The objects in my life: ‘useless stuff’ versus perfect things

Dürer. “Saint Jerome in his Study,” 1514.

1. Introduction: Objects, and being in the world

People sometimes say to me, you’re quite particular about… forks, say. Or notebooks, or wrapping paper, or of course, pens. I’d like to think they mean, say, tasteful, or perceptive, but I’ve learned, that’s generally not it. No, there’s some suspicion about appreciation and attentiveness to objects, beyond a point. Why is that?

We’re also told that objects aren’t the path to happiness, may often hinder it: as for example in the New York Times piece, “But Will It Make You Happy?” (August 7, 2010) that originally prompted me to write about this. The author notes, in summary, “people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects.” It cites the notion in psychology of “hedonic adaptation,” meaning that changes in circumstance, such as a new possession, tend to quickly stop affecting you.

However, conceding the point that our happiness may relate more to having strong relationships and good experiences — for some — I’d like to see the care for objects as something equally basic and valid, deep in our homo faber (tool-maker) natures. More particularly, I think of it in the tradition of moral/social/aesthetic reactions to industrialization: such as the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement, and its descendent Modernism and latter-day movements (“Maker,” etc.).


Bauhaus office of Walter Gropius, founder and director, in 1923.

In this Arts and Crafts vision, our lives are importantly, meaningfully, and continuously influenced by all parts of their material surroundings, including furniture, textiles, printed matter, implements, tools, and vehicles. “Vom Sofakissen zum Städtebau” (from sofa cushions to city-building) was the slogan of the Deutsche Werkbund, the German state-sponsored design trade association founded in 1907, out of which the Bauhaus school of design grew. Objects, in this tradition, aren’t lowly things, trappings of our lower natures; they are necessary instruments by which we can live richly, spiritually, and humanly.

Consider,by contrast, the NY Times article’s framing:

“One major finding is that spending money for an experience — concert tickets, French lessons, sushi-rolling classes, a hotel room in Monaco — produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on plain old stuff.”

I’d say, well maybe that’s because the stuff you’ve been buying has been plain and old, versus your fancy-pants, haute-couture French and sushi classes and Monaco hotels. How about the pleasure and deep meaning of being in well-made environments well suited to you, using well-made goods and tools?

As Web commentator & designer Jason Kottke remarked in “Upgrade Yourself” (10 Dec, 2008):

“My wife and I are ardent upgraders. I rarely buy anything anymore but the things I do buy are usually better versions of things I already have. As things break or wear out, we’ve been replacing them with items that are nicer to use/wear/whatever and will last a whole lot longer than the cheaper stuff”; “buying nice products that you’ll use for several years/decades is both a financial investment and an investment in your personal well-being,”

If you go through Kottke’s list, you notice that most of his objects are in fact closely related to basic experiences, particularly cooking, eating, and sleeping. See also the nice thread from 09 Dec 2008: “Upgrade Me,” which discusses the question “Can you suggest some replacements for standard, everyday household items that are far superior in terms of usefulness, luxuriousness and quality?”

In fact, the line between object and experience is quite blurred: is a vase, or a vase of flowers, an object or an experience? It depends what you do.

So, in defense of my own attachments — or lack of attachments, depending on how you look at it — I thought I’d survey some key objects in my life, their greatness or at least great aptness, starting from those physically closest to me and moving outwards. I will consider the question: useless, plain old stuff? Or beautiful augmentations of one’s life, the finding of right connection to the world? Possibly, a mixture.

François Fleury-Richard, "Montaigne and Tasso" (1821).

François Fleury-Richard, “Montaigne and Tasso” (1821).

I’ll consider this matter in a series of posts, examining all types of objects. If this catalog of my paraphernalia may seem inward-looking, well, as Thoreau said, I should not talk so much about my stuff if there were any other stuff that I knew as well. On the other hand there is Montaigne, retreating from professional life, at the same age as me in 1571, to his estate’s tower library to focus entirely on what became the Essais, who said, “These are my my fancies, in which I make no attempt to convey information about things, only about myself.” (“On Books“).

In the next episode: a disquisition on Pens.