Love Objects: Emotion, Design and Material Culture

This is a guest post from Sorcha O’Brien, (Kingston University) and Anna Moran (National College of Art and Design, Dublin). They talk about their book Love Objects: Emotion, Design and Material Culture.

Bringing together a range of material from design history, material culture, design practice and anthropology, Love Objects: Emotion, Design and Material Culture looks beyond the obvious symbols of love, to investigate the different ways that we relate to objects and use them, not just as ‘signifiers’, but as actors to help negotiate our relationships with others.

Love Objects visuals 6

Several of the essays touch on family relationships mediated by objects, but two in particular look at the practice of using objects to perform cathartic acts of remembrance. Christina Edwards’ essay is a meditation on how she took a collection of family photographs and reworked them in the darkroom after her parents’ death; she meditates on loss and grief, as well as the act of creating something new. Catherine Harper’s essay takes her memory of her grandmother’s quilt as a starting point. Through her own textile practice she makes a surprising discovery about how ideas and craft practices are transmitted through generations of women. Both of these essays recognise that it is not the objective quality or sophistication of the object that is important in creating a vessel for memory and inspiration, but their ability to prompt new considerations and revaluations of the past.

Christina Edwards, 'Material Memories' exhibition, School of Art, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, February 2008

Christina Edwards, ‘Material Memories’ exhibition, School of Art, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, February 2008.

The re-evaluation of the past is central to Jane Hattrick’s essay on her work with the archive house of London fashion designer Norman Hartnell. Her working relationship with the personal possessions painstakingly accumulated over a lifetime makes them much more than just the raw material of historical research. Bruce Davenport’s work on ‘magical touching’ is relevant here, although Hattrick’s  approach to both her material and her own reactions to them situates the discussion of sexuality and archival practice within a current debate in design history revolving around the role of the personal.

In contrast to this, Louise Purbrick’s essay grapples with the difficulties surrounding the object as gift, including the practice of shopping for gifts. Using material from a 1990s Mass Observation directive on Giving and Receiving Gifts, she considers the reactions of respondents to the perennial problem of purchasing gifts for other people, and the struggle to select and purchase objects that can remain with the gifted as meaningful objects. The role of objects in carrying memory can become a burden, some gifts straining under the expectation that the object will be kept, loved and treasured.

This sense of embodied memory as a negative emotion also emerges from Adam Drazin’s essay on Romanian émigrés in Dublin, many of whom curtail their lifestyle to save for objects which they send home in preparation for a possibly mythical return, sometime in the future. It is particularly noticeable in his discussion of Carmen’s watch, which she hung beside the door of her spartan bedsit to act as a stark reminder of money spent unwisely in the past and a warning not to indulge in emotional connections.

Emma Whiting with Stain Sneakers, 2012.

Emma Whiting with Stain Sneakers, 2012. Courtesy of University of Brighton.

The capacity of objects to hold meaning is also addressed by Jonathan Chapman, whose work strongly emphasises the importance of designing emotionally durable objects. In his essay, he considers how people retain emotional connections with their possessions over time and how this can be incorporated into the design process. Chapman discusses Emma Whiting’s concept for Puma footwear, which celebrates the process of ageing and the ‘evolving narrative experience’ manifest in the objects’ patina. Looking to the future, Chapman argues for a sustainable alternative to ‘throw away’ culture, for a society in which people value the journey that an object has taken and the memories objects hold. Durability, Chapman argues, ‘is just as much about emotion, love, value and attachment, as it is fractured polymers, worn gaskets and blown circuitry’.


Things from radiolab

The American radio show radiolab have made this lovely programme, which starts with a piece about the conflict between the presenter Robert Krulwich, who touches an old object and instantly feels a connection to the past, and his wife, who definitely does not…

The Museum of Imaginative Knowledge

James Mansfield is an artist. One of his projects is the Museum of Imaginative Knowledge, he is not speaking at the conference but his work ties in with some of our themes. To find out more, read on.

How and why do we give value to objects? The Museum’s collection is very wide, covering the areas of local history, contemporary archaeology and classificatory art, but what unites it is finding a place for those things which do not meet the current cultural norms.

Harvard Jars

Thus there is the world’s largest one pence piece collection, and a series of jars filled with coloured water which date from before the First World War. Both (as does much of the Museum’s collections) come from the area around the English-Scottish border. And one thing which is of particular interest is the idea of memory value – that many objects have narratives which we often have no idea about.

Judley Hall

Much of my research so far has been at Judley Hall, a decaying country house in the Borderlands. In such places, there is often a breakdown of time and space which allows the accumulation of objects which might otherwise be ignored or discarded. With around 45 rooms, Judley Hall has been inhabited by the same family for nearly 300 years. While the tapestries, oil paintings and taxidermy have all been sold off, there remains what is best described as ‘heirloom detritus’. One  area of interest is the contents of drawers. This one pictured contains the remnants of the family’s map collection, as well as other assorted items. I am currently working on a detailed piece of analysis of this drawer and several others, which provide a microcosm of life in a country house in the late 20th century.

Drawer contents

In the Museum, whether it be in person or online, I aim to present to viewers a slightly different view of the world, and the relationships we have with objects, in what I hope is an enlightening and entertaining manner. I am, of course, always interested in discussing the themes mentioned above and would be keen to undertake some kind of sustained collaborative project in the near future.