Prof. Eduard Franz Sekler, an old-world Austrian gentleman who is one of the patriarchs of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, had a magic rock. We didn’t know it was magic at first, but it turned out to be our Honourary Professor of Wakeful Perception.
Professor Sekler taught a seminar I took, which met in a small room, six of us around a table. At the start of class he would set his papers and notes on the table and put the rock on top of them. We could tell by the way he placed it each day that he was very fond of his rock. Though we didn’t pay much attention to it.
One day Prof. Sekler asked us to consider how design can influence the way we perceive the world. He picked up the rock and handed it around to us. We all held it, felt it, admired it. For the first time we really paid attention to it.
He then took the rock and stood it up on the table. It had always lain flat on his papers, but it had a smooth end we hadn’t noticed that let it stand upright. It shifted from mere rock to “object”, and we admired it afresh. He moved the rock to a tall stand that had been sitting in the corner of the room all semester with nothing on it. Given this place of honour, the rock was now the most interesting thing in the room. Finally, there were track lights on the ceiling that we didn’t generally turn on, but Prof. Sekler flicked the switch and the rock was spotlit against the wall, casting its shadow and reflecting light from unexpected facets. It had become sculpture.
The rock was our teacher for that class on perception, and it woke us up to the limited view that we often take of things. When Prof. Sekler finally turned on the track light we all burst out laughing with delight. We applauded the rock for its achievement, and we felt suddenly good about the world, optimistic and appreciative, eager to accept the rock’s invitation to celebrate the possibility in ordinary things.
Inspiring others, and ourselves, can be as simple as celebrating the possibility in ordinary things. It’s a sort of alchemy. How can we use things beyond their mere function, in a way that draws on their latent power to wake us up?