Text Published on UNMAKING THINGS - January 19, 2012


Texte publié sur UNMAKING THINGS -19 janvier 2012


“One day, perhaps, the century will be Deleuzian” Michel Foucault once declared. Gilles Deleuze is considered as one of the major philosophers of the 20th century. His books are mines of ideas that have influenced many creative fields, to such an extent that they can sometimes appear too prolific and complex. In 1969, Gilles Deleuze published Difference and Repetition, his first book not related to the study of other philosophers. The theses presented then are precursory to the changes happening now in manufacture and design. I will try to explain how and why this incredible work is still relevant in the contemporary design field over 40 years after its release.


Before looking at Deleuze’s ideas and explain its connections to design, we should look back at manufacturing in the 20th century and understand its recent evolutions.

The 20th century has witnessed the development of an incredible invention: mass-production. The aim was to create series of objects, which were interchangeable as they indistinctively shared the exact same qualities and value. Buying a toothbrush for example, is not an act of connoisseurship: there is no difference between the first one and the second one in the rack of a shop. This very idea of sameness is actually incredible: it is neither valid for Nature (we carefully pick fruits and vegetables, being all different), nor for craft (we choose unique pieces that never have exactly the same finish and value, leading to connoisseurship). Only mass-production creates sameness. This idea of different objects sharing exactly the same identity is fundamental to design, because design was created in this context. The process of mechanization of manufactures triggered this need to make the same object over and over – machines are the only tools capable of copying a process exactly. John Ruskin, and later William Morris, saw from early on the problems mechanization was leading to. Unlike what is usually thought, the Art and Craft Movement was not directly against machines themselves, as long as they were considered as tools, but against what they implied: sameness, therefore leading to a segmentation of production and a loss of the craftsman’s skills and sense of pride, eventually creating social degradation. Human beings have never been inclined towards the identical in their work. The fact that we can’t recreate the exact same object over and over is the basis of our evolution – it means there is potential for accidental break-through.

In the last decade, a lot of designers have tried to rethink their relationship to the industry and the machine. The first way was to “disrupt” the repetitive process of the machine. A precursor, Gaetano Pesce created a series of chairs out of polyurethane, where each injection was made with a different pressure, so that the final shape and structural quality would be different for each repetition (nine were made, during a workshop at Pratt College, NYC, 1984). Since then, a great number of designers has been developing new processes where the output is not controlled, even though the process is clearly defined and always identical. One could for instance look at Maarten Baas’s SMOKE series, Oskar Zieta’s PLOPP chairs, or again Jerszy Seymour and his LIVING SYSTEMS, Tokujin Yoshioka and his VENUS installations. So it seems that the 21st century’s zeitgeist is to create difference between each end-object, creating series of different objects from the same process, exactly like each fruit is different even though they grew on the same tree.

This idea is not the preserve of famous furniture designers. Many companies around the world are looking towards new systems of producing difference. The idea is to evolve from producing one million identical objects to one million variations of an object. The majority of new machines are reflecting this tendency: the growing ability to create many different shapes and materials, without any setup time necessary between the changes. CNC machines of course [Computer Numerical Control], but also rapid prototyping machines are purposely made to be volatile; they can create shapes that are each time different without the need to calibrate. Needless to say the integration of electronics and interaction systems also brings opportunities for variation. Interactive objects won’t be all the same, they will evolve in reaction to their environment and will all be different repetitions of a same idea.


Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition is the product of a PhD completed in Paris during the turbulent events of May 68. The first strong concept Deleuze tackles is the core idea of repetition. What is a repetition? How can it evolve? Does repetition even exist? According to him, there are two ways of looking at repetition. In the first case – the way of the machines – the repeated information is exactly the same and could be replaced by another, identical information, interchangeable. This repetition corresponds to the exact copy, where the original has the same value as the copy and can be exchanged (like any mass-produced object in a shop). In the second case, the repeated information is never the same as the original. In this case, repetition does not produce identicality, but difference. According to him, the second way of thinking about repetition is the only one relevant for evolution. The first one is “static, the other dynamic. One is ordinary, the other distinctive and singular. One is revolving, the other is evolving.”1. A true repetition is a repetition that evolves. “In every respect, repetition is a transgression.”2. Each iteration corresponds to the same concept but always exceeds its previous repetition. Theatre is a very telling example: even though the actors present the same play every night, it will be different each time and most of the time, the best performance will be the one where major changes occur and lead to improvisations. More relevant to design is the example of the craftsman: even if he repeats the same pattern over time, he masters it, transforms it, adapts it to new trends, new materials. The technique is always the same and the patterns are always similar, but each piece is actually slightly different. “It’s nonsense to copy for a craftsman,” told us Miss Frater, head of a craft school in Kutch, India (Kalha Raksha Institute). Could the same be said about mass-production?


The fact that designers create more and more differentiation among their objects has made new issues arise: how should one represent such works? When designers defined one object they then produced many times, the representation of the project was the object itself, because it encapsulated all the others. But as soon as each iteration becomes different, how does one transmit the idea of the object? Should you show them all? Should you show the making? As design is intrinsically linked to visuality and presentation, an ever-changing object becomes difficult to apprehend. The key point, according to Deleuze, is the capacity to represent iteration. The presentation has to be allusive and represent the whole series, which correspond to Deleuze’s idea of the virtual. According to him, every project has a virtual part, an idea, a concept, a feeling, then translated into different realities. The virtual is not the opposite of the real – it includes it. A real end object is just one iteration of what’s in the head of the designer, many others are possible. All the other objects contained within the virtual idea have to be contained within this one object, in order for the project to be valuable. For example, “each throw of the dice affirms the whole of chance each time. The repetition of throws is not subject to the persistence of the same hypothesis, nor to the identity of a constant rule. [...] Ideas emanate from it just as singularities emanate from that aleatory point which every time condenses the whole of chance into one time.”3. The presentation of an ever-changing project has to capture all the iterations at once. Royal College of Art student Dae Kyung Ahn must have asked himself the question when he did his Micro-Factory for the Innovation Design Engineering department. What is the best way of representing a machine that can potentially cut any 2D shape on a table? How can one unique moment of use contain a complex and inspiring process without being restrictive?


Design can also be questioned with regards to its users. Deleuze argues that giving a unique solution to a project is socially degrading. In 20th century design, designers created fixity, models, that just waited to be bought and used. According to him, for the relationship to culture and society to be true, participation to the elaboration of the question itself is required. Design objects shouldn’t be just a proposition left to the good will of the consumer, but rather projects open to evolution, for which users are collaborators who can fully participate in their elaboration and reflect on the issues these projects arise. Interactive designs open to evolution and misappropriation are ways to include, not exclude. “As if we would not remain slaves as long as we do not control the problems themselves, so long as we do not possess a right to the problems, to a participation in and management of the problems.”5. Many recent technological projects have given the opportunity to everyone to participate in the design thinking, like Arduino, Linux and the Internet to a broader extent.

These developments are not isolated events; they are striking a chord in every field of design and creation. Royal College of Art’s projects like Sugru are very good example of community based successes. Indeed the very evolution of this project depended on the participation of everyone in the development of possible usages of this versatile material, created to hack deficient object at home. Its inventor Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh, who graduated from Product Design in 2004, explains: “I was inspired by the internet and the whole idea of user-generated content. I wanted something that people could make their own and use in their own way.”6.

I could keep on making parallels between Deleuze’s ideas and current design changes endlessly, but it is time to come to a conclusion. On finishing this incredible book, a strange yet pleasant feeling overwhelmed me: a refined sensitivity to change. Deleuze developed a philosophy of evolution, where nothing is ever identical, and always transforms. He stood against norms and rules, and showed that things never stagnate. Design is always torn between the Industry’s tendency to fix things and its own renewal. For a designer, I believe this book is a message of hope. Deleuze predicted so many of the changes currently occuring, that Foucault might be proven right in the end – perhaps the 21st will be Deleuzian after all.


1. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (Continuum Impacts Publishing, 2004), p.27.

2. Gilles Deleuze, p.3.

3. Gilles Deleuze, p.248.

4. Gilles Deleuze, p.142.

5. Gilles Deleuze, p.197.

6. From [accessed January 2012]