What Containers Reveal (and Conceal) About Design and Life

With the year drawing to a close, the EoD editors were curious about what personal revelations different creatives have experienced of late. This series of essays, Reflections, explores the human side of design.

“The container is a structurally necessary but frequently unacknowledgeable precondition of becoming.”
—Zoë Sofia, “Container Technologies”

My grandmother, who is a potter, always insisted that she makes ceramic vessels, not art. A bowl is to be eaten out of, to be dirtied and washed, to be regularly touched; a cup is not to collect dust, not to stay on the shelf, not to remain empty.

None of her five children or eight grandchildren learned to spin the potter’s wheel. Yet as a graphic designer, I find myself creating containers of sorts for a living. Making work for the web, the screen contains the browser window, which contains tabs, which hold webpages, which are written in code, consisting of HTML elements nested many layers deep, which are stored in folders on servers in another part of the country, information carried via buried and submarine fiber optic cables. 

When my grandma wasn’t able to practice her craft anymore, suddenly what seemed like an infinite supply of handmade vessels became finite. I wanted to know more about this form to which she had dedicated her life. So I started a study, and began by frequenting the most obvious place I could think of: The Container Store. Here, that which is designed to be in the background moves to the foreground. Here, the humble container is on parade. Look at that nested Tupperware! I must have that collapsible laundry bin! OMG, a holder just for pizza slices?!

Browsing the aisles, the whole world begins to seem like one giant nesting doll. During my study, I saw a bird’s nest in the crook of an ‘e’ in the 15-foot sign above the entrance. The bowl of the ‘e’ contained the nest that contained the bird.

Some containers are solely to keep things in, and some solely to keep things out. Some absorb leaks, like a diaper, and some leak by design, like a colander. Some are designed to be thrown away, like trash bags, and others can withstand years of beating, like a trash can. Some containers are more environmental, like a house. Some offer up entire worlds, like a book. Some transform what is inside—as much machine as container—such as a stove, and some preserve, such as a mason jar. Some, like a spoon, are meant to be inserted into other containers, and some, like a filing cabinet, contain other containers. Sometimes there is horror at what’s inside, like a casket, and sometimes there is wonder, like a wrapped present. Some containers are designed to enact violence on what they contain, like a prison, and some are designed to protect, like a crib. 

Something is made explicit here that is only reluctantly comprehended: the fact that everything resists being contained. The natural entropy and disorder of life are matched by our desire for progress and order.

The need for graphic design is, among other things, a response to an overwhelming amount of information and the desire to contain some of it in aesthetic form. We are asked to create something singular out of varied parts, to clarify, to emphasize or single out certain elements that may otherwise get lost in the mix. At its best graphic design gives form to language and nuanced meaning to messages. At its worst, it comes at the very end of the process to slap a veneer of cool or morality onto a very uncool or morally corrupt product. I used to think I wasn’t capable of designing beautiful things, but over time I’ve realized it’s more a resistance stemming from a wariness of the beautiful container’s power to convince, attract, distract, and manipulate. 

The need for graphic design is, among other things, a response to an overwhelming amount of information and the desire to contain some of it in aesthetic form.

Each customer carries out of the Container Store and onto the street a bag with a message in bold pink letters: Contain Yourself. An impossible command many strive for every minute of every day. The primary implication—a driving force of American late capitalism—is that our self is defined by our stuff. A secondary implication is that we need to contain our emotions, our fluids, our words, so life doesn’t get messy (mess is bad, and with every container purchased comes a bonus of psychological restraints). A third is that by collecting things around us and preserving them, we can preserve our mortal selves. And so the opposite is also assumed to be true—that a world without containers would be the dissolution of the self.

There are reality TV shows warning against the woes of the hoarder, who is “buried alive” in their uncontained belongings. Political theorist and philosopher Jane Bennett claims that for every era there is a pathologized madness. Hoarding is the madness appropriate to a political economy devoted to consumption.  

The word container comes from the Latin con (with/together) and tinēre (to hold). For something to contain it must have an inside and an outside, an opening (a permanently sealed container is no container), and an inner void, the potential space to be filled or emptied. Containing is simply understood as a passive and unintelligent byproduct of a bowl-shaped space, but we can also perceive containing as an action, found in any enabling environment.

If a container is serving its utilitarian function, it is felt but not noticed. Only a break, a leak, or misuse will render it visible, yet hidden behind every man-made thing is a plethora of containers that went into its creation. Containers teach us about interdependence, how nothing exists on its own without an intricate web of (often invisible) support. Containers carry with them an ethics of care. In her article “Container Technologies,” Zoë Sofia outlines an “urgently required philosophy of container technologies.” She writes, 

“The technological forms associated both with traditional labors of women, and with metaphors for female organs of storage, transformation, and supply, have been and continue to be vital to technics and human development, but are regularly overlooked in histories and analyses of technologies. Like noisy and disruptive boys in class, aggressive tools and dynamic machines capture more attention than the quietly receptive and transformative ‘feminine’ elements of container technologies.”

I felt I was being invited to look more carefully at the quietly receptive, and the benefits of being quietly receptive. I spoke with my aunt, the youngest of the potter’s children, who studied archeology for many years. To her it was quite obvious the primary importance of the vessel in human history, even its sacredness.

Container-like objects show up in the archeological record tens of thousands of years ago, entities to hold something precious for later, like water. This is not unique to the human species but proliferates among our kind more than any other. The beaver builds a dam. The squirrel buries nuts. The bird builds a nest. Risk abatement is a pre-homosapien survival mechanism. We were forged in the crucible of avoiding scarcity. Early containers dating back even further were made from found objects and materials: gourds, plant matter, ostrich eggs, shells, wood, clay, even the human skull. 

Some say the hearth was one of the first container technologies from early hominids, to preserve, use, and control fire. Our first individual encounter with containment might be living inside one for the first nine months of our lives, this most mysterious and gory of apartments, as Maggie Nelson describes the womb. Baked into the language of the body we emerge from are words for containers: birth canal, rib cage, heart chamber, blood vessel, tear duct, eyelid

Despite the oft-promoted image of man versus wooly mammoth, the majority of food during the Paleolithic, Neolithic, and prehistoric eras was gathered (using containers) rather than hunted. Parallel with the advanced use of writing, specialized long-distance transport containers (a.k.a. “containerization”) came with urbanized, agrarian, highly bureaucratic societies. From then on, there were consistent efforts to improve and standardize shape, capacity, stackability, insulation, surface area, tare weight, center of gravity, stress-and-strain profile. 

Our first individual encounter with containment might be living inside one for the first nine months of our lives, this most mysterious and gory of apartments, as Maggie Nelson describes the womb.

By the era of Enlightenment, containerism had become an ideology. Not long after came the Industrial Revolution, the major turning point for human impact on the planet. Containers increasingly began to serve commerce, reaching their peak with the 1950s steel shipping container, the largest unit of transport to date, and the icon of today’s globalized economy.

Because we have more than seven billion people living on the Earth, we’re experiencing a crisis of containment. At our current rate of (unequal) consumption, the planet can no longer hold us. When Ursula K. Le Guin proposed “the bottle as hero” in her 1986 essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” she offered an alternative value system in the telling of our story, placing the emphasis on maintenance instead of continual progress.  

Containers, associated with safekeeping, nourishment, maternal care, and protection—the bowl, the nest, the hearth—are inextricably linked with impulses that threaten to destroy all that, impulses stemming from the anthropocentric technological mindset that defines our era. As “the law of the instrument” goes, if all you have is a container, everything, and everyone, seen through this lens is treated like raw material, assets, resources to be gathered up and used.  

In August 2018, my grandma, the potter Sydney de Jong, had a stroke. A stroke is when a vessel, a container carrying oxygen to the brain, is blocked by a blood clot, causing brain cells to die. 

Syd is a lifelong devotee of the container. She began practicing in her early 30s, around the time she had the last of her five children. Once a week she would attend pottery class, and Husband or someone else would “babysit” the children. Eventually she managed to convince Husband to build out their basement as a studio, and a few years later, to convert the garage into a second workspace to accommodate different equipment. 

Courtesy of Sasha Portis.

It was far more than a hobby for her, but it was not a job, either, in that she never needed to make a living from it since husband provided for the family. Syd was explicit that she was not an artist. Perhaps we could call her an amateur (ama-teur meaning “one who lives, lover”). Or maybe she doesn’t need to be categorized, to be contained. 

Now she lives in a nursing home, and her two pottery studios, vacant for years, have been disassembled and sold off piecemeal. She can no longer walk on her own, cries regularly—which she never used to—and her words come out in jumbled spurts due to aphasia. I have dreams in which she is crying and crying, or that water is endlessly pouring from her mouth.

She rarely finishes a sentence; words are strung together piecemeal and create absurd juxtapositions. The drawers organizing her language connected to speech have been emptied into a messy pile. The brain too can become a hoarder.

I wonder how my grandma’s lifelong relationship with the receptacle, with the quietly receptive, has influenced my creative life. Is this what drew me to graphic design? After graduating with a BFA in photography, I (briefly) considered pursuing art. Having worked many odd jobs after the 2009 market crash, graphic design seemed delightfully practical in relation to art (something to be used, not displayed on the shelf, as my grandma would say). I like that it is a position hidden behind the scenes, like a well-functioning container. You can find the designer’s name, if at all, in small print in the back of the book—never on the cover. In recent years, writing has been an opportunity for me to shift out from the background into the foreground, something my grandmother never had the chance to do.

Through the lens of containers, my home office is an enabling environment, the empty InDesign page a box filled with potential. As a freelance designer, I am constantly maintaining my files, a discipline that did not come naturally; I move between four Google Drive accounts, both personal and from various employers, Dropbox, web hosting, hard drives, multiple devices—laptop, phone, iPad, desktop, work computer—each with their own storage limits, operating systems, and logic. I am keenly aware of all the containers that go into making my work possible, and that’s just scratching the surface

Graphic design—in its not-so-long history—has at points attempted to reject order. In recent years, design has swung between two poles that we could call Container Store design (Modernism) and hoarder design (Postmodernism). Currently we are somewhere in between.

In recent years, design has swung between two poles that we could call Container Store design (Modernism) and hoarder design (Postmodernism). Currently we are somewhere in between.

In Beatrice Warde’s popular 1930 public talk turned printed piece “The Crystal Goblet”—often found on graphic design reading lists—she uses a container to make her argument: 

“You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine.”

The connoisseur of wine, she predicts, will choose the crystal goblet because “everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.”

Looked at another way, there is no wine without the goblet, or the bottle, the cork, the vat, the grape press. The goblet and the wine need each other. To a designer, design never disappears or becomes invisible. We are attuned to the fact that each form is predicated on a series of decisions, personalities, resource-intensive processes/production, tastes, disorganized hard drives, beliefs, conversations—and bitter arguments. Behind every object is a plethora of containers, and now we can add: Behind every container is a messy and very physical process of becoming.

An early version of this text was read aloud at Varese Group 2018. It has been revised, updated and presented here anew.