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September 28, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Why we love old things

In my wardrobe, there currently sit two coats. One of them—a sports coat—still smells a little of the man who was lucky enough to have owned it before me; a man who is almost certainly now dead. It was bought for me for what I believe to be significantly less than a movie ticket, even on a Tuesday. Upon putting it on for the first time, I found in its pocket a small newspaper clipping—one that describes, in Czech, how to tie a tie. Though I know perfectly well how to tie a tie, and would politely ask YouTube for help if I did not, that note remains in my coat pocket and still tickles what’s left of my romantic imagination whenever my hand brushes against it.

Next to that sits a fairly smart, fairly dusty black suit jacket purchased new only this year, and one that cost a good honest week’s wages. Occasionally it’s trotted out for things like job interviews, graduations, or awards ceremonies—and I expect it will be dragged out for any weddings or what not that I’m unfortunate enough to have to attend in the near future.

One of these is my favourite, and one would sit next to “the terrible amateur artwork we inherited from the tenants before us”, and “the toaster” in a list of “Things I’d rather not save, were there a fire”.

No amount of dry-cleaning, carpet-freshening, or beating-with-a-stick-in-a-river-situated-downstream-from-a-site-of-ritual-sacrifice has yet been able to completely remove the smell of that dead old man. Yet my attachment to old, useless things has currently had me accrue two non-functioning sewing machines, two sort-of-functioning typewriters, a half dozen pre-35mm cameras I can’t find film for, and more vinyl than I’ll ever bother actually playing.

I’m not about to defend or attempt to rationalise hoarding (for that is what it is). Inevitably, some of it will go next time I have to move flats. But having things is nice, and aware as we might be of our responsibility to stop getting more stuff, that’s often easier said than done.

Donald A. Norman—legend among psychologically-aware designers and hero among design-inclined psychologists—has a few choice words about things. He happily and helpfully breaks down the way in which we are affected by the stuff around us into three distinct phases.

Mixed metaphors

The first stage, and one that’s so important to any budding relationship, is that of the meeting. The first date, if you will. You arrive to the table just on time, and (discreetly) smell that subtly sweet aroma drift across the table. You (delicately) brush his smooth skin with your fingers as you wait for him to do his thing, and (delightfully) hear that satisfying POP–swish as he ejects your toast, the perfect temperature for your immediate consumption.

So far, it seems, you’re getting off to a great start in your new relationship.

And things go great—for a few months, at least. 

You move in together, and happily wake up to each other’s company every morning. You feed him bread, and he slowly but assuredly feeds you back toast whenever you feel a bit peckish. Sometimes though, he doesn’t want to get up; sometimes it takes a few goes before he’ll stay down without making a big hairy deal out of it. Sometimes he’ll be an absolute twat and burn your toast even though you were sure you set it to low because you’re late to work since your alarm didn’t go off and you only needed it slightly browned so the butter would melt because the fridge keeps getting too cold for no reason whatsoever. Maybe you can do better than him.

Things aren’t perfect—they never are—but, over time, you become accustomed to his quirks. In return, he stays quiet when you feed him bread straight from the freezer, as long as you hold the button down for a couple of seconds when you first press it. Sadly though, no relationship is forever, and all people must at some point say goodbye to their things.

It is a sad day indeed when you put him out on the footpath with the recycling, peeking through the curtains to make sure the rubbish men are careful with him—that he goes out with at least a little dignity. It takes you a week or so to really grieve: frozen bread is hardly an option, and there exists no shower short enough to stop a grill committing arson upon a couple of innocent slices of bread. Eventually you’re going to have to see new people.

Lust, mollification, and nostalgia

These stages three, Norman more sensibly tags the Visceral, Behavioural, and the Reflective. The initial is one of lust: the stage in which those smooth curves, that hard body, or the ability to broadcast Freeview and Teletext initially win you over. The behavioural is when you really get to know each other, whether for better or for worse. You find out living together isn’t nearly as hard as your mothers were worried it might be, and a bit of compromise never hurt anyone. Maybe you can’t push all his buttons—some of them you’re not ever sure what they do, and you’ve never been one for remotes anyway—but the basis of a solid relationship is formed. The reflective is where it all gets a bit more complicated.

Absurd metaphors aside, things that work well tend to stick around. The memories attached to an object that just does what it’s s’posed to tend to be good ones, and help that object earn a long-term position in a company of possessions. A well-trained vacuum cleaner can be disturbingly satisfying to use, and is unlikely to be left to think about what it’s done when you next move house.

Some things get something of a free ride when it comes to being associated with good times. A watch bought on holiday is unlikely to be binned long after its foreign, pentagonal batteries expire. A watch received from a long-lost Swiss summer sweetheart will be forever endowed with a level of saccharine reminiscence able to intimidate the suavest of suitors. Photos fit into an awkward category, being of the ultimate worth to those involved in the participation of their creation, whilst containing an innate ability to bore—harrowing to anyone unfortunate enough to have to sit through them explained and described.

Often, a thing might be kept due to its ability to impart a modicum of self-reflection upon its beholder.

A new diamond ring contains almost precisely nil sentimentality, and yet exerts from its wearer an aura of unbridled wealth, conscienceless greed, financial naïveté, and—to a few—attractiveness and envy.

If something is still yet to be binned a generation after it was originally conceived, it’s probably doing something right. Whether through its ability to generate or store positive memories, to display or represent some deliciously enviable quality, or to be in the right place at the right time, some objects have that certain je ne sais quois that keeps them out of the bin, and in our possession.

A certain word

There is a certain word, one I daren’t even type, that has about it an absolute air of abhorrence within design circles. That’s not to say it’s an unimportant word—only that every designer on this planet is sick to the teeth with it. This is unfortunately really, because it really was a very useful word. It had several synonyms, most of which started with ‘e’, though sometimes with ‘s’, and was very often associated with a hue commonly found loitering between what the Italians describe as blu and giallo.

What you should know is this: keeping things in your possession and making full use of their ability to perform their designated job is advantageous to not only yours and the thing’s life, but to those directly and indirectly associated with you and your being. This is important.

It is also very convenient, as nice things are a pleasure to hold on to. Make full use of this fact by only bringing into your possession things which you imagine yourself continuing to possess. It can be hard to guess which way a relationship is going to go—especially at its beginning—but for every toaster, teddy, or touch-screen telephone you ditch out of dissatisfaction, detachment, or dispensability, the tears of a designer drip disappointedly into his morning porridge.

I like your old stuff better than your new stuff

Liking old stuff is one thing, but what about ‘new’ old stuff? Objects with strong sentimental significance enjoy a free ride down family lines, and apart from the occasional guilt-ridden trip to pawn shops, carry with them memories of those long since passed—even if they weren’t someone we ever even met. There are, however, objects about us which display anything but any kind of historical lineage. 

Ross Stevens, senior lecturer at Victoria University’s School of Design, devoted an entire thesis to the subject, in which he discusses the wear of modern items, and the creation of a ‘contemporary history’ that we partake in forming in our use of everyday items. Common electronic appliances—cell phones, MP3 players, and the like—that wear in graceful ways (or at least should). 

The story an object may tell through a certain pattern of wear is written simply by its use. An object can mature and contain real physical evidence of its history by the way it rubs everyday in a pocket, is fingered in frustration whilst trying to phone a friend, or is accidentally polished smooth by habitual use. The patina formed is one tied to ownership and interdependence, and one pertinent to the contemporary design of everyday things. Cell phones might tell a shorter tale than the rotary variety, but it is an important tale no less.

The chase

Maxe Fisher, programme director of Culture+Context at Victoria’s School of Design, attempts to explain her love of things. It’s a love not without its downsides.

“Once a year, I go back to Canada, and look through these boxes and boxes of objects I’ve found in abandoned factories, but I just can’t throw anything out.

“There’s the history of our own thinking in those objects, it’s something about the hunting and the finding and the discovery of these objects—it’s something unique, and it’s mine, and no one would have it otherwise. New products don’t have that; you can’t find that in a store.”

The aging items that litter our lives enrich and surprise us in ways current stuff can’t, and won’t. Whether through revealing past naïveties and the forgotten ideals of times past, or the kind of craft and materiality we can only hope to witness in a contemporary context, old stuff has stories to tell.

Maybe I have gone and defended and attempted to rationalise hoarding (for that is what it is). Old things make archaeologists of the best of us, and I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. Some things really are worth lugging around in unopened boxes between flats, and some coats are worth smelling like a dead old man for.


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  1. Electrum Stardust says:

    ” All that is gold does not glitter,
    Not all those who wander are lost;
    The old that is strong does not wither,
    Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

    From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
    A light from the shadows shall spring;
    Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
    The crownless again shall be king. “

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