The Professor Opines on a 21st Century Anti-Bowl

[like most other bowls, the foam bowl designed by marcel wanders holds The Professor's honey smacks®; unlike most bowls, it won't hold any milk]

[like most other bowls, the porcelain-impregnated “foam bowl” designed by marcel wanders for moooi, 1997, holds The Professor’s corn flakes®; unlike most bowls, it won’t hold milk, soy or otherwise; 2″ x 7 7/8″]

This short piece was originally written for the Museum of Contemporary Craft whose 2013 exhibition “Object Focus: The Bowl” put its emphasis not simply on the bowl, as curator Namita Wiggers put it, but on “the bowl as a cultural archetype.” Although bowls undoubtedly enjoy anthropological and archeological significance, they are typically neither commonly examined nor critically reviewed. To MoCC’s credit, the exhibition and its attendant programming made a concerted effort to see the familiar form of the bowl anew, and to demonstrate that the staid, one-size-fits-all Platonic idea[l] of a bowl that we all tend to have in our minds is, in fact, in urgent need of an upgrade and expansion.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO read The Professor’s contribution—written for the “Reflect + Respond” commentary section of the MoCC’s online exhibition “Object Focus: The Bowl”—as it originally appeared online on 16 March, 2013, go to:

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO read The Professor’s contribution with three extra paragraphs of added-after-the-fact commentary [and bold-face emphases on key words and phrases] go to the text directly below:

Since The Professor reflected upon the Foam Bowl for MoCC [designed by Marcel Wanders and produced by the Dutch company Moooi] a little over a year ago, he has learned more about it, had further experiences interacting with it, and, not surprisingly, his thoughts about this bowl have evolved and expanded such that he now considers it from a different perspective. To begin with, the Foam Bowl’s holes not only render it useless in meeting the bowl’s primary function of containment. They also fool the eye. The Bowl appears as if it should be smaller and softer than it is; holding it in the hands, however, reveals that it is decidedly hard, surprisingly rigid and downright unforgiving. As a vessel, it is not something that the hand will enjoy engaging with or that fingers will want to linger over or idly caress.

Instead, it is by intent a bowl of limited [rather than universal] utility; eating from it is technically possible but not at all probable so it’s fair to say that consumption is not part of its functional agenda. Yes, it could serve/act as a fruit bowl but the Foam Bowl really succeeds only as an ironic statement and as a material experiment. Ultimately it is an interesting failure, not just because of its porosity [which is actually bone-like and therefore of interest for its biological reference] but because of its lack of emotional ergonomics, its ripping harshness to the touch, and its elevated consumer-unfriendliness quotient.

In these ways, the Foam Bowl, as iconic as its form is, denies the very essence of its bowlness. The Foam Bowl’s meaning, both fleeting and enduring, can be located  at the center of a three-set Venn-diagram at the intersection of art, craft and design. The Foam Bowl is a higher-level attempt to redefine what it is that a bowl means, what it means to be a bowl. It prefers to raise questions about the bowl as an archetype rather than provide answers, and it does this by addressing “the idea of the bowl” with the bowl itself playing second-fiddle to material rendition. That’s why the Foam Bowl isn’t a bowl at all—it’s the Anti-Bowl—and that’s why they call me The Professor.

Original text [from 2013]:

“Since the 1980s, my prevailing interest in material culture has been in the way that designed objects create, depict, and communicate meaning. While I still get excited by beautiful form and elegant function—confluences of curves, trick details, cool mechanisms and the like—the search for meaning has continued to inspire me at the deepest level.”

“Objects that privilege meaning, and I believe that Marcel Wanders’ Foam Bowl is one of them, represent a new horizon of creative possibilities by putting forward unexpected formal juxtapositions and elemental recombinations of the familiar. Look closely at this object: It is a bowl, almost archetypal in its form. It is made of porcelain, a traditional ceramic. It has no color added to its chalky white base. Beyond these initial considerations, what does the Foam Bowl communicate to us? Like many of the objects that I find most compelling, it asks more questions than it answers. Is it: Ancient artifact or futuristic product? Made by nature or shaped by human hands? Organic, artificial, or some hybridized combination of the two? Categorized as design, craft, or art? Oddly enough, it strikes me as all of the above.”

“The enigmatic qualities that this bowl possesses—a kind of organic economy and material ethereality—substantiate my belief that progress in material culture is still possible. Even though bowls have been made for centuries and the sheer number of variations is staggering, Foam Bowl reminds me that we can still create objects that are meaningfully new.”


“By asking how biological systems can offer new ways of thinking about form and function: by making soft, flexible materials become hard and rigid, (and the reverse); by imagining objects that reflect presence and absence simultaneously; by creating products that reveal the design process itself.”

“This bowl belongs to a new class of objects created by designers who are no longer interested only in design that solves problems and responds to basic human needs. This bowl reflects a new interest in designing for the complexities of human emotions and creating experiences that unfold across time and space. Marcel Wanders has made a career out of upending both material conventions and cultural assumptions. He is captivated by what others consider familiar, even banal. In other vessels, he used sea sponges as a medium, he captured the dynamics of sneezes, he created vases that took their shape from egg-stuffed condoms.”

“With all these projects, Wanders began with material and pushed it well past its known boundaries. He deformed form to make it “strange.” He turned function upside down and risked coming off as ridiculous. And in doing so, he has added richness and contradiction to our object world. He simply refuses to see any material—or accept any object—as ordinary. Only a cultural provocateur compelled by curiosity and emboldened by ego would have attempted to make a new bowl at the end of the 20th century. So if you want to enjoy a bowl of Corn Flakes®, keep looking. But if you want to chew on how Form Follows Meaning, the Foam Bowl is for you.”

©2013, 2014


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