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Furniture That Questions the Impact of Tech on Human Interaction

Fortunately, students can buck trends without worrying about profitability, and one particular group of MFA furniture design students at RISD, in an exhibit called Face to Face: Searching for Authentic Experiences, is challenging assumptions about the unsocial direction connected home technology seems to be headed in.

The Illume table light has a simple but clever electronic function, taking advantage of a common gesture that people unwittingly use when they have space in common. Designed by Mayela Mujica, it switches on when two users place their phones on it, encouraging face-to-face conversation.

Simple beechwood folding chairs called Transit from Ross Kellogg do this without any fancy extra functions: they provide a "comfortable, attractive alternative to the standard folding chair" that "focuses the user’s attention on simple details and connections."

Other pieces offer a more explicit commentary: Linus King's "Privacy/Curiosity" recreates a panopticon scenario. In a classic panopticon (Jeremy Bentham's design for an ideal prison), the guards are concealed yet able to look in on hundreds of inmates who are in turn unable to see them. King's pieces allows the user to hide their head in a tinted acrylic helmet, concealing their identity while still allowing them to look out on others. Though they have an illusion of privacy, the user's body is exposed and therefore vulnerable.

Other pieces focus on the pleasurable sensations of being truly alone, such as Sam Newman's "shell phone," which simulates a conch shell and its ocean sounds in an angular device made from stainless steel and oak, materials whose look is more that of a cell phone.

And perhaps most cleverly of all, the +1 chair reverses the idea of a seesaw, requiring two people sitting on it to be balanced—but alas, the chair is designed for them to face away from each other. Emre Bagdatoglu's portable music-box video conferencing device called Permalink, meanwhile, is meant to be sold in pairs, turning human interaction with loved ones into a Pandora's Box.


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