Objects of Desire, coming out March 28 from Schiffer Publishing, is a coffee-table book for people who don’t mind raising a few eyebrows among their guests—although, these days, that’s probably all the reaction it would elicit. Yes, it’s a book about sex toys, but a particularly tasteful one, geared toward design lovers and well-calibrated for a moment when sex toys have pretty much completed their evolution from seedy novelties to mainstream consumer products. As the author, Rita Catinella Orrell, writes in an introductory note, “One of our main goals was to present the product design in an open-minded, impartial, and inclusive fashion.” In that, Orrell and the book’s designer, Jason Scuderi, have succeeded, pairing more than 100 products with straightforward, unblushing descriptions of their function and design, as well as a handful of interviews with sex-positive bloggers, retailers, manufacturers and designers. Recently, we e-mailed with Orrell to find out a little more about the book and her thoughts on the state of sex-toy design.
In the book’s introduction, you write about stumbling upon a design revolution in erotic products. When, and how, did that revolution come about, and are we still in the midst of it?
The book comes out March 28. The cover features the Vesper vibrator necklace by Crave.
This latest revolution started about a decade ago when we began to see commercially available sex toys and other erotic objects designed with a level of aesthetics and functionality not typically seen before in this industry. This paralleled the rise of more friendly, well-lit shops that attracted both men and women, queer and straight. We are still in the midst of that revolution, while also witnessing the evolution of virtual reality/remote sex and the beginning of artificially intelligent/robotic sex. This is accompanied by improvements in materiality, battery charging and motor quality across all types of products.
What type of sex toy has seen the most innovation—and what category do you think is most in need of designers’ attention?
I would have to say vibrators have seen the most innovation. For example, HUM by Dimensional Industries, the first artificially intelligent vibrator, was designed to respond to the human orgasm and draw out the experience. MOD, by Comingle LLC, is an open-source vibe for DYIers and hackers. And Eva, by Dame Products, is the first non-insertable hands-free vibrator that uses two flexible wings that tuck under the labia majora to keep the vibe securely in place.
Eva is “the first truly wearable couple's vibrator.”
I think there is a need in the market for products that help couples who are trying to conceive—either by aiding insemination or helping to bring the woman to orgasm. One product in the book that fits this category is the Semenette, an anatomically correct dildo with an attached pump and replaceable liner. In addition to helping lesbian couples conceive, the product can also be an option for the transgender community (specifically female-to-male individuals), or in various other scenarios where both partners want to enjoy an authentic ejaculation experience.
Can you talk a little about material innovation in this category? What have been the big breakthroughs, and what sorts of material problems are companies trying to solve next?
This industry is unregulated, but many companies take the time and expense to invest in good quality materials.The biggest innovation in materials was the evolution from rubber and PVC toys to silicone. You can find silicone in vibrators, paddles, cock rings, anal toys, male strokers and other toys now. Silicone was brought to the industry by a disabled entrepreneur named Gosnell Duncan. In her introduction to the book, sexologist Carol Queen explains that Duncan was an industrial chemist who knew silicone’s body-safe and easy-to-clean properties would make it ideal for sex toys. In 1997, sex-toy maker Tantus set out to make mainstream silicone sex toys available to larger sex-toy-buying audiences. In my interview with Tantus founder and CEO Metis Black, she talks about the challenges of selling a product that could last a lifetime while convincing buyers that people would come back for more.
A spread from the book featuring Trainer Toyfriends, a line of Kegel exercisers by the Swedish company Tickler
The erotic-products industry has long been male-dominated. When did women start to make inroads as sex-toy designers and craftswomen, and is the industry now more gender equitable?
There are many women behind companies—although few are trained industrial designers. I think women started to make inroads in the last decade, around the same time the industry started this new revolution. We have a lot of amazing women designers and craftswomen featured in the book including Ti Chang, Bliss Lau, Metis Black, Shiri Zinn, PJ Linden, Viviane Yazdani and many more. Challenges still remain for female designers, but it is important that they are at the table when it comes to designing products for women.
Objects of Desire includes interviews with sex bloggers, shop owners and toy designers—including Karim Rashid, above.
Do you have any advice for young designers interested in working in this industry?
Really get to know the products. Do your research, play with these toys and talk to toy reviewers. Don’t go overboard on bells-and-whistles or gimmicks.
SexShop3D.com allows customers to—you guessed it—3D-print sex toys at home. Its most popular model is the Big Black Dildo, shown here on an Ultimaker 2 digital printer. The BBD takes about eight hours to print.
Are there any sex-toy trends you’re sick of, or any product categories that you think are overrated?
I do not like the trend of attaching something to your phone to turn it into a vibrator. A phone is one of the dirtiest things around—why would someone want to put that near their clitoris when there are so many other more practical options out there? I also don’t like teddy bears, rubber ducks, or any other children’s toy turned into a vibrator. If you want to be able to leave your toy out in plain sight, there are many other options.
Where will we see the next breakthroughs in erotic products? Are you bullish about the possibilities for VR intimacy, 3D-printed toys, “teledildonics” or other futuristic-sounding possibilities?
Virtual reality, 3D printed toys and teledildonics for remote sex are all still in their nascency but progressing quickly. You can already print out a dildo on your home 3D printer or have remote sex where one person controls the other’s sex toy. We will continue to see advancements in this area almost as soon as they come across from other fields. Even artificially intelligent toys are now a reality. I am a little nervous about the advent of fully functioning, A.I. sex robots, but that is probably from watching Ex Machina and Battlestar Galactica. They are coming, though—that’s for certain.
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This interview is part of the Core77 Sex-tacular, our editorial series exploring the myriad ways that technology and design are shaping the future of intimacy and sex.
Mason Currey is a former Core77 editor and the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Previously, he was the executive editor of Print and the managing editor of Metropolis. His freelance writing has appeared in the New York Times and Slate, among other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.