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Columbus discovered America when searching for spices. The Boston Tea party was protesting taxes on tea. The East India Company traded extensively in spices and tea. Some of history’s most game-changing events, it turns out, owe their roots to food.

But so, too, do dozens of other habits, norms, cultural and social rituals in our everyday lives, say Martin Hablesreiter and Sonja Stummer, Austrian architects-turned-food designers who explore the intriguing dimensions of food in contemporary life. “Once you know the stories and the history of food, the way you look at it is completely different,” says Martin.

The duo – who both studied architecture at the University of Applied Arts in Austria before getting advanced degrees in London, she at the Architectural Association and he at Bartlett College – were headed down the conventional architecture route when interesting food experiences during their travels, in places such as Japan, drew them to this low-key but fascinating discipline.

Today, they’re among the most accomplished contemporary researchers of food design, working to understand what influences our eating habits and norms, both as consumers and from the perspective of global corporations who ‘design’ new food products.

Take eating utensils and postures. Cutlery, plates, tables and chairs, as well as chocolate bars, fish fingers and apple strudel are increasingly considered design objects and, as Martin and Sonja’s research shows, they have a fundamental impact on our behaviour.

“Show me how you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are,” enthuses Martin, explaining how edible and inedible things impose certain manners on us – three to five times a day – and how our cultural, social and religious backgrounds define how we deal with food and eating utensils. They also explore how, where and why certain unwritten rules (etiquette, aesthetic norms, dress codes and seating arrangements, dining situations,) influence our daily, seemingly intimate dietary habits. “People in Eastern Asia, for instance, eat less because they eat with chopsticks, while Americans tend to be overweight among other things because they only use forks (no knives) to shovel in their food,” asks Martin.

It’s not just how much we eat, it’s how – Martin and Sonja are compelled by questions most of us may never have asked ourselves – but ones that dictate our everyday behaviour, and along with it the very shape of the food we eat. “Why, of all people, do Europeans and Americans eat with weapons while other cultures prefer to use less martial chopsticks or their fingers in general? Why do we take a seat and sit on it for hours and accept the fact that we have merely 40 by 60 cm to move? And why is a specified use (by whom, by the way?) of designed table utensils classified as good behaviour? Countless rules dominate the act of dining and the ‘good’ taste of each culture. Without knowledge of these standards wide-ranging product design is almost impossible,” says Martin.

And that is what food is today, they contend – a design discipline. “We ask who decides what food should look like the form, colour, consistency, smell, sound and why?” says Sonja. “Big firms like Kraft and Nestle even have sound designers who use special machines to design the sound of crackers, ice cream or breakfast cereal,” says Sonja.

Food certainly is big business, whether it’s the street version, haute cuisine, or the processed food industry – who above all rely on people’s food habits to make or break their fortunes. “There’s nothing in life people are more conservative about than food. Companies are constantly struggling with new products,” says Sonja. Failure rates for food are dramatic, with 8 out of every 10 new products launched failing spectacularly.

That makes the study of food all the more critical – because successful food design shapes our habits and lives in ways we don’t immediately understand. “Unfortunately, food doesn’t get its due as a cultural phenomenon,” says Marin. People study the other arts, but seriously underestimate food. And yet, that’s possibly our most fundamental need.”

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