The idea of the book, continued

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To go with the earlier book ring? (Thx: Susan C!)

The idea of the book, continued some more

A bit late on this, but over the weekend Virginia Heffernan’s column was a consideration of physical books by a professed ebook fan. Jumping from Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting,” which rhapsodizes about the the amassing even of books you never read, she writes:

If he says not reading books can be as sophisticated and European as reading them, I believe him, and I will try to think of my books as Sèvres china. But Sèvres china, if I had any, would be for display on its days off, wouldn’t it? So how do I display or otherwise admire all these books I keep buying for the Kindle?

Unpacking my Kindle library, I click “menu” on my screen and find . . . a list. First, the words “The Happiness Project,” the title of a book by Gretchen Rubin, in stout dark gray lettering, underscored by a lighter, less stout line.

This might be depressing. I can’t tell if I’m supposed to consider this underlined title to be the “book” I ordered from Amazon. Maybe it’s more like a catalog listing. If I click on it, I’ll get to the words in the book. Maybe it’s analogous to a book’s spine.

I want to rhapsodize, as Benjamin does, when he remembers the tactics he employed to acquire the book “Fragmente aus dem Nachlass eines jungen Physikers” (Johann Wilhelm Ritter, 1810) after a Berlin auction. But the only memory I have of purchasing “The Happiness Project” is no memory at all….

Read the rest here. It’s interesting. See also if you missed it the Murketing post on book spines as wallpaper, here.

On a slightly related note, I offered some examples a while back of artists and designers making things out of books in a post on Significant Objects. Two more examples here:  the one above by Paul Octavious, via SwissMiss, and the other by Matej Kren, below, via Book Of Joe.

Pictures of stuff, cont’d: Wearable, gendered edition

Here we have pictures (okay, drawings) of stuff as a design motif. What does this stuff communicate? Sociological Images, from which I have stolen this image, comments: “Just a reminder: being a girl means wearing pink and thematically attiring yourself in cooking and baking implements!”

Clutter, objects, joy

Click the pic to see more on Design*Sponge

When Unhappy Hipsters started making the rounds, I linked to it from the Consumed Facebook page, where Braulio alerted me (thanks again) to this Psychology Today column by Ingrid Fetell, asking: “Are there elements of modern design that inherently make us feel gloomy?” Her answer is that, in fact, there might be.

Modern design was born out of a desire to leave behind the ornamentation and excesses of 19th century Europe. In essence, it’s a stripped back, pared down style of design, favoring clean, often angular lines, neutral colors in tones of gray and beige, bare materials, and a general sense of spareness and minimalism….

She’s generalizing, of course, and at first that doesn’t sound so bad. But then she notes research on emotional responses to color, and angular vs. curved forms. The short summary would be that many of the tropes of “modern” design are at odds with good vibes. “I think,” she writes, “that modernism’s restrained quality is fundamentally in tension with the idea of delight. Delight is an emotion of abundance — a celebration of sensation and richness. Delight and joy are primally connected to wellness, and wellness in nature is lush, plump, vibrant, and bountiful.” (Fetell also has a project/blog called Aesthetics of Joy, here.)

I am somewhat cautious about that connection between delight and abundance. Buying into that idea full-on would be emotionally catastrophic — I mean, maybe those “hipsters” are unhappy, but watch an episode of Hoarders and decide for yourself how delightful that abundance seems.

But on some level I think Fetell has a point. Just yesterday I was browsing Design*Sponge and I was struck by the “sneak peek” pictures of Michael Quinn’s apartment. (Two examples, above and below.) I wrote here earlier about how much I enjoy D*S’s “sneak peek” series pictures: “They’re interesting because they’re so unlike the spare and clinical interiors often featured in more mainstream Design Think contexts, such as certain shelter magazines (not to mention catalogs) and the like, where the decor is always minimal, and there’s no clutter beyond one or two art books.”

Misgivings aside, then, I’d still rather look at these pictures than what I see celebrated in most sharp-and-clean-focused “good design” sources.

The combination of Fetell’s piece and these D*S images actually brought to mind a number of topics I’ve pondered here in the past — the visual jumble of MySpace, the more recent post about groups of stuff, and of course the significance of otherwise-oddball-seeming-objects.

What do you think? Is clean, spare design a bummer? Is the notion of clutter-abundance delightful — or a rationale that dead ends unpleasantly?

Click the pic to see more on Design*Sponge

Significant Objects, v3

As some of you know, we’ve launched Significant Objects — Volume 3. This series of objects/stories/auctions raises money for Girls Write Now, which is a great organization.

This week we’ve published stories by Jennifer Weiner, Padgett Powell, David Levine, and Charles Baxter (and tomorrow Jim Hanas). Much, much more to come, including many team-ups and special events.

Please check it out and help us spread the word.


Pictures of Stuff

Over at Significant Objects, Joshua Glenn highlights the above image, a movie poster, evidence of a possible S.O. meme. I can’t comment on that, but the image did strike an odd chord, reminding me in different ways of other recent object imagery I’ve encountered. These images are all very distinct in their approach (the sorts of objects, the number, etc.), but to my eye at least there’s some visual similarity despite that. See below.

Click any image for more information.

On, Fritz Fabert's Archealogy of Work series.

The first image from Lisa Congdon's A Collection A Day project.

An image from Adam Voorhees' "Exploded" series

Also, I suppose, many of the images in the Flickr What’s In Your Bag pool.

“Significant” Advertising

Those of you who know about the Significant Objects project but who haven’t checked it out lately may be interested in a batch of recent posts over there, in which I show off the creations of a SCAD advertising class that made ads for Significant Objects. I’ve noted before that some observers of the project see parallels between S.O. and advertising, so I thought this would be a pretty cool exercise, and I’m really pleased with the results. Fun.

Imaginary (and signficant?) branding

[This is a slightly tweaked cross-post from]

Here’s yet another twist on adding an invented narrative to a seemingly low-value thingamabob:

Designer Matt Brown bought a pack of 15 plastic horses for a couple of bucks. Then he dreamed up a name for each one, then packaging, reconceptualizing his two-dollar purchase as a line of toys, Night Horses, that were introduced in the late 1980s, and flopped.

Hey, remember Night Horses? (No, you don't.)

I love it!

More recently Brown has embarked on another project, turning some toy cars into another failed product line. They’ll be retroactively rebranded as Throttle Dukes. More here.

Throttle Dukes, to be.

Is this more evidence of the “significant objects meme” that my Significant Objects colleague Joshua Glenn has detected? I don’t know.

I like taking things that are basically worthless and neglected and turning them into something that people could enjoy again,” Brown writes. Combine that with my longstanding interest in imaginary brands, and you can see why I’m so into it.

(Via Metafilter, where Brown was referred to as a “design fiction enthusiast.”)

Is this the most significant Significant Object yet?

Well, is it?

The Significant Objects project has conclusively demonstrated that narrative adds measurable value to objects.

What does this imply about the objects themselves, and whoever created and produced them? Something I hear often from assorted gurus on design, marketing, and the like, is that consumers value the story of an object in the sense of knowing how that object was made, or designed. Did a recognized Design Genius dream it up? Is there footage of the whiteboard meetings where the genius insight was arrived at? Or: Was the object crafted by hand? Perhaps knowing more about the crafter’s skill-acquisition history, or personal ideology, adds valuable narrative.

Yet the Significant Objects project added measurable value even while explicitly ignoring such matters. Every Significant Object carries two narratives, but neither has anything to do with the kinds of stories just suggested. Instead there is the narrative invented by the writer who has agreed to create a story about whatever doodad is for sale; and, in addition, there is the story of the project itself. Probably both of these narratives add value to some extent, with specifics varying from buyer to buyer. But while most of the objects sold over the course of the project have been mass-produced, the intent of whoever designed them, whoever marketed them, and why, and how, is flagrantly disregarded, replaced with pure fiction. Arguably, Significant Objects obliterates designer/producer intent.

Still, whatever the fate of that intent, its results remain in the form of thing itself. Clearly some item sold by Significant Objects have been more intrinsically appealing than others, and it must be conceded that however much our writers’ stories increased the value of an object in the open market, the aesthetics of the object must figure in somehow.

Which brings me to a recent Significant Object: the Mystery Object, with story by Ben Greenman. In this instance, not only is the designer’s intent ignored, not only is the material backstory disregarded, the object itself is not present.

What we have is Ben Greenman’s narrative about the object, and perhaps the narrative of Significant Objects as a project — to which the addition of a non-present object of course adds yet another pleasing plot twist. By eliminating the object itself from the equation until after the bidding has concluded, this auction sells invented Significance in its purest, most uncut form yet.

In a sense, this makes the Mystery Object unique even among the project’s already-singular series of offerings; as a result, it may be the most valuable object yet, not despite its absence from the scene until the moment that value is determined, but because of that absence. Who wouldn‘t want to own such a thing — whatever it is?

Bidding stands at $28.50.

UPDATE: It sold for $103.50. That’s pretty Significant, don’t you agree? Details here.

Design, overdesign, and million-year-old tools

While the use of tools by animals is unusual, Neil MacGregor points out in the second episode of A History of The World in 100 Objects, it’s not unique to humans: apes use objects, too, for example. The difference is that humans “make tools before we need them” and, more to the point, “we keep them,” for repeated use. The 1.8-million-year-old Olduvai chopping tool, then, suggests the dawning of a “relationship between humans and the things they create which is both a love affair, and a dependency. From this point on, we can’t survive without the things we make.”

In this instance, the chopping tool could be used to get at the meat and marrow of an animal that the actual predator who killed it (a lion, say) couldn’t. So here we have the birth of use-value — and, perhaps, the birth of design. This chopping tool shows humans becoming “distinctly smarter,” and considering “how to make things better,” MacGregor says. Interestingly, though, he also maintains that instead of the half-dozen or more chippings that sharpened this rock into a tool, the job could have been done in maybe two chippings: “Those chips tell us that right from the beginning, we, unlike other animals, have wanted to make things more complicated than they need to be.” Evidently, then, the dawn of design coincides with the dawn of … overdesign.

This notion comes up again in the series’ third episode, concerning another discovery from Tanzania’s Olduvai gorge: a handaxe. This is believed to be 1.2 million years old, and reflects a good deal more skill, forethought, and imagination on the part of its maker – the sort of “focused, planned creativity,” as MacGregor puts it, that marks modern humans.

James Dyson, however, is not impressed. Read more

Object that sells itself

For sale right now on eBay: “A Tool To Deceive And Slaughter,” described as “a work of art … which consists of a black box that places itself for sale on the auction website ‘eBay’ (the “Auction Venue”) every seven (7) days. The Artwork consists of the combination of the black box or cube, the electronics contained therein, and the concept that such a physical object ‘sells itself’ every week.” The artist is Caleb Larsen.

Before you bid, you have to agree to terms (see the listing) which basically boil down to the imperative that you must let the object go back on sale on eBay, a week after your winning bid. If it sells for more than you paid for it, you pay the artist a 15% commission on your profit. If it doesn’t sell, you can keep it — but it will try again in a week. Basically you can the thing for as long as it doesn’t appreciate in value. (“Any failure to follow these terms without prior consent of Artist will forfeit the status of the Artwork as a legitimate work of art. The item will no longer be considered a genuine work by the Artist and any value associated with it will be reduced to its value as a material object and not a work of art.”)

Bidding is currently at $4,250.00.

(I learned of this via Metafilter. Reading deep into the comments I find that played an indirect role in the realization of Stephanie Syjuco’s “Temporal Aggregate / Social Configuration (Borrowed Beuys)” piece, which involved recreating a Beuys sculpture with objects she borrowed; evidently one of her lenders read about it here — resulting in a very, very rare moment when I sort of maybe think this site is worthwhile.)

The Birth of Want

The BBC radio series, A History of The World in 100 Objects has gotten underway, and I’m really into it. It’s written and hosted by the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. Each episode lasts about 15 minutes, and the first one makes a brief case for history-via-objects by considering the Mummy of Hornedjitef, from the 3rd century B.C., described as “one of the most impressive mummy cases” in the British Museum. Like other objects this one sends the sort of “signals from the past” that things can carry. Since it arrived at the museum in 1835, scholars have translated the hieroglyphics and learned about the society the object came from, studied the charms and amulets entombed with the deceased to deduce that society’s beliefs about journeys of the afterlife, and examined its physical makeup to extrapolate the trading networks of the age. Such objects keep sending new signals, as scholars figure out how to receive them.

In the second episode MacGregor dials us back to the beginning of his story: a 1.8 million-year-old “stone chopping tool” found in Olduvai Gorge, in Tanzania (by a Ricahrd Leakey expedition, under the auspices of the British Museum). Discovered next to bones, the chopping tool seems to have been shaped to strip meat and break into the bones of killed wildebeests and the like. “A very, very versatile kitchen implement,”  MacGregor offers.

Although the series is explicit in telling the story of human history by way of things humans have made, I think a history of humanity told via objects ought to start with the Makapansgat Pebble (below). As you can see, it looks like a face. It was found in what is now South Africa, and is estimated to be about 3 million years old. What’s significant about it is that the experts believe, based on the makeup of the pebble, that the spot where they found it, among ancient bones and whatnot, indicate that some hominid/human ancestor carried the thing several miles, which would make it the oldest known manuport.

Makapansgat Pebble

Why was carried away from its place of origin? Well, obviously we don’t know the precise answer, but clearly it’s not a matter of use-value: The pebble is not functional, it’s not a tool. I once heard Mia Fineman, a Met curator and writer, give a talk in which she brought up the Makapansgat Pebble in the context of pareidolia. Pareidolia basically involves spotting patterns that are basically random and attributing meaning to them — like seeing the Virgin Mary’s face in a grilled-cheese sandwich. Possibly the proto-human believed that there was something supernatural about a pebble that looked like a person. Read more

S.O. cross-post: Upcycling with words

[ NOTE: This is a retroactive cross-post from That is to say, I wrote it for that site, with a view to making a point about how our project is a form of upcycling — but because it’s done with words, not by physically altering low-value objects, we get no “green” cred from the people who are in charge of doling out said cred. I partly made the point by noting that art that involved destroying (presumably unwanted) books gets props by converting these vessels for words into raw material; meanwhile, actual words don’t get the same respect. That was sort of my point, anyway. Since then, since I’ve been doing the books: the idea series, and this stuff relates to it, I’ve retroactively ported a cross-post over here, giving it the same date that it appeared on S.O. I hope that’s okay! ]

By Brian Dettmer

By Brian Dettmer

Significant Objects has many obvious virtues — but is it eco-friendly, too?

In the early days of trying to drum up traffic, I brought our project to the attention of several eco-blog types. Why? Because we figured that in converting near-worthless thrift-store junk into valuable and meaningful objects, our project was in effect upcycling with words.

By Jacqueline Rush Lee

By Jacqueline Rush Lee

I guess I did a bad job making this case, because none of the eco-bloggers bit, and it beats me why that is. Okay, so we’re not converting metric tons of spent plastic water bottles into hip t-shirts or somesuch. But surely if a sculptor incorporated some of the very same doodads you’re used to seeing on this site into a physical work of art and displayed it in a gallery, anybody would recognize that action as redeeming a bit of borderline junk with no particular use-value. Aren’t our writers doing the same?

Probably as a result of this I’ve been interested lately in examples of upcycled art and design that uses one specific form of object as its base material: the book.

By Jim Rosenau

By Jim Rosenau

This rather astounding roundup at Dark Roasted Blend (which I used to find the images for this post; click on any picture to go to the artist’s site) will provide you every example you need of books converted into pure objects; whatever words they contain hardly matter.

But I’m not here to rattle on about the special-ness of physical books and whatnot, as there are plenty of people around doing that already. And besides, a lot of these book-repurposings are pretty cool. I respect the artistry and craft involved. Speaking of artistry and craft, what I am here to do is say it loud and proud: The writers who’ve been participating in the Significant Objects project are also deploying their artistry and craft in a way that redeems borderline junk with no particular use-value. Read more

Bad taste?


I only recently got hip to the Museum of Things, in Berlin. I’d heard of it, but a chance encounter with Garth Johnson, an incredibly nice (and smart) guy, included him really setting me straight on the Museum of Things, and the fact that I really need to go.

But while I wait for the checks to materialize that will make it possible for me to travel to Berlin, I’ve at least been able to check out the site. And then I saw this Core77 item with the above image.

from the “Bad Taste Exhibition” at the Museum of Things in Berlin. 100 years ago, Gustav E. Pazaurek started a so called “Cabinet of Bad Taste” featuring the worst of the worst items ever made. The Museum of Things recently decided to give new life to Pazaurek’s historical and extremely complex efforts in documenting material mistakes, design mistakes, decorative mistakes and pure kitsch. Aart van Bezooyen brings us this great (and terrible!) gallery of over a century of bad taste!

But wait — look at those things. Bad taste? Those look like Significant Objects to me! Couldn’t any of them, or other similar objects in the MoT’s collection, be turned into valuable signifiers of very discriminating taste? I think so. Even this one. (Um, NSFW? Sorry.)

Significant Objects V.2

As some of you may know, Joshua Glenn and I recently launched Significant Objects, Volume 2.

In this sequel to our much-discussed experimental inquiry into the relationship between narrative and value, we plan to publish 50 stories (and auction off 50 objects) with proceeds at the end going in what we hope is an impressive lump sum to 826 National, a nonprofit that tutors students age 6-18 in creative and expository writing. Bid early and often to support this excellent cause!

We’re signing up contributors and editing stories — so visit the site, now and in the weeks ahead (or sign for the email, or do the Facebook thing or the Twitter thing), for stories about thrift-store objects  from Bob Powers, Amy Fusselman, Debbie Millman, Douglas Wolk, Barbara Bogaev, and many more. We’ll also be publishing stories by some of the finalists from our Slate contest, plus a few favorite contributors from Volume 1 will be back for an encore.

And check this out: For our first story, contributor Neil LaBute has made a very cool offer. Not only will the winning bidder get the Significant Object + story — that generous and tasteful individual will also receive a copy of the story hand-written by LaBute!

Even if you don’t bid we really need your help spreading the word. Tell friends, tell strangers, blog about it, tweet about it, link it up. Let’s make this fund-raiser version of the project a success! Thanks.

Oh, and we’re selling mugs. Get yours here.


We better not find one of these in a thrift store any time soon.