In this paper I explore which objects within home environment have emotional significance and how important they are to provide the feeling of happiness in the context of prolonged economical stress, caused by world without excess of resources, shortly, survival. I use visual examples from work of recent graduates of Royal College of Arts and Middlesex University to describe existing routes of thought into this direction.
The first question I present, is ‘why and what objects found in homes of people are emotionally substantial?’ To answer that, I will mainly use research, data and conclusions from The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self (Csikszentmihaly, Rochberg-Halton 1981).
Following this I will bring on the conclusions made by scientists and designers about state of our civilization in terms of economy, wellbeing and future expectations. Consequently, I will question how findings in answers to the first question relate to the happiness of people living in the future world presented by the second question. To introduce existing visions related to happiness through objects in the future world I will explore visual examples from the work of recent graduates of RCA and Middlesex University.
‘Why and what objects found in homes of people are emotionally substantial?’
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly and Egene’s Rochberg-Halton book about meaning of things is based on ethnographical research carried through five years. Over three hundred people from 82 families were interviewed in their homes and asked to describe objects special to them. Resulting stories about objects that belong to their house-hold were sorted and data were extracted to describe generational as well as individual differences in the interaction with objects. This book also looks at how identity is expressed and influenced by objects in our homes. Meaning of Things describes identity as self-awareness, which “occurs when the self becomes the object of reflection. […] One could never attend to all feelings, memories and thoughts that constituate what one is; instead, we use representations that stand for the vast range of experiences that make up and shape the self’’ (Csikszentmihaly, Rochberg-Halton 1981:2-3). To feel special about some object is to feel that it is related to the essence of one’s being. Therefore it is essential to understand how identity is formed and what it relates to to understand the reasons of one’s attachment to certain objects. In stories told by people in The Meaning of Things special objects are mostly given as presents, inherited from family or chosen and bought. In modern society, when choosing one object out of many, one has to process vast amounts of information to select object that would fit into the landscape of one’s identity. As claimed in Lebergott’s Pursuing Happyness (1993), too many options waste away the happyness. It is illustrated through the example about Indian tribe and honey, where honey is welcomed rarity versus supermarkets in our culture offering variety of sweets for little effort: “such variety – so abundant, so available – destroys the sweet, maddening monopoly that honey enjoys in primitive economies” (Lebergott 1993:12-13). Additionally, Lebergott gives another observation which is relevant in understanding relations between economy of consumption (welfare), enjoying the self (identity), and object culture: “Our economic welfare is forever rising, but we are no happier as a result” (Lebergott 1993:14). It follows that happiness is little related to welfare and prosperity. Similar as identity is not largely beneficed by the quantity of consumables to choose from.
Generational differences are clearly defined in The Meaning of Things as preference of ‘action objects’ for children and ‘contemplation objects’ for adults and grandparents.
Action objects include Stereos and TV. In the eyes of children, also furniture (status objects) can play part as an action object. Contemplation objects mentioned most are photos and books. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that The Meaning of Things was published in 1981, when many of objects we use today, were not around for wide use. No mobile phones, no PC’s, no Playstations etc. However, given patterns and classifications given are providing good basis for speculation.
The age of consumption which began shortly after industrialisation, with the partly help of designers: “When the USA created the industrial designer it was with an eye to sales […]” (Sparke 1986:96), created welfare and was largely possible because of abundance of material resources which could be sourced from the Earth: “In this century the age of new materials belongs, therefore, to the period between the two world wars when, in spite of sustained economic pessimism, the optimism engendered by a belief in the future was fuelled by the new materials and the modern aesthetic that designers created for them” (Sparke 1986:138). According to many statistical sources, one of them being Vital Signs (2005 – 2006), and the another one The New Village Green (2007), forest loss continues dramatically, wetlands are drying up, mammals are in decline, CO2 amounts in atmosphere rise and global ice melting is accelerating. Also, the biggest user of world’s freshwater (according to WWF living planet report 2006) – agriculture – is starting to fail due to the weather-related disasters and depletion of soil. All the signs are showing that world has started to change and people will have to change with it. No longer can consumerism society maintain itself: “It is true that the world is beginning slowly to awaken to the idea that global warming may be a real problem […]. But very few understand with any real depth that a wave large enough to break civilization is forming, and that the only real question is whether we can do anything at all to weaken its force” (McKibben 2007:69). And it means that new culture of living and of objects is starting. What will it be like? Is it possible to determine how humans will live with it? How different will it be and how the transition will happen? Part of it is happening already, with slow food movement and eco-communes on one hand with famine and military conflicts on the other hand.
World’s population is continuing to grow in numbers and get older (Vital Signs 2005). Refering to Meaning of Things, contemplation objects such as photos will become more important. Also the high cost of energy will restrict mobility (The New Village Green 2007), which means the need for new ways to keep in contact with friends and relatives. As said in The World of Goods, “At almost any income level conflict can be seen between buying a new consumer durable […] and maintaining a given standart of information services, a conflict which […] will be settled by preferring information over technology” (Douglas, Isherwood 1979, 1996:133). Ben Arent, graduate of Middlesex University, proposes concept of new interface and product: “Jive is a range of 3 products that were designed to get elderly technophobes connected to their friends and family” (Arent 2008). (Fig.1) This project strives to adress usability issues elderly people are encountering. Those include arthritis and illnesses associated with weakening brain metabolism. The main interaction point is screen with attachable, moveable and detachable ‘frames’ of friends’ photos. Using tangible photo frames with photos and relating them to communication space creates new type of interface. Slots for holding frames restrict seeing the photo displayed when it is not in use. That choice could be related to design flaw or intentionally forced action of communication. Also the number of slots suggests that user will not probably have more than eleven close relatives and friends. The monitor part of the product has angular shape with pale white colour scheme that connotes conceptual phase of the design (as phased in by Droog design) or cleanness of medical equipment. The same can be said about ‘one plug router’ (Fig.2) and friend pass tag (Fig.1), which has transparent appearance similar to lab glassware.
A friend pass incorporates all the information about the friend or relative which is registered for it. Photo on it reminds of passport sized photography, one of the kinds that are possible to get in photo booths. It is also widely seen that adults and grandparents carry photos of dear relatives – children or grandchildren – in wallet, which in turn signifies link of the chosen format of photo to the existing rituals.
On the other hand, Ian Ferguson from Royal College of Arts, Design Products, is offering perspective on the enjoyable living in post-apocalyptic world. His project – Nouveau Neolithic, “allow us to cope with food and energy scarcity while preserving pleasure and dignity in our daily lives” (Ferguson 2008). The range includes Team Food Processing (Fig.3), which: “allows for puréeing and chopping foods. A large wooden pestle and metal mesh mortar are used to purée food, and an adjustable hopper and guillotine knife are used to slice, chop and dice” (Ferguson 2008). With quite programmatic names, these objects are solid and rough in overall appearance, but made with help of highly advanced manufacturing processes like laser-cutting. Untreated wood, used for the main body is probably chosen to connote ‘naturalness’ and associate with neolithic robustness as well as steel covering part, which connotes expensive range kitchenware. Most interesting part in the proposal of gourmet tools is the positive angle on collective collaboration:
They allow small groups to produce refined gourmet cuisine from simple staples and foraged foods, minimizing energy consumption by replacing electrical power with collective labour. The object of the project is to try and find strategies for using objects to promote positive social responses to a scenario where climate change and energy supply depletion has brought an end to cheap food imports and everything except the most basic of staple foods have moved out of reach of all but the super-rich.
Robustness and angularity as well as solidness of materials suggest the heaviness of the object, therefore it is clear that it takes more than one person to ‘power’ it.
As population grows older, the focus from desire for action objects will shift to contemplation objects. In the world where natural resources will be scarce, people will be the best resource for each other, thus tools for collaboration will be important. As for home environment, objects allowing individuals to access information and communication in the wider territorial range, which in itself promotes collaboration, will be the new status signifyers. Emotional attachment to objects thus will be strongly interconeected with one’s pride about its range of personal skills. Home periphery objects such as energy providing technology will be the utilitarian ‘must have’ to power the communication/collaboration tools. Reduced options of choice and noticeably less abundance of things will make object’s owner more satisfied of his choice and things that one aquieres, more valuable. They will have to last longer, therefor solid materials and upgradable products will be looked for.
List of images
Jive: photo. 2007 [online image] Available from
[Accessed 11 January 2016]
Jive. One Plug Router: photo. 2007 [online image] Available from
[Accessed 11 January 2016]
Nouveau Neolithic – range: photo. 2007 [online image] Available from
[Accessed 11 January 2016]
Arent, B. (2008) Jive’s mini-site [Internet] UK, Available from:
[Accessed on 1. February, 2009]
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Ferguson, I. (2008) description of Nouveau Neolithic [Internet] UK, Available from: <http://www.we-make-money-not-art.com/archives/rcashow/index.php?page=4>
[Accessed on 1. February, 2009]
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