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更新时间:2015-3-6 9:09:19 来源:纽约时报中文网 作者:佚名

Designing Distraction: Executive Toys

The Museum of Modern Art is a temple of useful design. It has sponsored chair-making competitions, turned a vacant lot into a showcase of prefabricated housing and exhibited paper clips as if they were Rothkos. Its retail arm, the MoMA Store, is filled with beautiful but sensible objects.

现代艺术博物馆(Museum of Modern Art,简称MoMA)是实用设计的殿堂。它赞助过椅子制作比赛,将一块空地变成活动板房的陈列场,还展出过回形针,仿佛它们是罗斯科(Rothko,抽象表现主义艺术家——译注)的作品似的。在其零售部门MoMA艺术品商店(MoMA Store)里,摆满了美观而实用的物件。

So I was surprised to find the Helicone among the store’s spring introductions.


The Helicone is made of paddle-shaped wood pieces arrayed around a metal rod. Depending on which way you spin it, the pieces rearrange themselves into two shapes: a helix and something like a pine cone.


This is to say that the Helicone is delightful to look at and manipulate, but has no obvious purpose.


Ditto for the Crookes Radiometer, which MoMA also just began selling. An updated version of a late-19th-century invention, it is a glass globe encasing thin squares of mysteriously whirling metal. (The effect depends on the way the squares respond to light). Looks: 10; utility: questionable.

MoMA即将开售的另一件新品,是克鲁克斯辐射计的仿照版(Ditto for the Crookes Radiometer),模仿19世纪末的一项发明制作而成,外面是一个玻璃球,里面包裹着旋转的超薄方形金属片,颇具神秘感(其视觉效果取决于方形金属片对光线的反应)。美观度:10分;实用度:有待商榷。

“Do my eyes deceive me,” I asked Emmanuel Plat, the museum’s director of merchandising, “or are these executive toys?”

“我没看错吧,”我问博物馆采购总监伊曼纽尔·普拉特(Emmanuel Plat),“难道这些是办公室玩具(executive toy)?”

Mr. Plat is French, but he had no trouble understanding my question. In French, the phrase is “gadget de bureau.” In German, it is “managerspielzeug.”

普拉特是法国人,但是他听得懂我的问题。办公室玩具“在法语中称为gadget de bureau,在德语中称为managerspielzeug。”

“They have something poetic about them,” he said of both.


In any language, “executive toy” refers to an object that sits on a desk in a workplace or home office and is fiddled with. One thinks of Magic 8 Balls delivering gnomic messages. Or Zen gardens with little rakes. Or Newton’s Cradle, a row of dangling metal spheres that knock against one another, sending the end members flying in demonstration of Newton’s law of conservation of momentum.

在任何语言中,“办公室玩具”都是指摆放于(工作场所或家庭办公室的)办公桌上、用于把玩的物件。说起办公室玩具,人们想到的是能够占卜吉凶的魔法8号球(Magic 8 Ball,里面装满蓝色液体,还有一个窗口,通过它可以看到一个漂浮在液体中的多面体,每一面上都是一个问题的答案——译注);或者桌上禅园(Zen Garden,在小盒子里摆上石头、沙子和小耙子,需要放松的时候只要拿起小耙子在沙子上轻轻移动即可——译注);或是牛顿摆(Newton's Cradle)。牛顿摆是一排悬挂的金属球,它们互相碰撞,将末端的球弹出,展示了牛顿动量守恒定律。

Far from lacking functionality, such objects are said to offer diversion, provoke dialogue and relieve stress.


But wait. Don’t executives have email for distraction now? Isn’t Twitter enough of a conversation starter? Doesn’t a treadmill workstation alleviate tension?


And how much longer will the roomy executive desk be supporting tchotchkes before it gives way to the communal worktable or cubicle farm? Even now, bosses are laboring alongside their subordinates in the people’s republics of architecture studios and tech start-ups. At some point we may all be working on our sofas. (As I type this, I'm lying in bed.)


Why are executive toys still around?


Adrienne Appell, a representative of the Toy Industry Association, which is holding its annual Toy Fair in New York starting Feb. 14, sees nothing incongruous about desktop gewgaws in the digital age.

玩具行业协会(Toy Industry Association)自2月14日起,在纽约举办了年度玩具展(Toy Fair)。该协会的代表阿德里安娜·阿佩尔(Adrienne Appell)认为,办公室玩具可以在数字时代中生存,其实不足为奇。

“With today’s extended work hours, multiple screens and multiple devices, it’s even more important for people to step back and take that moment to de-stress,” she said.


Scott G. Eberle, vice president for play studies at the Strong museum in Rochester, said another benefit of desktop toys is the way they lull you into a meditative state.

斯科特·G·埃伯利(Scott G. Eberle)是罗切斯特(Rochester)斯特朗国家玩具博物馆(Strong museum)的副馆长,负责研究玩具。他表示,办公室玩具另一个好处是,它们能诱导你进入冥想状态。

Mr. Eberle, who edits the Strong’s American Journal of Play and has written extensively on subjects like daydreaming, sees creative value in objects like Newton’s Cradle, which enact physical laws in mysterious, implacable ways. The detachment that comes from watching them is fertile soil for thought.

埃伯利(Eberle)是《斯特朗美国玩具杂志》(Strong’s American Journal of Play)的编辑,撰写过大量关于白日梦等话题的稿件。他认为,牛顿摆能够以神秘、客观的方式展示物理定律,像这样的物件具有创意价值。观察它们时,你可以体会到超脱感,这种超脱感为灵感的滋生提供了肥沃的土壤。

“Ideally, you need to move yourself into a state where your mind is offline,” he said, adding that lava lamps, plasma globes and fish tanks provide similar services.


In the case of the Magic 8 Ball, where 20 seer-like phrases (“Without a doubt,” “Outlook not so good,” et cetera) present themselves in a little window, Mr. Eberle sees a corollary to the mind. The answers “float to the surface out of the deep dark recesses,” he said.


For John Edmark, the designer and artist who invented the Helicone in 2008, our diminishing awe of digital tools is exactly what attracts us to desktop toys.

设计师兼艺术家约翰·埃德马克(John Edmark)在2008年创作了螺旋松果。在他看来,人们之所以会被桌上玩具吸引,恰恰是因为人们对数字工具的敬畏感日益淡薄。

“We know anything can happen on that computer screen, and it may be beautiful or magical,” he said. But objects in the analog world are bound by physical constraints. When they appear to defy the laws of nature, they seem all the more remarkable.


Mr. Edmark added that he didn’t set out to design a desktop toy with the Helicone. He didn’t even mean to make something that would “spin and activate with a flick of the wrist.”


In search of unexpected behavior in the physical world, which he considers a form of beauty, he imagined a pine cone shape unfolding from the device when users turned the topmost element with a finger. It was only after the rotating mechanism jammed and he was trying to fix the problem that he accidentally discovered the motion that produced its striking effect.


The short, unplumbed history of executive toys appears to be largely a tale of happenstance.


If there are any true forerunners to this genre, said Noel Barrett, an antique-toy dealer and “Antiques Roadshow” regular, they would probably be the cast-iron mechanical banks popular from the 1860s to World War II. Such objects mesmerized beholders with their movements and, though whimsical, were not children’s playthings. (One of the biggest sellers, Mr. Barrett noted, was the Tammany bank, featuring Boss Tweed inserting a coin in his pocket.)

诺埃尔·巴雷特(Noel Barrett)是古董玩具经销商,也是电视节目《鉴宝路演》的常客,他表示,如果这个门类有什么真正意义上的先驱,那便应该是在19世纪60年代到二战期间流行的铸铁存钱罐(cast-iron mechanical bank)了。这些存钱罐以其妙趣横生的设计,迷惑观赏者的眼睛。虽然设计风格异想天开,但它们不是孩子们的玩具。巴雷特指出,其中最热销的款式之一,是坦慕尼存钱罐(Tammany bank),其造型是特威德老大(Boss Tweed,特威德是美国历史上著名的贪腐人物,曾任坦慕尼协会的会长。坦慕尼协会是纽约市民主党的执行委员会。特威德等人任会长后,协会开始政治腐败——译注)将一枚硬币塞进口袋里的样子。

Then came the drinking bird, a toy that dipped its beak incessantly into a glass of water. The technology (based on temperature differentials created by the evaporation of liquid from the bird’s head) dated to 1910, Mr. Barrett said, but the object became a hit after World War II.


The clearest expression of the executive toy, however, emerged in the late 1960s, with the popularization of Newton’s Cradle. Though a few people deserve credit for its proliferation, it was Simon Prebble, a British actor, who designed an early version out of wood in 1967 and named it after its resemblance to the strings in a cat’s cradle game.

不过,有关办公室玩具的明确表述始于20世纪60年代末,当时正值牛顿摆的风靡时期。虽然有好几个人为牛顿摆的普及做出过贡献,但是英国演员西蒙·普雷柏(Simon Prebble)是第一人,因为他在1967年用木头设计出了早期版本的牛顿摆。由于牛顿摆的整体造型酷似cat's cradle string(即翻花绳),普雷柏将其命名为“Newton's Cradle”(即牛顿摆)。

As Mr. Prebble recently recalled, he knew nothing about classical mechanics when he found a sketch of the pendulum sequence in a book, but he enjoyed building models. After experimenting with different ball bearings, he took his design to Terence Conran, the founder of the London store Habitat. Mr. Conran considered stocking it, but balked at the cost. And the British Design Council, from which Mr. Prebble sought support, denied him a grant because the invention “hadn’t improved on Newton,” he said.

普雷柏最近回忆道,当年,他在一本书上看到摆球序列图时,对经典力学一无所知,但是他喜欢建造模型。他试验了不同的滚珠轴承后,带着自己的设计,去找了著名设计师特伦斯·康伦(Terence Conran)——伦敦家居用品店Habitat的创始人。康伦曾经考虑过备货,但是因为成本问题而犹豫不决。普雷柏向英国设计委员会(British Design Council)寻求支持,但是对方不予资助,据他说,理由是这项发明“并未在牛顿的基础上有所改善”。

An enterprising buyer at Harrods was not so picky. Mr. Prebble described hand-delivering the first units to the store because he hadn’t figured out a way to package them without tangling the threads. He customized a black van with pictures of his creation, causing bystanders to gape and snap photos. At one point, he created a giant version that, he said, knocked a small child unconscious when it was displayed in a shop.


It was all going pretty well until the competition heated up. In 1968, Richard Loncraine, a British actor and director who had been trained as a sculptor, produced a version in chrome. Less expensive to make, that design helped drive Mr. Prebble’s company out of business. Mr. Prebble went on to a distinguished career as a voice actor with a specialty in audiobooks (he has recorded about 600). He now lives in Manhattan.

一切都很顺利,直到竞争开始升温。1968年,他一度创作了一个巨型版本。他说,这个巨型版本在一家商店里展出时,曾经把一个小孩撞到不省人事。理查德·隆克莱因(Richard Loncraine)是一位英国演员和导演,受过雕塑训练。他制作了一个铬合金版的牛顿摆。这种设计方案成本更低廉,最终将普雷柏的公司逼入倒闭的境地。后来,普雷柏作为一名配音演员,在职业生涯中取得了光辉的成就。他的专长是有声读物(他录制了大约600部有声读物)。普雷柏现居曼哈顿。

“I always remember people saying, ‘What’s it for?’ ” he recalled, adding that his stock response was: “If you have to ask, it’s not for you.” Newton’s Cradle was never intended for offices, he said. Its status as an executive toy simply evolved.


And yet the time was ripe for artifacts that gave personality to a workplace. The design curator Donald Albrecht, who organized an exhibition in 2000 called “On the Job: Design and the American Office” at the National Building Museum in Washington, pointed out that Newton’s Cradle was finding an audience around the same time (1971) that the designer Alexander Girard was creating Environmental Enrichment textiles to enliven Herman Miller’s latest office cubicle system.

不过,用个性化的工艺品来装点办公室的时机已经成熟。设计策展人唐纳德·阿尔布雷希特(Donald Albrecht)曾于2000年在华盛顿国家建筑博物馆(National Building Museum)举办了一场展览,名为“在职场:设计与美国办公室”。他指出,牛顿摆寻找受众的时间与设计师亚历山大·吉拉德(Alexander Girard)创作Environmental Enrichment系列纺织品的时间(1971年)差不多。Environmental Enrichment的创作宗旨,是为了给家居公司赫曼米勒(Herman Miller)的最新办公隔间系统注入活力。

For Mr. Albrecht, executive toys are “aspirational,” as he put it — less tools for provoking creativity than foghorns of identity and status in a sea of corporate homogeneity.


But if the ’60s introduced nonconformity to the office, later efforts weren’t always judged as benign. A 1971 segment of the British television show “Tomorrow’s World” featured James Burke contemplating desktop diversions like kinetic sculpture and a motorized drink holder on the executive floor of the BBC. “What is a lonely, redundant human being to do all day,” he mused, “while the computer’s doing the work downstairs?”

不过,如果说60年代的玩具给办公室注入了桀骜不驯的活力,那么,后来的办公室玩具在人们的眼里并非总是善类。在1971年的一期英国电视节目《明日世界》(Tomorrow’s World)中,詹姆斯·伯克(James Burke)在BBC的办公室里琢磨着活动雕塑、自动置杯架这类桌上玩具。“既然计算机在楼下干活,”他若有所思地说,“那么孤独而多余的人该怎么度过一天呢?”

And in a 1990 cartoon in the British humor magazine Punch, a manager asks an employee, “Do you like my new executive toy, Simpkins?” On his desk, alphabet blocks are stacked to create the message: “YOU RE FIRED.”


What clearly sustained executive toys through the ’90s and beyond was tech culture. The offices of start-ups were designed like frat houses, and there was a fair chance that the chief executives were barely out of adolescence. What wasn’t a toy?


In 2004, Roger von Oech, who had been writing and consulting on workplace creativity since the ’70s, developed a puzzle that was a 30-sided polyhedron assembled from 30 tiny magnetic pyramids. The point was not just to reassemble the object once it was dismantled, but to reconfigure the pieces in interesting ways. In 2006, he began to market the toy as the Ball of Whacks.

罗杰·冯·厄克(Roger von Oech)自70年代以来一直从事职场创意方面的撰稿和咨询。2004年,他开发出了一种益智游戏——将30个小巧的磁性棱锥组装成一个30面体。其重点并不仅仅在于将玩具拆除重装,而是要以有趣的方式重装。2006年,他开始向市场推出这款玩具,称为Ball of Whacks。

“I basically created this product for cubicle geeks, people working with their minds, coming up with ideas,” he said. “They need to take a five- or 10-minute break, now and then, to pick up a physical object.”


Mr. von Oech found his market: Three years ago, Google bought 7,000 Balls of Whacks for its programmers and developers. He also appealed far beyond, selling around a million of the puzzles and their offshoots. He will introduce his latest, a more intricate version called the Big Ball of Whacks, at Toy Fair next week.

冯·厄克找到了他的市场:三年前,谷歌为其雇佣的程序员和开发人员订购了7000个Ball of Whacks。他远未止步于此,而是售出了大约一百万件产品和副产品。他将在下周的玩具展上推出最复杂的最新版本,称为Big Ball of Whacks。

A final reason executive toys linger, my sources said, is that adults are reluctant to sever ties with childhood. In more than one way, they can’t leave home without them.


Donald M. Rattner, founder of the Creative Home, a blog and design store centered on the role of creativity in the modern home, said, “The things people have out on their desks are interesting signifiers of what’s important to them and what they want to maintain in their memories.” He called that attachment “the Rosebud phenomenon.”

创意家居(Creative Home)是一家博客和设计商店,其创始人唐纳德·拉特纳(Donald M. Rattner)表示,“人们摆在桌面上的东西都是一些有意思的符号,这些符号象征着人们想要保留在记忆中的珍贵事物。”他把这种情结称为“玫瑰花蕾现象”。