So throw the book at me

Hugh Pearman’s Bookworm reached the end of its shelf life in explosive style, but he doesn’t blame the design and readily admits to a patent misuse of furniture

I always like the rising tension, the sudden explosive catharsis, of an object being tested to destruction. Doesn’t everybody? Seen in real time or speeded up for effect, the spectacle of a thing giving way to colossal force is frightening and thrilling in equal measure. Whether it’s a lump of stone being crushed in a vice, or a car being catapulted into a concrete block, or a suspension bridge corkscrewing in hurricane-force winds – we know that, quickly or slowly, the moment of no return will inevitably arrive with startling suddenness. And this is what has happened to my Ron Arad Bookworm.

It was my fault, let it be known. I don’t blame Arad for the fact my Bookworm suddenly expired in a fashion that would have a physics master rubbing his hands with glee. Physics isn’t my strong point, but I’d put money on the Bookworm being a textbook example of different forces being held in opposition. You get tension, compression, and that other kind of force – I think it’s a different one – that you associate with a coiled watch spring. You’d need an Open University programme, or one of those TV specials with engineer Chris Wise, to understand the full complexities of the Bookworm’s soul. What you see is most definitely not what you get.

The Bookworm, originally designed in spring steel and eventually put into production in tough plastic by Kartell, has been a huge commercial success. Hundred of miles of them are sold. They’re everywhere. Walk down any moderately well-heeled residential street at twilight, and a fair scattering of people’s front rooms will boast a Bookworm, in alcove or on chimney breast. It is an object that has burst out of the loft-living, designer-label ghetto and become genuinely popular. You can coil it like a snail, send it across the wall in ripples, make creative S-bends with it, all kinds of things. It has its limitations, but it meets all the criteria for a great invention, especially the “invent a better mousetrap” one. How do you get fresh commercial mileage out of a shelf? Not a shelving or storage system, just a shelf? Arad managed it, by inventing a shelf you can use both sides of. Something useful that is also sculptural.

I knew I was pushing my luck with the Bookworm. Really, they’re only meant for small books, preferably paperbacks. I bought one as a quick way to get some vital extra shelf space for my ever-expanding library. I told myself this was just a temporary measure. And so it proved. But not quite in the way I had imagined. Because I loaded it up. With great big heavy books on design and architecture. I could not believe how much weight my Bookworm could take. Every time I slapped another massive hardback on it, I expected the whole thing to come crashing down. But it did not. And eventually it was full. A great tonnage of books, improbably held on the wall by something that looked like a big blue plastic sprocket.

The most satisfying thing about its eventual catastrophic demise was its proverbial quality. You know about the straw that broke the camel’s back? The ‘wafer-thin mint’ that made Mr Creosote explode? This was the two-ounce paperback that ruptured the Bookworm. Just such a featherlight book came in. I gave it a glance, and placed it on the sinusoidal shelf. Later that day, I heard a sharp ‘ping’ noise. Nothing moved, or fell down. Just that sound. I ignored it. Several hours later, when I was downstairs, the house shook slightly and echoed to a noise I’d never heard before – like someone tipping a barrowload of melons down a well, I’d say. At first I imagined a chimney had collapsed. Then I tried to get into my office, and found I had to clamber over a mountain of books jumbled on the floor.

So many books. Had they all come from the Bookworm? They had. And the thing itself was in fragments. It had fractured in three places, split in others, pulled lumps of masonry out of the wall, and generally looked as if someone had laid wads of Semtex all over it and detonated it by remote control.

I’d just like to say thanks, Ron. Quite genuinely. When designed objects end their lives, they usually just quietly die, are relegated to attic or cellar and forgotten. But the Bookworm expired with such fantastic drama, it might almost have been intentional. I had been – half-deliberately, I now realise – testing it to destruction. It must have been carrying at least five times its maximum design load when it finally gave way. I only wish a slow-motion camera had captured the moment when all those opposing forces finally flew apart. It would keep physics classes amused for years.

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