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A Detroit Design Collective Uses Plastic Molding as a Medium

Thing Thing member Simon Anton holding "The Ugly Duckling" — everyone's favorite, he says.
Thing Thing member Simon Anton holding “The Ugly Duckling” — everyone’s favorite, he says. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

DETROIT — “Somewhere between architecture and a party” is one of the ways Thing Thing member Simon Anton describes his collective’s aesthetic. The rest of his fellows — Eiji Jimbo, Rachel Mulder, and Thomas Moran — smile and laugh at this assessment. We’re in the garage of the Mobile Homestead, a permanent installation on the grounds of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) that resembles the suburban ranch-style house where Metro Detroit artist Mike Kelley grew up. The Homestead’s garage is both a real and imagined space, and seems a fitting location for this experimental art and design collective, which is in residence all month, experimenting and creating objects out of shredded and recycled <2> plastics (or HDPE).

Thing Thing at work in the Mobile Homestead garage
Thing Thing at work in the Mobile Homestead garage

“Design is cultural production,” says Moran, an architecture and design professor at the University of Michigan who drew these outstanding students in the architecture department together to work on some projects, resulting in the conceptual foundation of Thing Thing. “They built a giant nose out of Jell-O,” he says, describing how Jimbo and Mulder caught his attention. The group works organically and without hierarchy — Moran was away recently to deliver a lecture, and in his absence, the other three developed a new technique for molding plastic, which Moran is engaged with while we speak. He pours scoops of green shredded plastic onto the surface of a hot plate, augmenting the design with swirls of white shreds. Once he is satisfied, he wraps the whole thing tightly in foil, like a meatloaf, and takes it out to cook electrically, supplemented by the bright Saturday sunshine.

Moran working with the new technique (click to enlarge)
Thomas Moran working with the new technique (click to enlarge)

Plastic immediately connotes certain qualities — cheap, light, and smooth — but converse awhile with Thing Thing, handle some of their objects, and you’ll realize how much you take for granted about this ubiquitous material. The equipment that facilitates the bottles, trinkets, and components that make the modern world run are massively expensive, and only pay out on the level of high-scale production; as a medium of mass production, plastic molding has rarely been a workable process for individuals — until now.

Thing Thing — which was invited to show works in the 2012 Venice Biennale — tackles plastic molding from the roots up, building its own DIY versions of the equipment that enables production processes such as roto-molding, a traditional technique that maintains constant rotation in two directions, interrupting the tendency of melting plastic to run toward the ground as it molds to the desired shape. Today the shape in question is a conceptual throw pillow — rigid and decorative … and just about as marginally useful as any other throw pillow.

Rachel Mulder unwraps the roto-molded pillow/thing.
Rachel Mulder unwraps the roto-molded pillow/thing.

The time-consuming process of sorting and shredding <2> plastics, re-forming them, and finishing their surfaces has enabled Thing Thing to shatter preexisting conceptions about plastic — it might be light in the context of a blow-molded laundry detergent bottle, but four square inches of melted plastic is startlingly dense and heavy. It might be cheap when taken in the context of many multiples, but Thing Thing’s time-intensive process makes the labor value of their work extremely high. And while we expect to see plastics in smooth monochromes, as befits a mass-production technique, Thing Thing joyfully mashes up the colors its members have so carefully separated, resulting in single-piece mosaic objects that are rough, charming, and intensely confusing.

After all, we are used to plastic objects serving a purpose. The pieces Thing Thing creates are quasi-functional at best, calling into question the whole nature of things, and their necessity, on a fundamental level. During our conversation, the group characterizes these works as “domestic monuments,” or simply, as Mulder describes it, making friends. “Making Friends” is also the name of one of their projects, which produced a group of objects, such as “R a i n b r o,” a large arch with feet that serve an ambiguous purpose — part art, part decor, part … companion? By seizing the means of production, Thing Thing is able to melt the rules around plastic. “We are opposed to the idea that design should offer solutions,” says Mulder, speaking for the group. Rather, Thing Thing uses its considerable powers of design and production to raise significant questions.

Thing Thing's homemade roto-molder, cooling down after a pillow-making run
Thing Thing’s homemade roto-molder, cooling down after a pillow-making run
Eiji Jimbo, sitting beside bins of shredded and sorted HDPE
Eiji Jimbo, sitting beside bins of shredded and sorted HDPE

Thing Thing is in residence at the Mobile Homestead at MOCAD (4454 Woodward Avenue, Detroit), with a pop-up shop in the MOCAD store, through August 2.

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