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My Girlfriend Is A Genius
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September 9, 2005

My Girlfriend Is A Genius

Here's 750 words on formica from the lovely Kristin Hawley:

Along with a happy housewife gliding across her kitchen in high heels and a skirt from one shiny new appliance to the next, the prototypical 1950s kitchen would not be complete without the ubiquitous boomerang-patterned Formica countertops, still present today in the homes of many older Americans. In this pattern, almost dizzying to look at, countless more or less boomerang-like shapes, not solid, but rather formed by their outline, overlap and interact with each other. Three colors of boomerang, tan, flesh, and red on a cream-colored background, occupy three different levels in space, with the tan on top, overlapping the flesh, which overlaps the red. This, however, is perhaps the only consistency in an otherwise chaotic world. The individual boomerangs vary greatly in size, shape, and orientation, their interplay resulting in a myriad of new, equally unique shapes. In fact, it is difficult to find two that are alike and likewise to see the point at which the pattern repeats. Lacking the imposed order of straight lines and regularity of form, this pattern is held tenuously together by the tension created in its spatial relationships, as the mass of boomerangs, each individual yet all interdependent, when viewed as a whole, almost vibrates with energy.

More than a pattern, it becomes a chaotic mass of tiny organisms or cells in a tissue, multiplying, even mutating, as the variations stray further and further from the boomerang prototype. Some are not even boomerangs at all, the two arms of the “L”- shaped boomerang flattened to nearly one-hundred-eighty degrees with a bulge on the back, becoming more of a triangle with slightly concave, irregular sides than a boomerang. In fact, this variation in form fits nicely inside and underneath the typical boomerang, its sexual counterpart in this primordial orgy. One anticipates a growth, expansion, or perhaps the creation of a new life form. Viewed within the context of post-war optimism, this preoccupation with creation could signal an America looking toward the future of progress and prosperity, a new life emerging from the wreckage of war. Conversely, the seeming irrationality of the pattern makes it difficult to imagine order ever being produced from this chaos, the more likely result being that these tiny life forms will simply multiply, until they number too many to be distinguished individually, filling the space with a mass of tangled bodies. The mutated forms especially evoke the spread of disease, death, or destruction, which, given the currant of anxiety running underneath 1950s America’s outward display of optimism, may reflect fears of the spread of communism as well as nuclear fallout, and even the general uneasiness resulting from the attempt to suppress deviant behavior and discontented women and racial groups. The mutant boomerangs, though frozen in time and space, seem on the brink of expansion, and if one does not keep them in check, domination. Of course these two opposing forces, optimism regarding the promise of progress, and fear of disease and destruction due to misused technology, were present simultaneously throughout the 1950s, most notably in relation to the development of the atomic bomb, paraded as bringing peace, yet the ever present reminder of the fate of the human race in the face of atomic warfare.

However, with this 1950 Formica, these fears and anxieties could be neatly contained in the convenience and attractiveness of a modern plastic countertop. To the average (mostly) happy housewife, this was not a pool of multiplying bacteria onto which she was setting her food and kitchen wares, but rather a sleek, modern design to compliment a modern kitchen, the very thing that reassured Americans of their success and security. Variations of the amorphous, biological shapes in this pattern were being used in much of modern design, and here, in contrast to the hard lines of the machine age, these shapes could be a response to the flexibility of plastic, a reference to progress and to the very material of which the pattern is made.

But why the boomerang? Perhaps there is safety in the boomerang because the very nature of the object is self-regulating. However far it travels, it will always return to where it started. Thus, in what is otherwise a realm of chaos and instability, the boomerang is predictable and controllable, and this classic Formica pattern may be not just a countertop, but the perfect emblem of America’s struggle to keep its anxieties in check under the shiny, plastic veneer of domestic success.


An impressive display of spontaneous generation on friggen COUNTERTOP. I'm impressed, anyway.

Posted by pedalboy at 12:22 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack