Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


The Meaning and Value of Things

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Lately, my husband and I are in the midst of furnishing our home. It's been a long process. One object picked up here, then another there. Taking inventory, you will find that most of the things in our home have actually been passed down to us from loved ones. I love it.

Our isn't the perfect Architectural Digest home with everything perfectly in place, but I find I take a lot of satisfaction in being among objects that were once in the possession of those I care about. That feeling of satisfaction is quite puzzling and I didn't really think much of it until I came across Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker's "Significant Objects" project.

“Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.” The pair write on their website. I can personally attest to the truth in that. Glenn and Walker have given us quantifiable proof that meaning can equate to monetary value. 

"Significant Objects" began as an online experiment. The pair took trivial objects, geegaws, knick knacks and asked writers to imagine stories for each of them. Object and story in hand, Glenn and Walker then listed each object and watched as eBay prices for each upped to more than 2,700 percent per object

Their experiment was astounding, but it points to a strange human compulsion to find meaning in the smallest of things, which can be both good and bad. Our ability to find meaning allows us to squeeze out each morsel of satisfaction from an object or experience, but it also makes us vulnerable to fabricated stories created with profit in mind.

The good news is, big businesses aren't the only ones able to tell a story, we are too. In "The Uncommon Life of Common Objects," author Akiko Busch does just that. She expertly chronicles why an everyday object takes the form that it does and how we unconsciously start building an emotional relationship to it.  "What I find interesting about design is the way people are emotionally engaged with the inanimate world," says Busch in a Metropolis interview.

While taking readers through an evolution of the lowly stroller from simple ambulatory device to mini-SUV-like mechanism, Busch sheds light on the human compulsions that influence an object's final form. (A mother's need to protect her child means the stroller has to be durable, but mom's need to be mobile also means the stroller has to be lightweight and maneuverable.) These are things us consumers hardly ever think about, but are nevertheless driving the design of objects. 

By opening our eyes to the role we play in consumption, Glenn, Walker and Busch, give us a much-needed reminder. That we don't have be sold on every story we are told. That we have a choice: to buy into a marketing tale as is or to weave our own possibly more satisfying stories from objects old and new.


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