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Issue #16
December 2016 - May 2017
Eyeglasses - between Design and Medicine
Jonathan Ventura and Galit Shvo / January 04 2017

The most unnerving prospect for all of us eyeglass wearers is the idea that they will break unexpectedly, leaving us blind to our surroundings. Most of us forget that this familiar accessory is a medical tool for overcoming a significant bodily impairment. For despite the eye examinations we undergo at the optometrist's, we do not purchase our eyeglasses in a hospital or at a doctor's office, but rather at an eyewear shop that is likely to be found in our local shopping mall. Most of us invest little thought in the physiological and medical aspects of our condition, focusing instead on design and fashion-related considerations as we ponder the purchase of our next pair of eyeglasses.


l.a.Eyeworks advertisementfeaturing Andy Warhol wearing glasses with a LAX frame, 1985. photo: Greg Gorman

In the course of the nineteenth century, the definition of various objects began to shift from a socio-cultural definition to a medical one. A classical example of such an object is the feeding bottle: Up until the nineteenth century, such bottles were usually domestic improvisations based on ceramic bottles used for general household purposes. In the course of the nineteenth century, doctors collaborated with industrialists to produce specialized feeding bottles (Ventura and Ventura, forthcoming). This change stemmed from a double socio?cultural process: Firstly, it built on the new understanding that a child was an autonomous creature with special needs, who demanded special care and protection.

This understanding, which began to spread throughout Europe, lead to the development of unique products designed especially for children. Secondly, the fear of infant mortality, diseases, a new awareness  of hygiene, and a rise in the status of doctors led to the medical overtaking of many areas of responsibility (what is known as “medicalization”). This change may be noted in the medical details that were assimilated into the design of feeding bottles – measurement markings that enabled an exact assessment of how much milk the baby drank; an ergonomic structure that prevented suffocation and alleviated gas problems, and more. The marketing of such bottles was also undertaken by doctors. When a successful doctor developed a bottle that enjoyed popularity, it would become a local brand. To a large extent, pacifiers similarly became ergonomic-physiological accessories that increasingly imitated the structure of the breast, and were designed to promote healthy tooth growth and to preserve healthy gums.

Yet parallel to this medicalization of consumer items, a single object – namely, eyeglasses – underwent an inverse process, transitioning out of the world of medicine and into the world of consumer culture and fashion. As this accessory underwent a process of inverse medicalization, the emphasis in its design shifted from correcting sight impairments to underscoring their presence. The classical sociological focus on stigmas associated with physical or mental injuries is worth invoking for the sake of a quick comparison between different medical products. If we examine other “enhancers" of sensory perception and communication such as hearing aids (as miniscule as they are nowadays) or speaking aids, we shall see that the social experience of their users is distinctly different than that ofeyeglass wearers (Newman, 2016). For whereas glasses have become an almost obligatory fashion accessory in certain professional milieus, those hard of hearing or speech are viewed as suffering from a disability or froma physical or medical problem. Moreover, in contrast to other medical products that can be more or less successfully concealed, glasses underscore a central part of our body – our face, and especially our eyes. In the following pages, we will attempt to explore this unique phenomenon, while examining the evolving design of glasses over time. Our aim is not to present a historical survey of the evolution of eyewear, but rather to examine the cultural dimensions of this complex product. In doing so, we rely on a classical methodological study of the materials, production technologies, colors and forms that shape this familiar object, by means of which we perceive everyday reality. Accordingly, we will focus on the various dimensions of this object as reflections of economic, cultural, and social changes over time (Harvey, 2013). Such an approach, we believe, enables us to understand design as a complex and indepth process, thus shedding light on objects that have accompanied our everyday life since the dawn of history.

Instant Architect: Cutoff eyeglasses based on the iconic glasses of the renowned architect Le Corbusier

Although Chinese and Arab scholars wrote of the development of lenses to improve human vision as early as the late tenth century, the configuration we are familiar with today was born in Europe. In the course of the thirteenth century, scholars in northern Italy created the first apparatus featuring two polished, concave lenses. Since eyeglasses served mostly for reading and their production costs were high, they left a deep impression on their viewers, projecting an aura of prestige and intelligence (Magner, 2002; Ilardi, 2007). Although glasses were a rare spectacle during this period (due to low literacy rates and high production costs), artists painted important figures (most notably St. Hieronymus) with glasses, which projected an image of wisdom, knowledge, scholarship, and prestige (Vogel and Burke, 2009; DeMello, 2012). From a cultural perspective, the need for eyeglasses as a tool for improving farsightedness became significant as literacy grew among merchants who were required to read orders and invoices, a need that became even more acute following the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth century. During this period, one can identify two main processes that led to the evolution of eyeglass design: printmaking and changing modes of production. Up until the late fifteenth century, eyeglasses were produced out of a range of materials and in numerous forms, some professionally and some by charlatans and crooks. The growing demand for eyeglasses, which was tied to the development of the Gutenberg printing press, led to a greater need to standardize design and control its quality (Veyrat et al., 2008).

Initially, people treated eyeglasses with suspicion and even fear (in the seventeenth century, they were known as “nose crushers"). Over time, however, glasses became a symbol of experience and wisdom, leading to a trend of wearing non?corrective glasses as a sign of intelligence. Interestingly, the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza (1401–1466), ordered for himself a dozen pairs of non?corrective eyeglasses as a sign of his literacy and intelligence. During this period, glasses were designed for brief use only, and thus had no temples; instead, they were equipped with a handle that was held by the wearer while the glasses rested on his nose (these glasses made their Hollywood appearance in the now?classic 1986 film The Name of the Rose, worn by actor Sean Connery). When reading glasses came to be used for longer periods of time, they were secured using leather straps and even a string with a weight on each side. The more sophisticated technology underlying bifocal lenses is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, the wellknown American statesman and inventor, who seems to have learned it from British optometrists. In the course of the eighteenth century, the Swiss Pierre?Louis Guinard developed a serial technology for the production of uniform glass lenses that eliminated bubbles and distortions on the surface. This technology was adopted by ZEISS, a major eyewear producer that continues to be recognized for its high quality products (Pitts-Taylor, 2008; Goes, 2013).

Whereas the monocle continued to serve as a male status symbol, especially among German speakers prior to the Second World War, lorgnettes were largely used by women. From a design perspective, both these configurations are interesting, since they both represent attempts to shatter the classical archetype of eyeglasses as a medical tool for corrective vision. In terms of their handling, ornamentation, and contribution to the creation of a new “physical action," to borrow the famous term used by the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1973), eyeglasses are the most prominent object based on inherent principles of both physical and social ergonomics. For beyond having to fit comfortably on the wearer's nose and around his ears, glasses represent the first thing that people notice on the street or at work as they look at our faces and at what frames them.

Technology, Materials, Color and Form

Just as consumers treated (and still treat) Google Glass with fear, so Renaissance consumers feared eyeglasses. Even though today we view them as fashion accessories that improve on our perception of the world, glasses initially suffered from a problematic image, and were thought to distort vision. Two scientific luminaries, Galileo and Kepler, who confirmed the former’s study, attempted to dispel this fear by writing in praise of optical lenses. Yet despite their positive reception in the scientific community, up until the nineteenth century consumers and doctors continued to believe that eyeglasses might actually harm vision. The evolution of glasses must thus also be examined in relation to historical, social, and economic changes over time.

The well known design historian Henry Petroski describes failure as an important factor in leading to the re?design of various objects throughout history. Petroski's famous argument is that notwithstanding the needs or desires that give rise to innovation, failure is the father of success and development, at least in the world of design. One famous example he provides is the evolution of the bowl out of the act of cupping water in the palm of one's hand, and its further shaping out of clay, ceramics, and additional, non?organic materials in the industrial era. Echoing Popper's classic theory of falsifiability (2005), this argument also applies to developments in the field of engineering: when a product ceases to cater to a certain need, or fails to answer new needs arising out of socio?cultural changes, this factor leads to a new stage in the evolution of a given object's design (Petroski, 1996; 2006). As we shall see later on, the evolution of eyeglasses similarly developed in accordance with modern man's new needs.  Two configurations – the monocle and the lorgnette –served to brand eyewear as a fashionable consumer object rather than a medical one. Both were designed for shortterm use and thus involved the effect of being pulled out of a case, resulting in an impressive design for both the eyepiece and the case. In addition, since the size of the monocle was adjusted to the specific facial structure of its wearer, thus significantly raising the cost of its production, it came to be viewed as a status symbol and fashion accessory (much like its spiritual predecessor, the quizzing glass, which emblematized the European dandy at his best). Whereas the lorgnette was considered a female accessory, in the course of the eighteenth century men began using a type of spectacles known as “Martin's Margins," which had a closure that wrapped around the user's head.1 Similarly shaped spectacles that also came into use during this period were known as “wig spectacles," and were compatible with sophisticated male fashion codes. Another configuration, which served men who did not wish to appear as “bespectacled," was called “scissor spectacles" due to its dynamic shape.

From a configurative and design perspective, there is an essential difference between the structure of early spectacles and the products of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The lorgnette, the early rivet spectacle, and the monocle were all held rather than worn. They were designed to be used for short time periods and to communicate “business as usual," and their design thus focused on enabling the hand to hold the spectacles without sullying the lenses. From a production perspective, it is worth noting that up until the fifteenth century, monks were the designers, producers, and users of spectacles – a unique process in the history of design (Veyrat et al., 2008). During this early period, design thus centered on enabling users to hold the lenses without obstructing their field of vision. Within a relatively short period of time, the monks noticed the design problem inherent to products containing a rivet – the spectacles would become skewed, obscuring the viewer's vision. The result was the development of glasses with a similar configuration but without a rivet. The advantage of this design strategy was a reduction of the weight and thickness of the glasses. Nevertheless, it led to new difficulties in holding and balancing them on the nose. Indeed, from a design perspective the spectacle designers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries focused on innovations categorized under the rubric of ergonomics, or in other words, “enabling spectacles to remain balanced on one’s nose."


Advertisement underscoring the effectiveness of eyeglasses in enhancing one's personal image. Without glasses – motorbike rider. With glasses – fashion designer. Oogmerk Opticians, 2007, Belgium.

At different models relates to the sociocultural complexities of eyeglasses throughout history. We are thus able to see how technological changes (such, for example, as the development of lenses), material changes (the transition from the use of metal to that of Bakelite and plastic) and new designs both impact and are impacted by the environment in which the glasses are used. For instance, when glasses are used for short?term reading, they are designed to be held in one hand. By contrast, when the living environment requires aesthetic design for a range of social contexts and situations (with children, at work, at home, as well as outdoors) and under various weather conditions, the configuration, aesthetic appearance, and materials all change accordingly. Producers and marketers strategically present eyeglasses as versatile, everyday objects that are nevertheless objects of desire. They must focus on glasses that are strong and sturdy yet also aesthetic and unique, while taking into consideration competitors and competitive prices. The accommodation of the user is also a complex process. Whereas in the seventeenth century the main requirement was that glasses remain on the wearer's nose for a brief period of time, over the following centuries the evolution of an advanced ergonomics has enabled glasses to become more compatible with the user's face. In the twentieth century, and even more so today, the physical body is overtaken by an abstract social body, as glasses serve to construct a specific image that represents our cultural taste and fashion savvy as well as our economic status. 


One can describe the historical evolution of eyeglasses as unfolding along two axes: Once the initial function – that of correcting vision problems (shortsightedness, farsightedness, etc.) was identified, it remained central for over 500 years. What has changed is the product design, which has been transformed in accordance with new uses and in response to specific ergonomic and aesthetic concerns (materials, color, and shape). In the second phase of development (beginning in the sixteenth century), eyeglass design thus turned tofocus on three main aspects:

1. Use: What is the use to which the glasses are put? Is it short?term or long?term? Are they designed for indoor or outdoor use? The answers to these question determine the materials used in a range of contexts.
2. The design situation: Modern eyeglasses must serve us at work (requiring a respectable and formal design), as well as at home (requiring a configuration and materials capable of surviving a spray of water, or the impact of being dropped to the ground by a mischievous child at play) and during leisure activities (playing soccer or racket ball on the beach in a humid city such as Tel Aviv, for instance).
3. Fashion: The design language, as well as the finish of the plastic materials (there is a stark difference between cheaply finished plastic and the fine finish of a high?quality product) define our socioeconomic affinity and status. Eyeglasses are one of the only objects that are immediately visible to those around us. Yet due to the high price of lenses, we cannot constantly follow our changing fashion whims, since glasses must last on average from two to three years.
These three aspects result in a complex design definition for an object that is relatively simple from a technological perspective. The quality of the lenses, their weight and thickness, have all improved over time, yet their design, production process, ergonomic makeup, and mode of use are also becoming increasingly complex.

A good pair of glasses must address these different aspects both separately and together, so that they are strong, fashionable, ergonomic and comfortable. Yet as the designer and theorist Tomás Maldonado (2001) argues, in contrast to scientists such as Galileo, Roger Bacon, Grossatesta, Alhazen, and Kepler, who made groundbreaking discoveries concerning the development of eyeglass lenses, the influence of designers over time has been secondary. From a medical perspective, Maldonado continues, one may ask why a technology to cope with farsightedness (the inability to see well at close range) was developed ca. 1280, whereas a technology to address shortsightedness (that is, the inability to see well at a distance) was developed only circa 1450. During the Middle Ages, the lives of people suffering from both types of vision impairments were far from simple. Shortsighted individuals, for instance, awakened discomfort in those around them and sometimes even provoked accusations of maleficence or sorcery (not to mention suspicions concerning blindness). The division between those suffering from various vision impairments also impacted the division of labor and the choice of professional occupations: shortsighted individuals worked in literate or professional environments, whereas farsighted individuals performed physical work such as hunting. The two stages in the technological development of glasses reflect the integration of these two populations. In the thirteenth century, lenses were developed to treat farsightedness, whereas in the fifteenth century (parallel to the invention of Gutenberg's printing press), lenses were also developed for shortsightedness. Yet why did more than 150 years elapse between these two inventions? Was the main reason related to the technological ability to produce convex lenses?


Conrad von Soest, The Glasses Apostle, detail of the Passion Altar, 1403, Church of St. Nicholas, Bad Wildungen, Germany. This painting is considered to be the oldest depiction of eyeglasses north of the Alps.

Maldonado argues that the technology for producing lenses for farsightedness or nearsightedness is not different enough to warrant such a long hiatus between the two inventions. Yet, as he reminds us, even people who do not suffer from farsightedness in the course of their early life can become farsighted after age 40, a condition that could have lead them to search for alternative occupations “in the open air." That is, without the solution of glasses, these people would be limited to physical labor. In a world where new professions demanded sitting at a desk, reading, and writing, glasses became an almost necessary solution. According to Maldonado, the changes in the division of labor in late medieval society and the early Renaissance created a need for a technological tool that would enable people with normal vision to continue working with the aid of eyeglasses, even when after a decade or two they would start suffering from farsightedness. Moreover, the changes in the design and technological development of eyewear represent the shift from a physical work force where farsightedness was an advantage to one centered on reading and writing. In other words, this is a process in which society “pushes" and technology “pulls," with both processes embodied by an object whose technological makeup is relatively simple. This solution, which combines design and technology, was thus born of economic, social, and cultural changes during the period in question.

The term “wearable technology" is often used today to describe the infiltration of cutting?edge technologies into the realm of objects worn on our bodies throughout the day. These include augmented reality eyewear, clothing made of smart textiles, bracelets and rings that monitor physiological activity and metabolism, shoes that change their appearance or communicate physiological information to a smartphone, and more. Yet to a large degree, eyeglasses were the first wearable technology, which may well be how they were perceived in the early Renaissance period (Veryat et al., 2008). With the exception of the frame, which has changed over time in accordance with new historical developments in the production of materials, lenses have remained the focal point of all eyewear. The technology of lens production made this product appear simultaneously threatening and fascinating during the early Renaissance, since it interfaces with the body and is carried on the face, causing us to almost forget its existence (until the glasses break or become dirty) – or, in other words, a wearable technology.

Design became the central tool in shifting the cultural and functional associations of glasses from the world of medicine to the world of fashion and lifestyle. As technology and the use of materials continued to evolve, this shift became increasingly significant. If we take, for instance, contact lenses or modern frameless glasses, which represent attempts at assimilating physical signs of a “default," such attempts can be contrasted with the inverse phenomenon of underscoring the default by means of conspicuous design. Large glasses with massive black plastic frames have become a hipster accessory in recent years – a trend that can also be seen in the design of medical products. When coping with physical impairments, designers rely on one of two strategies – underscoring or blurring the defect. When they opt for blurring the impairment, designers attempt to assimilate the object into the overall appearance of the user's body, or to hide it under clothes. By contrast, when they choose to underscore it, designers use materials, textures or colors to transport the product from the world of medicine to the world of sports, extreme gear, or fashion (Ventura and Gunn, forthcoming).

Indeed, ever since the 1940s, glasses have served as a fashion accessory associated with a certain socioeconomic status and level of intelligence (Segrave, 2011). Turkle speaks of “evocative objects" that have the power to create an effect of desire among consumers (2011). One may thus identify, in the course of the twentieth century, a growing tendency to purchase designer glasses that reflect the power of brands and further blur the origin of this complex product as a tool for corrective vision. Returning to the subject we started out with, which was the transition of eyeglasses from the realm of medicine to that of consumer culture, we can note the role played by designers in the transformation process of this common accessory. As an object that combines style, fashion, consumerism, and medicine, eyeglasses offer a fascinating case study of a double transformation: On the one hand, they have been transformed from a medical object into a consumer object. At the same time, their widespread use has led to their industrialized production out of cheap, reliable, durable materials (chiefly plastic), in contrast to the initial process of manual production out of metal or expensive materials such as tortoiseshell (Delong and Daly, 2013). Eyeglasses have thus become one of the objects that define our identity, and in many cases are even buried with us (Harper, 2012).

Inversemedicalization: Underscoring a default by means of Design

As already noted, since eyeglasses are almost the sole object that moved so dramatically from the realm of medicine to that of fashion, it is interesting to follow this trajectory through an examination of the body, and more specifically of the face. In contrast to evolutionary processes of assimilating and absorbing technologies into the body (similar to the process undergone, for instance, by car headlights, which have been assimilated into the body of the car to become part of its outline, rather than an external accessory hanging on its frame), the endurance of eyeglasses and the enhancement of their status is a unique phenomenon. Despite the successful development of a widely?used technology that enables the solution to be assimilated into the body (contact lenses), which seemingly “solved" the need for glasses to be perched on the user's nose, the use of eyeglasses has not diminished, and has in fact increased. This phenomenon becomes even more interesting when viewed in light of the developing trend to create technological products for medical purposes that are assimilated into our bodies, transforming us into cyborgs of sorts, to use the well?known term first employed by Donna Haraway (2006). In contrast to the bionic prosthesis, an artificial eye with technologically enhanced qualities and pacemakers, eyeglasses are here to stay, and we must remember that from a purely design?based perspective, their form has not changed for hundreds of years.


Friedrich Herlin, Saint Peter reading with eyeglasses Altarpiece detail, 1466, St. Jacob's Church, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

One motivation for this design?related nostalgia is obviously comfort, yet there are several additional reasons one can list as preserving and bolstering this phenomenon. To begin with, glasses provide the best excuse to don a mask. The moment we put them on, they do not only correct our vision and change the way we see the world, but also transform the way the world sees us. As already noted in the opening section of this article, glasses are to a large extent the first and most prominent wearable technology, which has endured for hundreds of years. Moreover, together with the makeup and jewelry we wear, glasses remain the most conspicuous design accessory seen by those who observe us, and play a central role in defining our taste and our professional and socioeconomic status.
Secondly, there is no doubt that in addition to physically protecting the eyes, glasses also provide mental protection by mediating between our face, expressions and emotions and the outside world. In an urban environment that is increasingly charged with cognitive, visual, and auditory stimuli (as already discussed in Georg Simmel's classical essay on urban life), eyeglasses are a carefully designed life buoy. The use of glasses as a mask of sorts, even if not in the classical sense of the word, enables us to change our body image (recall the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza, who actively and self-reflexively collected dozens of pairs of glasses despite his normal vision). The same glasses may provide one person with a “serious" look, while endowing another one with a “naïve” appearance. Moreover, during certain periods glasses become an almost obligatory fashion accessory, as made evident by the now?hackneyed image of the black plastic glasses worn by Brooklyn hipsters.

This legitimate mask, which functions as an easily replaceable accessory, enables us to change our preferred image of ourselves on an almost daily basis, in accordance with the event in question, our mood, and current trends. In this sense, then, eyewear design is not only a medical tool of the first order, but also a means of actively shaping our identity to fit changing situations throughout the day. People love changes and are constantly searching for novelty, even if only in terms of altering a frame's color or replacing a rounded frame with a pointed one. Whereas the medical, corrective component of eyeglasses is transparent and almost invisible, its supporting frame receives excessive and meticulous attention to its color, materiality, and form, whichhighlight the “importance" of the transparent circles it surrounds. The entire “fashion charge" of the glasses rests on the frame, so that that most eyeglass wearers spend more time choosing the frame than they do attending to the technological and optometric advances that produced the lenses, thus enabling them see the world.
Although this cultural “carrier" is related to technological developments in the production of thin, light, and precise lenses, it also evolves independently to create variegated eyeglass forms and numerous new possibilities, much beyond the regular function of glasses for “corrective vision." This phenomenon itself is a unique case worthy of being noted.

If we choose to read glasses as a signifier, focusing on the frame rather than on the lenses (the functional component), terms from the world of semiotics will inevitably enter the discussion. As we noted in a previous article (Ventura and Shvo, 2016), glasses – like every other design object – are composed of materials, colors and forms, which are all imbued with specific sociocultural meanings. We can thus state that the functional aspect of glasses (enabling people to see) is strong enough to allow for a minimal semiotic play of colors, forms, and materials.

Regardless of whether they are made of horn, tortoiseshell, plastic, metal, or laminated wood, or printed using a 3D printer, eyeglasses are the most important and visible accessory we own, reflecting technological and perceptual changes related to social norms and changing fashions. Eyeglasses seem to be here to stay, even if we will need new excuses to leave this “prosthesis" perched on the tip of our noses.

 


 

Jonathan Ventura, PhD, is a research fellow at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, Royal College of Art, London. He is a senior lecturer in the Department of Inclusive Design at Hadassah Academic College, Jerusalem; in the Department of Architecture and in the Program for Urban Design at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem; and at the Open University. His book Objects was published in 2014. His book New Perspectives to Design: From Lucy to Bernini, in collaboration with Prof. Kenneth Segal, is forthcoming in 2016. He specializes in applied anthropology, medical and social design, design anthropology, material and visual culture, design research methodologies, and theories of design.

Galit Shvo, a designer and lecturer on design, researches, develops, and designs independent projects on the axis between the industrial world and the academic world. Over the past decade she has focused on the theoretical, cultural, and ideological aspects of design. She is a graduate of the Department of Industrial Design, Bezalal Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem (2003), and a graduate (with honors) of the Masters Program in Design, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design (2007).

 


 

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