Simona Conti 3rd assignment_Dunne & Raby's "Placebo Project" as an Hybrid Space

The Placebo project is a 2001 experiment in taking conceptual design beyond the gallery into everyday life. We can consider it as a kind of HYBRID SPACE because, using Usque words, "[it] encourages us to think not of silent static structures that surround us but rather of fluid dynamic fields beyond the edge of natural perception […]" and it make us acknowledge what has been called 'hertzian space' is to say "a real (i.e. non-virtual) space that affects us but which we only know about through use of our instruments " (from "Invisible topographies", 1, Usman Haque). Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby (founders of the interaction design research studio at the Royal College of Art, London) devised and made eight prototype objects to investigate peoples' attitudes to and experiences of electromagnetic fields in the home, and placed them with volunteers. The objects are designed to elicit stories about the secret life of electronic objects — both factual and imagined. They are purposely diagrammatic and vaguely familiar. They are open-ended enough to prompt stories but not so open as to bewilder.


Once electronic objects enter people's homes, they develop private lives, or at least ones that are hidden from human vision. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of this life when objects interfere with each other, or malfunction. Many people believe that mobile phones heat up their ears, or feel their skin tingle when they sit near a TV, and almost everyone has heard stories of people picking up radio broadcasts in their fillings. Dunne and Raby are not interested in whether these stories are true or scientific, they are interested in the narratives people develop to explain and relate to electronic technologies, especially the invisible electromagnetic waves that electronic objects emit.

Authors of the project:
Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby design works deal with the theme of Futures and Alternative Nows and the subtle psychological relationships between people and objects. They practice a kind of design whose main objective is to provoke people and stimulate reflection, is to say critical design, which is often difficult to distinguish from art production because of its strong conceptual content. As Usman Haque say "architecture, the design of spatial experience, and art, the production of cultural experience, have not for several centuries shared as much common ground as they do now. The overlapping territories of art and architecture have come about in large part because of technological developments that upset conventional understanding of spatiality" (from "Invisible topographies", 1, Usman Haque). “We are interested in using design as a medium, to ask questions and provoke and stimulate people, designers and industry,” has affirmed Tony Dunne. “We are exploring things that exist somewhere between reality and fiction,” adds Fiona, as they explain their philosophy of design.

Placebo objects

One of the purpose of the project was that although reality can't be changed, it could be changed the perception of it. Like a medical placebo, the objects in this projects do not actually remove or counteract the cause for concern, but they can provide psychological comfort.


1.Parasite light

A light that feeds off the leaky radiation of household electronic products; it only works when placed in electromagnetic fields, near an electronic product. It uses an electric field sensor to relate the intensity of its function (the amount of light emitted from 20 LEDs) to the strenght of field it senses.


2.Compass table

EM fields given off by electronic devices placed on the table's surface (like mobile phones or laptop) cause the 25 compass needles to twitch and spin. This table reminds you that electronic objects extend beyond their visible limits.


3.Nipple chair

An electronic field sensor and an antenna are mounted beaneath the seat of the chair. Nodules embedded in the back of the chair vibrate when the chair is placed in an electromagnetic field and the sitter is made aware of the radiowaves penetrating his torso, reminding him that electronic products extend beyond their visible limits. It is up to him wheter he stay and enjoy the gentle buzz or move to a 'quiter' spot. As fields can also flow up thorugh the sitter's body from electric wiring running underneath the floor, the chair has footrests so that you can isolate your feet from the ground.


4.Electro-draught excluder

This object is a classic placebo. Strategic positioning of this device helps deflect stray electromagnetic fields. Though the draught excluder is made from conductive foam, it is not grounded and therefore it doesn't really absorb radiation, but it creates a sort of shadow/barrier or comfort zone away from EM waves where you can simply feel better.



A place to keep precious objects safe from electromagnetic fields.


6.GPS table

The table has a small display set in its surface which either shows the word "lost" or its co-ordinates. It should be positioned by a clean window with a clear view of the sky.


7.Electricity drain

By sitting naked on a stool, accumulated electricity drains from the body into the chair then out of the house through the earth pin of a special plug.


8.Phone table

The mobile phone is given manners; the phone's ring is silenced when it is placed inside the drawer and instead, the table top gently glows green when the phone is called, such as, like Usque suggests, "flashing stickers and accessories […] added to mobile phones [that] light up when a call is made or received, […] consumer-friendly indicators of increased electromagnetic intensity." (from "Invisible topographies", 2-3, Usman Haque)


Here you can find some more infos about the project

- Dunne A., Raby F. (2001) "Design noir, the secret life of electronic objects" (Google book sample)
- Haque, Usman (2004), “Invisible Topographies”, Receiver

Author of this page: Simona Conti

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