europe and America for over a century, not just for resuscitation, but for treating constipation, strangulated hernias and intestinal obstructions.

A surviving example of the tobacco-smoke enema sits in a display case at London’s Wellcome Collection. This is the accompanying description: ‘There are no known accounts that the Tobacco Resuscitator worked.’ The label may be short but it has a subtext that says: ‘Look how foolish they were. We know better.’

But do we? Just down the road from the museum, British model Kelly Brook’s derrière is the focus point of a billboard. She is wearing Reebok’s EasyTone trainers: a type of shoe that supposedly tones the buttocks 28 per cent more than regular shoes when you walk in them. The shoes are Reebok’s most successful new product in five years. Even when the Federal Trade Commission forced Reebok to rein in its claims, the shoes continued to sell.

This puzzle plays in my head later when I am flicking through TV channels and land on Pitch TV. Celebrity builder Tommy Walsh is demonstrating the Paint Pad Pro, a painting tool with ‘the speed of a roller and precision of a brush’. The paint glides over the patterned wallpaper, giving instant coverage: ‘It uses less paint than a brush, with minimum effort!’ I stare at my grubby walls.

Next channel: A woman delicately throws vinegar, oil, eggs, orange juice and a can of tomatoes onto a tiled floor. She picks up Whizz Mop, and moves it over the puddle. ‘Look at that! All gone and no streaks! And what do we do now?’ The male presenter smiles at the pretty assistant. ‘Whizz!’ she says, and places the Whizz Mop into a bucket, pumping a pedal to give the mop-head a spin dry.

Flick back: ‘And get the detachable extension pole too. No ladders – no splatters! And wait! We’re so confident that you’ll like this that we’ll double your pads for free!’ I go onto the Amazon website. Customers gave the product a blanket one star, except for a suspicious two who gave it five.

The tobacco resuscitator was administered in good faith; both the physician and the patient believed the product worked. But it is fairly obvious that the EasyTone shoes are not going to make you thinner, that the Whizz Mop and Paint Pad Pro are no faster, and no superior, to average mops and paint-rollers. So why, with the resources and knowledge available to us, do we continue to buy them?

Buckminster Fuller asked this question back in 1947 when he set up fictional company Obnoxico, to criticise those who make money selling worthless objects. The outlet was a faux mail order catalogue, and the star product was a gold cast of a baby’s last worn nappy; a memento of the moment a child is toilet trained, in object form. ‘Somehow or other the theoretical Obnoxico concept has now, twenty-five years later, become a burgeoning reality,’ Fuller reflected in the 1970s. ‘As the banking system pleads for more savings-account deposits (so that they can loan your money out to others at interest plus costs) the Obnoxico industry bleeds off an ever greater percentage of all the perennial savings as they are sentimentally or jokingly spent for acrylic toilet seats with dollar bills cast in the transparent plastic material.’

We live in a world filled with Obnoxico products, accompanied by a marketing industry highly skilled at mass manipulation. In 2004, two Czech film students created a supermarket, Czech Dream (Ceský Sen), in a Prague field. They employed a leading marketing agency to produce TV and radio ads, distribute 200,000 pamphlets and build a website, all boasting products at unbeatable prices. The project was filmed, and culminated in the opening of the building. The students, masquerading as businessmen, cut a ribbon, triggering 3,000 people, laden with shopping baskets, to run towards the hypermarket, only to reach a canvas façade supported by plinths. Their faces slowly turn to anguish as they realise they have been duped. The entire project was a fiction.

But marketing is not enough in itself to keep us buying Obnoxico products. Often, products with a dubious use-value have another, less obvious function that keeps them in the market. The useless tobacco resuscitator became useful for something else: to ritualise – in a rather unfortunate manner – the end of a life. The process gave a purpose to the doctor who arrived to pronounce a man dead, and set the grievers on their path, knowing that ‘we did everything we could’. For the survivors, the shock of the events quite possibly caused a psychological and bodily effect that aided recovery. Similarly, people who buy Reebok’s EasyTone shoes do so because they feel they are investing in their wellbeing, and this improves their state of mind. They may notice an improvement to their derrière even if there isn’t one.

This is called the placebo effect and has been defined by psychiatrists as ‘any therapy prescribed… for its therapeutic effect on a symptom or disease, but which is actually ineffective or not specifically effective for the symptom or disorder being treated’. In medicine, our belief in a pill’s ability to work sends a message to the pituitary gland to release its own endogenous pharmaceutics. The effect causes many red faces: when the pharmaceutical industry’s new wonder drugs are tested against sugar pills, half fail to beat the placebo. The same has been found for medical procedures. When physician Edzard Ernst performed an electrocardiogram diagnostic procedure on one of his elderly patients, the patient responded: ‘That was great. I feel much better, my chest pain has completely gone.’ Placebos are so effective, there’s a regular debate between government parties, doctors and psychologists as to whether they should be available on the NHS.

That unquestionable faith we once had in God, nature and even witchcraft to make us better is today transferred to science and technology. Functionless things, pills and procedures can improve our wellbeing simply through our belief in them. And they can easily be designed. That thermostat in your office probably has its wires cut, and is connected to nothing but your imagination. Turn the dial up and you’ll feel warmer; Wall Street bosses admitted that this act saved them a fortune. The ‘close door’ button in the elevator only works when the engineer plugs his key in; some say it exists to give us the illusion of control. Have you noticed how if you hit it repeatedly it seems to work?

So if the effects are good, is it right to deceive people, and wrong to tell people the truth? Perhaps sometimes, but because we don’t always know which things are placebos and which aren’t, we can’t critique them. They are an irreversible equation; they switch instantly from useful to useless once we know. We can’t decide at which point we need to know we are being duped – because then it’s too late. So should we allow people to orchestrate these elaborate spectacles in our mind?

Placebos – Latin for ‘I will please’ – work to various means; but as often as the intentions of duping us are good, they can as easily be driven by unsavoury goals. There is also the placebo’s evil twin to contend with: the nocebo, meaning ‘I will harm’. Voodoo curses that lead to death have been explained as extreme nocebo reactions. More recently, an autopsy of a man who died of terminal cancer revealed that his tumour was not large enough to cause death. Was it, the doctor suggested, the expectation of death that killed him?

The Lobster Clasp (1) – A Forgotten Mechanism (2)

Oversized fingers struggle to hold the delicate clasp hidden behind the neck. Hair strands become a forest for the fingers to fiddle through. Your cumbersome thumb repeatedly attempts to hold the tiny lever down long enough to hook the ring but always slips too soon. (3)

The clasp is as important as the pendant it holds. (4)


Taking the necklace off is always easier than putting it on. Your thumb does not slip. The ring leaves the hold of the clasp easily.


The larger forms of the lobster clasp sit comfortably in the hands. The internal mechanism plays a sound as your thumb presses down the lever for the opening to widen and then snaps closed when released.

The tactile action of repetitively pressing the lever and releasing it gives a simple sense of satisfaction until your thumb aches from this childish play.

Like clicking the end of a biro, the spring is made tired.

Your thumb is left with a little dent where the tip of the lever has rested.

Sporadically your finger is caught in the gap that the lever moves within.

The exhausted muscle in your knuckle stops you from pressing the lever again. The cheap metallic smell it leaves on your hands is sweet yet unpleasant, toxic and irritating, a reminder of the material’s industrial qualities. (7)

When the lobster clasp finds itself attached to a bag strap, there is tension along the chain the clasp has become a part of. The weight of the bag pulls the clasp to move accordingly. (8)

When the bag is not held the clasp lies lifeless. In the future the clasp will outlive the bag, yet will still be made redundant, as it is no use on its own. They rarely exist alone. (9)

A middle-sized lobster clasp can be found hidden amongst a cluster of keys at the end of a key ring.(10)

The various sized clasps form a family of differing personalities and purposes all based on the elegant shape of a lobster’s pincher claw. (11)


The lobster clasp is an elongated version of the classic ring clasp. The modifications were made in the late 1970s to make the new body sturdier than its predecessor. It is commonly found on western jewellery, keys rings and on bag straps.


Like the hinge on a door or the brass studding along the edge of a leather armchair the lobster clasp simply functions, often unnoticed or hidden.


The clasps are designed to exist firmly closed. Like the form of a book, it rests as a closed object but is redundant if it remains like this. The difficulty in opening the clasp is an inconvenience yet offers assurance and security.

The clasp should be at the front and made a show of.


The word clasp has a sense of urgency or importance about it. The clasp on a necklace can hold someone’s most sentimental belonging. The hidden clasp is as precious as what it holds.


If the metal hook on dangly earrings were a lobster clasp it would solve the problem of the butterfly falling and disappearing. But perhaps butterflies are better suited to sit behind the ear and a lobster, to secure, hold and protect an adornment of the neck.

The lobster clasp is shaped like an ear but an ear clasp doesn’t seem like something that would snap close or hold anything too tightly.


In eastern cultures the lobster clasp is not used as much. In some places an adjustable string and thread mechanism is used and in others knotting mechanisms are used to adjust necklaces over the head and tightened accordingly.


This elegant three-part object is the result of several perfected industrial manufacturing processes. The shell is stamped out from a strip of sheet metal and spat out by a customised dye. Leaving behind a train track like pattern along the strip, the shells fall amongst an anonymous pile. Three shells are picked by hand and placed into a mould to be folded with exact precision. They begin to take form and are welded individually. The lever is pressed into shape and the spring coiled.

The shell, lever and spring are pieced together. From a thin strip of sheet metal a three dimensional form is made.


The addition of a rotary base permits the clasp to function better.


The clasp mechanism is always attached to another form, a door hangs off the hinge like a parasite and fabric smothers the anatomy of an umbrella.


Again, it has company. Sharp crocodile teeth cut keys are fed on to the clasp. The rotary base joins the clasp to an assortment of keys rings and personalised objects, memorabilia, branding, collections, rubbish, the unused and the unnecessary. The surrounding objects play a sound unique to that particular organised accumulation. There appears to be competition amongst the disarray, between sentiments and functionality.


A moving lobster cannot be ignored but the resting lobster clasp can go unnoticed.

Helene Kröller-Müller, born into a prosperous industrialist family and Anton Kröller, a shipping and mining tycoon, were one of the wealthiest couples of their era in The Netherlands. Not only was Helene Kröller-Müller one of the first European women to amass a major art collection, she was also one of the first to recognise Vincent van Gogh’s talent, ultimately purchasing 90 of his paintings. Spearheaded by Helene Kröller-Müller, the couple set out to build a hunting lodge, the Jachthuis Sint-Hubertus— an enormous villa jutting out from the centre of the vast Dutch national park, the Veluwe.

Mrs. Kröller-Müller herself, as depicted in her study room.

Between 1914 and 1920, the build of the Jachthuis became one of Helene’s main attentions. She recruited the immensely successful architect now considered one of the fathers of Dutch modern architecture, H.P. Berlage, in an exclusive contract that bound him to the Jachthuis as his sole project. It proved an unparalleled endeavour for Berlage and he was set to design both building and interior, furnishings included, to the utmost detail.

Berlage’s motto, ‘unity in diversity’, was materialised through the Jachthuis: floors, ceilings, and walls were covered in triple glazed brick in red, yellow, blue, white, crème, green, and black. True to Berlage, many of the steel I-beams were left bare, although swathed in colour. The Jachthuis, its floor plan shaped like the antlers of a deer, exemplified a world of modern splendour.

Staircase at the entry

The lodge was spared no luxury, and many of its features were a rarity in its days: electricity, a central heating system, warm water (although not in the servants’ quarters), and even a central vacuum system were installed. The tower overlooking the forests and heaths was fitted with an especially spectacular feature, the country’s first elevator. Once again, the servants were exempted from such luxury, and instead, climbed the many stairs to serve their patrons their tea.

The I-beams, visible and painted red.

Helene, being accustomed to a world of affluence, was not familiar with being denied her wishes. Inevitably, the design and build of the Jachthuis became a perpetual tug of war between Helene and Berlage. Once the foundations had been dug, she changed her mind and demanded to start over in a more favourable location on the plot. Although Berlage was presented with the extraordinary opportunity of a seemingly endless source of funds to create what was, in essence, a great gesamtkunstwerk, the strain of Helene’s fickle nature proved too much, and he walked away before the build was complete.

From each lamp, to each door made from rich, dark tropical hardwood nowadays too precious to consider, to every chair (those in the ladies room lowered to fit Helene’s petite frame) to the clocks, and even to the cigar humidifying cabinet—all were built in the vision of Berlage. Many of these objects in the Jachthuis attest to Berlage’s meticulous design, from the bronze sculptures bolted in place never to be relocated, to the legs of the furniture that fit perfectly over the square geometric floor tiles.

The legs of the cabinet fit perfectly over the tiles.

But nothing is as indicative as what one finds when lifting a corner of the dining room carpet. There, on top of the deep jade coloured glass floor tiles lies a thick red rug underneath which nothing but bare concrete is exposed. A bid to reduce costs? No, money was never an issue. The decision to keep the naked concrete, its banality dully contrasting with the luxury of its surroundings, was of a purely functional nature, a small gesture to ensure that everything stayed precisely as it should be, never straying from what Berlage envisioned. After all, you can’t quite move the rug if that’s where the tiles stop.

Lift the rug to reveal the concrete!