You Get The Gist

Discipline(s): Design Research Studio
Bio: You Get The Gist is a London-based design research studio founded by design writer Lara Chapman and Design/Maker Fern Toynton.
Project title: The Museum of Misuse
Project Description: Fire extinguishers have a single purpose, to put out fire. However, they are more commonly (mis)used as doorstops, their form and weight making them perfect for the job. Inspired by this common misuse and the clear instructions printed onto the body of the extinguishers, YGTG became curious about how other mundane objects have been misused around the world. Presented here are 16 examples of tools with narratives of misuse. The stories range from the personal and fun to more news-based, historical or political. Each story reminds us that within every object, there is more than meets the eye.


IN CASE OF NEW FASHION TRENDS In the 1860’s large hooped skirts started going out of fashion because of their habit of catching fire. The skirts’ shape were produced using a thin steel tape called ‘flat-wire’. When the fashion trend started to decline, James Chesterman, a British metalworker needed to find another use for his material so he would be able to stay in business. He put measuring marks along the flat-wire and invented a spring loading and lock mechanism. Chesterman marketed this invention to surveyors as a lightweight ‘Steel Band Measuring Chain’. Thus, the steel tape measure was born as a fashion trend died.

IN CASE OF TOOTHACHE If you have a bit of a sore tooth, you might want to try appealing to Saint Apollonia who is the Patron Saint of Dentistry in the Roman Catholic Church. Apollonia lived in the 3rd century BCE and is thought to have been persecuted and then burnt at the stake for her religion. She is often depicted holding a pair of pliers and a single tooth to illustrate the torture she endured which included having all her teeth violently removed with a pair of pliers.

IN CASE OF DEAD COYOTE The idea of stumbling upon the rotting carcass of a dead coyote on the side of a road is, to most people, rather unpleasant. But for Rachel Larson, a Californian-based biologist, roadkill presents a unique opportunity to study the animal’s diet, movements and habits. She yanks the longest whisker from the carcass with pliers. The whiskers show how the animals’ diet has changed more accurately than stool. Pliers are the tool of choice because the whiskers are difficult to pull out, but Larson says with pliers “It’s like plucking out eyebrow hairs.”

IN CASE OF JAMMED LEGO Chisels allude to woodworking, but for the 50 or so Master Model Builders (MMB) at Lego, they are also an integral tool. The chisels are used to break apart incorrectly assembled sculptures or ones that have been glued into place to make them safe for kids to climb on. A former MMB Robbie McCarthy told Atlas Obscura: “Every time a new Master Model Builder starts, they always end up cutting themselves with a chisel. It’s kind of a rite-of-passage thing [...] And after you do that you get to be a little more comfortable with the tools and the environment.”

IN CASE OF PROTEST In 2014, protesters in Hong Kong hosted a series of sit-in demonstrations, known as The Umbrella Revolution. Unhappy with the proposed electoral reforms which would give the Chinese Communist Party more power, the protesters carried black umbrellas with yellow slogans painted on them. These visually communicated their message but also protected them from the tear gas used by the police, as well as the rain. According to the V&A an “online video made under the name ‘Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution’ has called on protesters to ‘hold an umbrella to support Hong Kong, support democracy, support freedom, support ourselves’.”

IN CASE OF HOT DRINK Back in university, Fern lent Lara a signed copy of a book. She spent a lovely evening reading it on the couch and left it on the table for later perusal. Later that night, Lara’s partner returned from work and used the book as a coaster for his cup of tea, unfortunately leaving a big tea stain on the cover. Embarrassed, Lara bought the same book and swapped the dust covers so Fern would never know. She later confessed to Fern who said that she wouldn’t have minded and that “accidents happen.”

IN CASE OF EROTIC FEVER When 50 Shades of Grey was published in 2012, there was a reported spike in sales of duct tape, cable ties and rope due to the book’s bondage scenes. A few days before the film adaptation was released, hardware store B&Q sent out a memo advising staff to prepare for sensitive questions relating to alternative uses of these products. This widely reported memo turned out to be a PR stunt. A spokeswoman told the Guardian: “the leaked memo was indeed a bit of fun. [...] We would have confessed to this sooner, but our hands were tied.”

IN CASE OF PATRIARCHAL OPPRESSION Recipe books usually instruct on cooking but, in December 1886, a group of women published The Suffrage Cook Book which blended recipes and activism, with the aim of achieving the right to vote. Many entries explained how to make quick meals to counter the popular idea that women would not have time to vote due to their domestic tasks. One surprising entry was for “driving a nail” submitted by Lucy Anthony, who said, “it has always been declared that women do not know how to drive nails.” She harnesses the nail as a symbol of equal ability and liberation.

IN CASE OF BORING MATHS LESSON Rulers are being misused as musical instruments across the globe. The instrument is created by tapping a ruler that overhangs a table edge. Sliding the ruler results in changes of notes and a tune can be tapped out. There are many Youtube videos of people playing the ruler and performing different songs. In 2013, Dan Weiden released a guide to ruler playing which came with a custom musical ruler with finger markers and note lines on it. One review on Amazon states - “Not recommended for school kids as it really does encourage them to be noisy during class!”

IN CASE OF UNOPENED PAINT TIN On a cold winter's day in a New Zealand workshop, a huge bollocking began. Fern’s Dad, Steve, realised his chisel was not on the chisel peg and when he learned it had been used to open a pot of paint an almighty sense of humour failure ensued. Turns out, you shouldn’t use a chisel to open a paint tin - Who knew? Steve’s last words as he stormed out of the workshop were, “There aren’t many rules in this workshop but that is one of them!” In the future, Fern will use the flat head screwdriver.

IN CASE OF ABUSIVE PARTNER In 2010, Sally Challen bludgeoned her husband to death 18 times with a hammer. She was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. For nine years, she denied this charge, claiming the act was self-defence, against constant domestic abuse in the form of coercive control. Her sons, alongside charities, campaigned to have her case reviewed, resulting in changes to legislation on domestic abuse. In 2019, Challen was released from prison. Her release speech highlighted all the women she felt were serving sentences they did not deserve because they were also victims of domestic abuse. This speech was met with applause.

IN CASE OF THE MUSIC STOPPING Have a beer at 9AM, compete for $10,000, run around 75 chairs and when the music stops, find a seat. In 2012, The Musical Chair World Championships took place in Massachusetts USA after the idea of it came to a prison guard in a dream. 1,200 people competed in a series of rounds. The stakes were high and tactics discussed. In news coverage, many contestants claimed “It’s all about the ass.” The final two took to the stage at 6BM to Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-a-lot. The winner took his friends and giant cheque to the pub.

IN CASE OF DRYING SOAP When Lara was 7, her friend Thomas came over to make soap. Once it was completed, they poured the soap into moulds. Lara’s mum placed it on a high shelf to dry. After a few hours, curious about their soap, Lara decided to climb up to the shelf, using a nearby fire extinguisher as a step. Inevitably, it started spurting foam and, unfortunately, Thomas was in the firing line. Despite best efforts to clean him up, the white residue would not wash off. When Thomas’ mum collected him, he appeared to have aged seventy years, with semi-permanently dyed eyebrows and hair. Despite the drama, the soaps were a triumph.

IN CASE OF HEAVY DOOR Fire extinguishers should remain in a constant, accessible place, but their weight and size invite misuse. They are perfect for propping open doors. Ironically, they are usually used to wedge open fire doors which are designed to stop the spread of a fire throughout a building and will hold a fire in a room for a minimum of 30 minutes if closed, giving enough time for firefighters to arrive.

IN CASE OF TRAPPED CAT The dog ate my homework, sorry I forgot my wallet, there was a signal failure on the line. All excuses that we might have heard or used before, but in 2010, England spin bowler Graham Swan used an entirely new one. When pulled over by police for drunk driving, Swan assured officers he was just on his way to buy some screwdrivers from Asda as his cat had got stuck under the floorboards. Police officers reported Swan seemed stressed and upset about his cat. Swan pleaded not guilty in court. Was the cat stuck or was this an excuse as barmy as his army? You decide...

IN CASE OF SECRET MESSAGE Embroidery is often seen as a subservient womens craft. However, throughout history women have been using needlework to share secret messages often voicing their political or religious beliefs through symbolism. Mary Queen of Scots sewed hidden messages relating to marriage plans; In WWII, female British civilians in Changi Prison created quilts subtly depicting their experiences of prison life; Suffragette Janie Terrero embroidered a handkerchief telling of her hunger strike in Holloway Prison in 1912. Fast forward 64 years and Patagonia concealed messages on their tags reading: ‘Vote the Assholes out’.