Every Saturday morning, Rob Walker’s Consumed column in the New York Times magazine is my not-so-guilty pleasure. It is always a scrumptious breakfast for thought. Rob is one of the few people I know that can drop into a trance in front of a contorted bunny rabbit, lost amongst flashbacks from its imaginary life.
Rob loves all sorts of objects, of any material (even immaterial) and in any scale, from brands to buildings and from spoons to cities. He also loves to tell their stories, both real—in his Murketing blog, for instance—and imagined.
In his groundbreaking Significant Objects, an online experiment which Rob began in 2009 with Joshua Glenn, great writers ranging from Nicholson Baker to Lydia Millet have given new, dramatic lives to objects the curators had bought for a few dollars at thrift stores and garage sales. The objects then went for auction on eBay to raise funds for non-profit organizations focused on teaching creative writing to children.
Rob’s latest online adventure—currently in the fund-raising phase—is about designing signage for fictional building uses in New Orleans.
PA – Do things actually talk to you, or do you rather kind of read them?
RW – I guess some combination — things call out for my attention sometimes. But you can’t necessarily trust what an object says about itself, can you? Many objects don’t really want you to know their material or labor back story, or the potential unpleasant consequences of their use. They just want you to know their features and their beauty, the usefulness and their appeal. So once some interesting thing has my attention, it’s more like trying to read it. The interesting objects are usually the ones open several readings.
PA – How did Significant Objects come about?
RW – I broke a coffee cup. It had no rational market value — but I was very upset about breaking it, because it had great value to me. Why? Because of the personal story attached to it.
Marketers, and designers too, often claim to understand the underlying idea here: That stories give meaning and value to objects. However, they often think that this means they can add meaning and value to object by telling stories about how it was made, or designed, who created it, what they were thinking about, what the process was, and all that.
This is flawed. The stories that matter do not descend from object creators. They are imposed by object owners.
That line of thought made wonder: What if you imposed completely invented stories upon objects? It’s a line of thought that actually obliterates the designer, actually. But in the case of my coffee mug, I don’t care who created it or why; what I cared about was how it happened to intersect with the narrative of my life.
Joshua Glenn edited a wonderful collection of essays called Taking Things Seriously, all about personal stories adding value to unlikely objects, in real life. I figured he would be the perfect collaborator to take a step in a different direction: Inventing stories about things, and measuring how that affected their marketplace value.
And so we ended up working with more than 200 writers, inventing stories about random junk we bought at yard sales and the like. We sold the stories & objects together, on eBay. In the original 100- story experiment, we sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51, proving our point. Then we did another 100 stories, for charities, with even better results. And we still do small batches of stories/objects — in fact the next group will be part of the first- ever live Significant Objects event, part of Litquake in San Francisco.
PA – You knew this was coming: do you have a favorite object?
RW – Yes, it’s hard to answer and I give different and inconsistent responses when I’m asked this. One answer is my wedding ring, but the problem with that answer is that there isn’t a great to elaborate on. So here’s another answer. There’s a book I have that used to belong to my father — it’s called A Handbook For Writing, and it’s just an old textbook, with a very plain cloth cover. On the back, my father, as a bored student evidently, drew a picture of a Bugs Bunny-like rabbit. I was absolutely thunderstruck by this when I first encountered it. I was a sullen twelve years old or so, and I couldn’t believe that a) here was evidence of my father, a very upright fellow, having goofed off, and b) the drawing is quite good. His primary professional interest was (he’s retired now) engineering, and I ‘d never thought of him having an “artistic side,” per se. So this object, because of how he’d altered it, had the effect of opening up a different side of him, and simultaneously opening up this whole mystery — the mystery of what your parents were like before you existed, which is a difficult thing to comprehend at age 12. Anyway I took this book with me at some point and never gave it back. From time to time I take it off a shelf in my office and look at it. It still fascinates me.
PA – Which famous object (dead or alive) do you dream to have dinner with?
RW – I love this question. I don’t know what this says about me, but my immediate thought was: a nuclear bomb. Aside from being a dangerous date, and a real head-turner — an object to be seen with — I am by nature drawn to wallflowers, and in the context of the great design- conversation party, not many people want to chat up weaponry. But as design objects, weapons are actually fascinating, I think. If one wants to talk about a “paradigm shift” object, well, tablet-style computers are interesting — but the Predator drone is mind-bending. Same thing with the recent emergence of malware as a weapon. (Maybe that’s not an object, but there is a form information design involved, I would say.) Anyway, the nuclear bomb is a particularly iconic weapon. Or maybe iconic is the wrong word, because it’s an object we hear about, but seldom see. I assume there must be quite a variety of shapes and sizes for nuclear weapons at this point (perhaps even the much-discussed ”dirty” nuclear bomb exists in prototypes?). Maybe this is a class of object that people would prefer not to think about, let alone look at. Still, this is my answer.
PA – Do you think that technology has improved our communication with things?
RW – This is a very hot topic right now, as you know — there’s a lot of speculation about an “Internet of Things” and what that will mean, whether Bruce Sterling’s idea of the fully communicative objects that he gave the name “spimes” will become a reality, or are becoming a reality right now. On the other hand I would point out that many of our objects are more opaque than ever. Computers and their various descendent devices are an example others have written about — they’re easier than ever to use, but most of us have no idea how they really work. (And that’s largely the result of design decisions, because ease-of-use sells.) I think the question to think about here is what do we want to know from, or about, things — and who will decide what information will be available and what will be obscured? I just did a column recently, wondering if any of my Apple devices might have come from the Foxconn factories where there was an unusual wave of suicides. There’s really no way of knowing for sure.
PA – Does instilling meaning in an object automatically up its financial value?
RW – In Significant Objects, our participating writers gave invented meaning to objects, and their financial value increased. But right in the middle of that project I happened to go to an estate sale, which is an interesting place to contemplate what it means to “instill” meaning in a thing: Clearly all this stuff had meaning to whoever had died and left it behind, but the financial value assigned to it by bidders was very low. Meaning comes and goes, and more often than not comes from us and our life stories.
PA – How do you think consumerism is changing because of limited financial and environmental resources? Do you see people wanting more narrative and background on what they buy—really weighing what they choose to spend money on, or have in their home?
RW – I’m conflicted about this. Part of me is very skeptical about all the trend stories that pick a few anecdotes and make a huge claim about how we’re changing. There is some evidence on this front, but it’s more selective — some people are cutting back more out of fear, or lack of choice, than a new ideology. Others are putting more emphasis on low price above all else, which is you know may not always lead to the most ecologically sound choices. And even for those who are rethinking in a real way, there’s still a long way to go.
But even as I say all that — one of my other side projects is actually called Unconsumption. The centerpiece of that is a Tumblr blog that I contribute to, with five or six other volunteers, trying to highlight upbeat and positive and useful examples of reusing and reducing, and just generally rethinking material culture. (We’re also working on a wiki, though that is coming more slowly.) This was a spinoff from a column I did a couple of years ago in which I essentially asked: Can get ridding of stuff feel as good as acquiring it?
PA – We are seeing a lot of nostalgic aesthetics mixed in with high tech as we research for TTM (like a digital camera outfitted to look like an old one, with real buttons to push, or an iPod case made out of an old walkman, etc.) what do you make of this “post-digital” aesthetic? Is it a shortcut for establishing meaning?
RW – I think that’s a pretty good way to summarize it actually. Sometimes these gestures are chalked up to “nostalgia” or described as “retro chic,” but I think that’s too simple. I did a column not long ago about digital technologies designed to mimic analog-era flaws — I more or less argued that imperfections imply character. It’s like buying pre-torn jeans, or a table that’s been “antiqued.” I don’t know if these things really establish meaning, but they at least suggest meaning. And that seems to be the point.
PA – Your column on the New York Times Magazine is the only bona fide design criticism column in our newspaper of record (yes, we know, they do not want to be called that way anymore but until they cover design better, I will use this term). And the NYT is not the only publication that is guilty of this neglect. Why don’t Americans consider design as important as art, dance, or literature?
RW – I don’t know that I would call what I do design criticism; design is one thing that comes up and that I enjoy thinking about. And I think people enjoy reading about it. I think design is frequently intertwined with commerce in a way that makes it seem different from ”the arts,” and that becomes a stumbling block: Should it be written about on the arts page or the business page? Or in a “shopping guide” in the lifestyle section? Etc. (Videogames have a similar problem.) Another problem, though, is that most design criticism seems to be written for an audience of other designers, and too often the agenda is sort of celebrating what (to me at least) has become a pretty predictable idea of “good design” is. I’m interested in “good design,” but I’m also interested in why things like the Snuggie or Crocs become popular. I think readers respond to that stuff too. That approach makes the column feel pretty far from the arts, but I think it’s one way to get at these subjects — by trying to engage an audience on its terms, not on the design world’s terms. Still, none of this quite answers the mystery. I think there’s actually quite a bit of very good design writing out there, and perhaps all it will take is a single breakthrough example of some media outlet cracking this code in a way that readers recognize as “design criticism,” and then it will quickly become an established category.