For this week, I am sharing a few of my favorite books on design with a focus on the unseen, ordinary, and quietly transformational. From poetic aesthetics to detailed narratives on unassuming things, this category of book is my favorite.
If you missed last week, check out my book recommendations on design processes.
The Beauty of Everyday Things
I stumbled upon this book completely by chance while I was waiting for a friend who was running late. I love how I found this little unassuming book by chance when I decided to pass the time browsing a local bookshop. I quickly consumed this first 15 pages before spontaneously deciding to buy it. What initially struck me was the description for the need of folk craft and beautiful descriptions of the ordinary, useful, and everyday.
“Folk craft objects in this sense have two principal features. One is that they are things made for daily use. Second is that they are common, ordinary things. Conversely, they are neither expensive nor produced in small numbers. Their creators are not famous artists but anonymous artisans. They are not made for viewing pleasure but for daily use. In other words, they are objects indispensable to the daily life of ordinary people, that are used in commonplace settings, that are produced in large numbers, and that are inexpensive. Thus, among the various types of handicrafts, broadly speaking, folk crafts are those crafts that are deeply embedded in the life of ordinary people” (4)
“If life and beauty are treated as belonging to different realms, our aesthetic sensibilities will gradually wither and decline. I earnestly believe that in order for beauty to prosper in this world, and in order for use to gain a deeper appreciation of beauty, it is necessary for the utilitarian to also be the beautiful.“(12)
“But no one is ever praised for being a good walker, and no one takes special pride in doing so….No matter how good or bad an artisan’s workmanship might be, the product is true folk art when it is made in this unconscious, natural manner.” (21)
“Likewise, when one becomes too familiar with a sight, one loses the ability to truly see it. Habit robs us of the power to perceive anew, much less the power to be moved. Thus it has taken us all these years, all these ages, to detect the beauty in common objects. We cannot be entirely faulted for this failure, however, for we didn’t possess the proper distance from these objects to see them for what they were; we were too taken up in simply living among them, too busy in creating them. Conscious appreciation requires a historical hiatus, an interval in time for looking back. History is a record of the past; critical evaluation is retrospection” (33)
“In them one can almost feel a sense of satisfaction as they greet each day with a smile. They work thoughtlessly and unselfishly, carrying out effortlessly and inconspicuously whatever duty comes their way. They possess a genuine, unmovable beauty.” (36)
“Thousands of times, tens of thousands of times, it is this repetition that frees their hands from thought. It is this freedom that is the mother of all creation. When I see them at work in this way, I am astonished beyond words. They have complete faith in the power of their hands. There is not a smidgen of doubt. The free flow of the brush, the dynamic formation of the shape, the natural unshackled aura…Their hands appear no longer to be their own but under the sway of some external force. This is the secret of their craft. It’s beauty is the necessary result of mass production” (43)
“Consequently, to improve our way of seeing, we must train ourselves to excise all constraints and constrictions on its proper functioning. This is much like religious training or other types of self education. Once that is done, beauty will no longer hide behind a veil” (283)
This book is a collection of essays and papers from various artists on objects in contemporary art. While it was a difficult and dense read, there were many nuggets of thought throughout. Without this book, I wouldn’t have absorbed questions about the relationship of objects to subjects, the internalization of definitions, the autonomy and agency of objects, and the irreducibility of ‘thingness.’ I don’t have a single takeaway from this book. Rather, an array of reframed ideas and intriguing topics that I want to continue exploring.
"Heidegger describes the thing as assertive of its independence, its presence as well as nearness. Objects, on the other hand, are everywhere in equal measure, neither near nor far...The world of objects, however ordinary is a trove of disguises, concealments, subterfuges, provocations and triggers that no singular, embodied and knowledgable subject can exhaust. This is precisely why artists have a say in any discussion of the object's plurivocality, since the artwork is a prime example of the object's capacity to evade the knowing grasp (16)."
"Because a thing is usually not a shiny new Boeing taking off on its virgin flight. Rather, it might be its wreck, painstakingly pierced together from scrap inside a hangar after its unexpected nosedive into catastrophe. A thing is the ruin of a house in Gaza. A film reel lost or destroyed in civil war. A female body tied up with ropes, fixed in obscene positions. Things condense power and violence. Just as a thing accumulates productive forces and desires, so does it also accumulate destruction and decay." (48) - Hito Steyerl, A Thing Like You and Me
"These actions may constitute enunciation, a parallel to the construction of a verbal sentence, transposed to the material text. These momentary expressions, like the joke, pun, and apposite phrase, elude transcription and only conventionally enter vocabulary as they congeal into cliche. Coat hangers used as car aerials might be a good example. It would be foolish to prose a formal grammar of things." (96)
"As for me, I produce awkward object. This absurd and convulsive mania proves the existence of an unknown, secret glad, necessary for life. Yes, this mania can be reduced to a single gesture within the reach of us all. But this gesture is sufficient unto itself, it is the confirmation of our human presence." (210)
What could be so interesting about rust? I read this book in my last semester of college for a sculpture class on objects. This Bloomsbury series of books is described as “a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” This book in particular, is about rust. My favorite parts of this book dive into how rust is uniquely American; shamelessly displayed everywhere whereas Europeans tend to cover their rust. I am glad that I read this book before I left Pittsburgh; a place steeped in literal rustic history. While a common perspective is to think that rust is useless and a nuance that one needs to take care of, this book fantastically reframes the scientific oxidation process as a poignant narration of manufacturing culture as well as made, living, and decaying things.
“I still wonder why rust is more on display in North America than in Europe or Japan. Are Europeans or Japanese so ashamed of rust that they cover it up quickly and paint it gaudy colors? Nevertheless rust is more prevalent in the US than in Europe” (9).
“To understand rust better, one should immerse oneself in it, thus becoming rust, as it were” (29).
“The distinguishing feature of iron is that iron is not stable enough to be identical with itself.”
“We may say that iron rusted is living; but when pure or polished dead” (51).
“Sabi carries not only the meaning ‘aged’ in the sense of “ripe with experience and insistent’ as well as ‘infused with the patina that lends old things their beauty,’ but also that of tranquility, aloneness, deep solitude” (99).
“In Western culture we’re always striving to see how close the hand can get to the precision of the machine, but once you create something immaculate, where do you go from there? Imperfection, on the other hand, has no limits” (101).
This little 100 page book is also a part of the Bloomsbury series on objects and was one of my favorite books this whole year. From the phenomena of seizing tons of counterfeit Eiffel Tower souvenirs, to the practice of collecting objects, this book examines these ‘useless’ objects. I’ve always been taught in design that things must be functional; everything has to fulfill an unmet need. Yet, this book dives into objects that fulfill a different type of need; the need to actualize oneself in the world through objects and physical matter. The book also dives into the dark side of objects; the way objects and souvenirs have rendered the humanity out of people. The way that objects tell stories more about ourselves than they do about themselves. This book changed how I think about the objects that I collect in my life, why I do so, and the role they play in narrating myself in the world.
In her essay collection On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, literary critic Susan Stewart characterizes the mementos of death as "anti-souvenirs": "They mark the horrible transformation of meaning into materiality more than they mark, as other souvenirs do, the transformation of materiality into meaning. If the function of the souvenir proper is to create a continuous and personal narrative of the past, the function of such souvenir of death is to disrupt and disclaim that continuity. Souvenirs of the mortal body are not so much a nostalgic celebration of the past as they are an erasure of the significance of history (69).
Indeed, the process of collecting personal souvenirs invariably serves what sociologist Ning Wang calls "existential authenticity" - a sense that the object reflects a more genuine sense of selfhood in the person who acquired it. "Tourists are not merely searching for authenticity of the Other," Wang notes. "They also search for the authenticity of and between, themselves... In such a liminal experience people feel they themselves are much more authentic and more freely self-expressed than in everyday life, not because they find the toured objects are authentic but simply because they are engaging in non-ordinary activities, free from the constraints of the daily…Existential authenticity is underscored by the fact that, as travelers, we are by definition itinerant outsiders —strangers in strange lands—who don't possess the experience or knowledge to objectively evaluate the things we see along the way. When we collect souvenirs, we do so not to evaluate the world, but to narrate the self (94).
Most of these objects are unremarkable in and of themselves (and, in the case of pebbles and hotel soaps, they were even less remarkable in their original contexts); what gives them significance is the fact that they've ended up here together, in what amounts to a kind of collage-autobiography. Everyone who collects souvenirs ends up creating these object-narratives, which resonate with private meanings no written autobiography could ever achieve. When astronaut Neil Armstrong died in 2012, for instance, his estate executors discovered that he'd saved a few workaday items—an emergency wrench, a waist tether, a mirror—as souvenirs from his 1969 moon landing. For all that was written about the Apollo 11 mission, these simple objects suggest a story that only Armstrong could appreciate at an intuitive-emotional level (104).
As sophisticated as Armstrong's moon mission was, his desire to keep these items as souvenirs was rooted in a universal impulse to go back to childhood. Nobody sits down and tells us to collect objects when we're young; it's just something we do, as a way of familiarizing ourselves with the world, its possibilities, and our place in it. And while adults typically see souvenirs as a way of preserving lived experience, children seek and keep objects for more fundamental reasons. "The behavior of children as young as toddlers shows that possessions are not just utilitarian devices," notes scholar Stacey Menzel Baker. "In general, possessions provide the child with an emerging sense of control and self-effectance over his or her environment." As children grow older, the keepsakes they collect don't just give them a feeling of stability; they help create and interpret a sense of self. Even as adults, the private mythologies we attach to souvenirs are a way of mythologizing our own lives. Like Proustian Madelines, these objects invoke a personalized sense of the past self—a universe of "lost time"—that can be felt in the present moment (104-105).
Souvenirs and similar mementos thus find their power in the way the object itself, like a broken-off chunk of bygone time, can trigger subjective reveries of distance places, people, and events. In this way souvenirs are like a similar visual keepsake, the photography. Unlike the memories called forth by photos, however, souvenir memories are more associational, less visually specific, more unique to the object's owner, and more likely to transform over time. Often this means that the importance of a given souvenir will wax and wane—telling slightly difference stories, in slightly different voices—in tandem with the self—perception and worldview of its owner (105).
Looking at those items, I was struck by how much of what we collect in life ultimately becomes depleted of meaning: without any sense for the memories or desires that led Lynda to to save these keepsakes, they felt like a sorrowful menagerie of lost objects. I ended up taking a small alabaster elephant, which I now keep perched on a coffee table in my living room (108)
The World In A Grain: The Story of Sand and How it Transformed Civilization
This fascinating book illuminates how we all rely on an overlooked material: sand. It is the foundation of our cities, our concrete, our glass, our technology, and our science innovation. From phones to fracking (and our low gas prices), sand is a crucial ingredient that we are shockingly running out of. Spurred on by climate change, the pervasiveness of desert sand only stands to increase. Yet this type of desert sand grain remain unusable due to its shape. The valuable sand; beach and ocean sand, is running low, causing us to dredge it up from the ocean floor, exploit poorer countries to export their beaches, and even begin a black market for sand. This book unravels an immensely interconnected and unseen world built upon the simplest unassuming material: sand.
“After water and air, sand is the natural resource that we consume more than any other--even more than oil. Every concrete building and paved road on Earth, every computer screen and silicon chip, is made from sand. From Egypt's pyramids to the Hubble telescope, from the world's tallest skyscraper to the sidewalk below it, from Chartres' stained-glass windows to your iPhone, sand shelters us, empowers us, engages us, and inspires us. It's the ingredient that makes possible our cities, our science, our lives--and our future.”
“Concrete is an invention as transformative as fire or electricity. It has changed where and how billions of people live, work, and move around. Concrete is the skeleton of the modern world, the scaffold on which so much else is built. It gives us the power to dam enormous rivers, erect buildings of Olympian height, and travel to all but the remotest corners of the world with an ease that would astonish our ancestors. Measured by the number of lives it touches, concrete is easily the most important man-made material ever invented.”
“For decades, Broward County, in which Fort Lauderdale sits, solved its vanishing beach problem by replacing the sand swept off its shoreline with replacement troops dredged up from the nearby ocean floor. But by now virtually all of its accessible undersea sand has been used up. For that matter, the same goes for Miami Beach, Palm Beach, and many other beach-dependent Florida towns. Nearly half of the state’s beaches are officially designated as “critically eroding.” Nicole Sharp, Broward County’s natural resources administrator, summed it up: “We are running out of sand in Florida.”
“The beach thus began as a non-place, a void, and it has remained so ever since. From the start its emptiness, its artificial desertification, has been part of its appeal,” writes Gillis. “The appeal of the beach lies in the fact that it excludes all that is ‘workful.’ Its true relation to nature and history must always be concealed, for it functions in modern culture as a primary place of getting away, of oblivion and forgetting.”
I am realizing that I won’t be able to fit all my books in this one post so expect another post of my favorite books on the unseen, ordinary, and quietly transformational next week