the material world
Summer at last, and the rotary clothes dryer season is upon us. Their creaky aluminium arms are spread wide in a million suburban gardens.

Jean MacIntyre, a 38-year-old former Design Council employee, does not like them. But of her 25 neighbours in Lewisham, south London, in terraced houses with 75-foot gardens, 15 own one. Only nine use clotheslines. So she researched and wrote a paper "The rotary dryer in south London". It was a purging experience. "They nagged and irritated me," she says, (the rotary dryers, not her neighbours). "I wondered, 'Do I dislike them because I think their place is indoors - or because I find them vulgar?'" Her neighbours are mostly upper-working- and lower-middle-class owner-occupiers, including a retired lorry driver, a carpenter, a social worker and a child minder. Little did they suspect that by using a "whirligig" or "clothes tree" they were washing their social semiology in public.

What's the meaning of a paved surround?

For example, Mrs MacIntyre's neighbour Ann, a library assistant, designed a paved pathway encircling hers. She may have had scant regard for Roland Barthes's theory of semiological "signifiers", cited in Mrs MacIntyre's paper, may even scorn "feminist subversion of the passive role of the consumer". Nevertheless, she turned her rotary into a permanent aesthetic statement. Mrs MacIntyre found that it was mainly aspirational under-45s who owned a rotary, rather than the clothesline their mothers had used; they wanted to be seen to be moving forward in their choice of goods.

These owners made claims for the rotary drier that would make the manufacturers blush. They said that it actively dried clothes, that it protected and dried better than a line, that loading and unloading was easier, that it was safer and lasted longer. And that it discreetly hid underwear: at least that's true.

Are there any drawbacks?

As for the downside, some neighbours, buckling under questioning, admitted that the mechanism supporting the arms can collapse without warning, that the line sags and wears, that the post transfers its rust to clothes and that the hole the pole fits into gets lost in the grass in the winter. (Unless, of course, a circle of paving stones marks the spot.)

A case for more R & D? Perish the thought. When Mrs MacIntyre telephoned the helpline of the biggest manufacturer, Hozelock, to put sample complaints, she was answered by born-again rotary owners who told her of similar problems and shared with her their solutions. Mrs MacIntyre wrote: "They seemed to expect me to modify my behaviour to solve my problems, rather than modify their product."

Hozelock have done its own consumer research. Of its customers, 36 per cent are in socio-economic class AB - more than double the percentage of ABs in the population as a whole.

The MacIntyres are clearly pioneers in socially acceptable and aesthetically correct clothes drying. Mrs MacIntyre's paper, part of her MA course in the history of design at the V&A and RCA, reveals: "One resident (that's us) uses the backs of chairs." "Us" is in fact her husband Paul. It is he who washes all the clothes and hangs them out to dry on wicker chairs in the garden in fine weather, otherwise on radiators and cup-hooks that he has installed in the immersion heater cupboard. What socio-economic positioning did that signify, I asked him. "I don't know," he said. "You'd need an MA student to answer that".

For the rest of us consumers, Mrs MacIntyre's solution is a "garden-friendly" rotary dryer dreamed up by her friend Joslin McKinney, theatre designer. It is tree-shaped, with green plastic leaves and a reservoir in the top for fragrances. "I think we could all learn to aspire to it," says Mrs MacIntyre