Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful _ William Morris
We ditch things and devices that are too slow, out of date, obsolete.
Fashion that no longer fits, or looks good, we throw out – or pass on.
Household items that are broken or worn-out, we replace.
And yet, in almost every home, there are many useless things sitting in the corner, under the stairs, under the bed, in the roof-space or garage. They will occupy that space until ‘a decision’ is made about what to do with them. Or not.
Alongside the spanking new (and the not-so-new) how many homes still have CD’s, DVD’s and videos lurking in a drawer– with no device to play them? A tape cassette a floppy disk?
I have a box full of leads, chargers and attachments from laptops, kindles, mobiles and PC’s past. I also have a very fine collection of odd, single earrings.
Despite regular clear-outs all these things have avoided the cut – for now.
It is irrational to keep things I will never use, look at, notice or enjoy. But, it is also human. It’s who I am.
Perhaps it is part, procrastination, sentimentality and/or laziness. Or maybe deep down, for some reason, I still value these items.
Every thing has a circular sliding scale of desirability, usefulness and worth. From the brand new to the everyday things soon become out-dated, old-fashioned, old, obsolete, vintage and then antique.
My mother used to say: Keep a thing for seven years and you will always find a use for it.
A garment may start as high fashion but over time ends up as ‘fancy dress.’ Along the way it some become ‘classic vintage’: the ra-ra skirt, padded shoulders, Laura Ashley, hipsters, flares, drainpipes, zoom suits.
In fashion quality, distinctive and well-made garments endure because some styles always look good. And, there will always be people (younger and slimmer) for whom an old style is a totally new look.
Things I no longer wear I give to charity. But I still keep some of the good stuff – even though I will never wear them again. Some day I want to be able to give them to someone I know who will value them as much as I do.
There is tremendous satisfaction in being able to pass on pre-loved clothing, toys, books and furniture, knowing that it makes a difference to someone else and that it goes to a good home.
Things circulate first within families. They are borrowed, donated, passed on, pinched or left in a legacy. With valued goods – as opposed to valuable goods – there is always going to be some sort of backstory. There is much more to it than just the thing itself.
Product design is supposed to be about innovation and the new but, fighting back against contemporary digital outputs, we can see how vinyl records and hi-fi stereos have suddenly become fashionable, and highly prized.
Old-style toasters and kettles add a certain period ‘look’ to every home as well as to photoshoots. Some designs and styles have a certain panache, kudos and collectability. So much as that there are some people eschew modern looks and lifestyles and actively choose to dress, and live in homes decked out in a vintage period.
We all have our own personal sense of aesthetics. We know when something makes us feel good.
The Marie Kondo method of de-cluttering our homes suggests that we should only keep things that ‘spark joy’.
We should actively ‘choose’ what we want to keep: ‘ items that speak to your heart’.
It’s not about throwing things out, but rather that we should think more about what we are not ready to lose. If we choose to keep it, it must have some meaning for us. And so, every time we decide we need more space, or a tidier home, we have to decide does it still mean something to us – or not.
Much of what I have in my home is only there because I haven’t quite let it go.
And yet, while I love my home, I don’t ‘love’ everything in it. Not everything sparks ‘joy’. Not everything is beautiful or useful. If he came to visit, William Morris would not be best pleased.
As I sit at my desk I see a box of paper clips, pens, some CD roms…curtains given to me by my sister 22 years ago…a new-ish printer than doesn’t work well…a fold-up mattress for visitors….various computer hard drives… fixative for pastels …paintbrushes…wrapping paper for gifts.. hand cream…framed photos
Collectively, they can be viewed as: practical items, just-in case items, handy items, occasional use items, things I like to look at, things I just like to have, things I haven’t quite figured what do with – yet.
If my home went on fire, I would take none of these things.
I only have these things because I am lucky enough to have the stability of a home of my own.
If I lived in a temporary or rented home I would not have the option to have as many things around me as I do now.
On the book shelf there are books, books and more books – most of which I will never read again but can’t bear to throw out.
Many of these books still bring me joy: I like owning them and having them in my home. They spark memories that connect me to a different time and place in my life. They are an extension of my very widest interests ( Chinese embroidery, gardening, cultural anthropology, cookery books, myths and legends, philosophy, Irish writers, art and design).
Having access to all these thoughts, ideas and images gives me the opportunity to browse through what is a very personal, very broad and rich catchment of influences and knowledge. Yes, I could find it all on the web, but a book that I own, makes it a more intimate and special experience.
The justification – if it can even be called that – as to why I keep certain things and not others, is that it connects me to who I am and where I am in my life.
For me, something that sparks ‘joy’ has little do with what it actually looks like – or how useful it is.
In my roofspace I have two of my parents’ old camcorders.
I keep them because they are the only way I can view the suitcase-full of cassettes that lies under the bed. Even though I know I probably never will. The problem is: as we progress to new technology it becomes more difficult to access the content on old technology.
When we cleared our parents’ home we found their roof-space was full of use-less things. It was a virtual design museum of redundant products; products that were old, broken, dangerous, and slow.
We had to be decisive about what we wanted to keep and what had to go.
And yet, irrationally, I chose to keep an old, worn placemat featuring a view of London. The reason: because is deeply embedded in my earliest memory of family and home. As a child it made me think of this amazing, magical place called ‘London’. What would it be like to go there?
I still keep my childhood dressing dolls. They were my first introduction to fashion and somehow they still spark my imagination through a connection to my younger self. It’s a nice feeling.
There will come a time when I will have to downsize and most of these things will go.
I will be forced evaluate things differently and be ruthless about what I allow myself to keep. This is something we will all have to face.
In The New Yorker, the writer, Anne Patchett, describes her rationale for clearing her home of things accumulated over years of dwelling.
“I was starting to get rid of my possessions, at least the useless ones, because possessions stood between me and death.”
Confronting her everyday life, against a lifetime of owning, having, being given and keeping possessions she put herself in a mindset to look at things differently – recognising that things need to change.
“....I struggled to open a drawer with about thirty-five dish towels crammed inside. They were charming dish towels, many unused, patterned with images of dogs, birds, koala bears, the great state of Tennessee. I decided that ten would be plenty. I washed and folded them all, then took the excess down to the basement. I revelled in the ease with which the drawer now opened and shut.”
Expunging the unused and the use-less means the spaces of our everyday life can be more efficient.
We re-gain a sense of control. When a decision is made, and then executed, there is a sense of pride that the job is done.
According to Victor Pananek design is: ‘the conscious effort to impose meaningful order’.
He suggests that even clearing out a drawer is a process of design.
The first part of that process is about getting to grips with how we live – and with what. This helps us to reposition a sense of who we are. As a process of thinking, design implicitly helps us to be a tidier version of ourselves.
Like many of us, Anne Patchett wonders about her rationale for keeping things. By re-evaluating their presence, through more objective reasoning, she realises:
“I found little things that had become important over time for no reason other than that I’d kept them for so long.”
But these are not just random ‘things’.
She describes the small heart-wrenching moments of coming to terms with the fact that her grandmother’s trinkets had to go. The simple fact was that there was no-one else to whom these things meant anything.
The memory, and attachment, was hers alone.
As human beings, we can see that we express ourselves in different ways at different times of our lives. The world changes, and we change. We recognise – and allow ourselves – to behave irrationally.
In the event that someone (other than me) has to clear my house they will never look at what I own and what have as I do. Beyond sentiment, an objects’ value is only what someone is prepared to pay for it.
Perhaps there is someone who might find a use for it (charity shop, up-cycling); or make money from it (ebay, auction, car-boot sale). I like to think family members may keep some of my things, to remind them of me. But, it is likely most of it will dumped and go to landfill.
In the end, it’s just stuff.
I don’t ‘think’ about every object each time I use it.
I expect things in my home to be where I need them, when I need them – even if I have to go looking to find them. Each object’s presence is subsumed into what makes my household my home.
Until such time as it doesn’t work.
Buying any kind of new tech inevitably involves a round of research: comparisons, availability, asking other people what they have, checking reviews, narrowing down choices by price, colour, style, size.
As tech advances we get more options, gadgetry, speeds, programmes, systems all of which makes choosing one, over another, more difficult to assess.
Dealing with new tech can be a daunting and confusing experience: updating existing/current knowledge with the latest, new, improved ways of doing things.
Until I do that first web search (followed by a trip to Currys) I will have no idea what’s what in the world of …washing machines…printers…televisions…
Up until that point, I wouldn’t care.
I am thinking: Give me the same one again.
Buying a new washing machine is not about replacing like for like.
Instead, I always have to brace myself for a flood of new data, lingo, systems and tech-speak. And dealing with sales people who seem to know and care about this stuff – like I should.
At some point I recently became aware everyone seems to have a smart TV – and I didn’t. And… yes, it would be nice to be able to record programmes, to watch Netflix, to surf the net and watch videos on a big screen.
Now that I have a smart TV I feel I have advanced (in my use of tech) and I am (somewhat) on par with everyone else…. or not quite left behind.
Introducing brand new tech to my life brings with it a feeling of being empowered. I can enjoy my TV in new ways than before. I also have what everyone else seems to have.
And, better still, I was able to give my old TV to a charity.
Discontentment is a driver for change. That is, falling out of love for something, looking for something new, something better; recognising that ‘things’ have moved on.
Ten years ago, when I first re-modelled my bathroom, I would stand in the doorway… just staring at it… drinking in the new look.
It was feeling of amazement. From that, to this. From ‘Before’, to ‘After’.
My new bathroom was a transformative experience. I was thrilled with the change but also that I had made the change, and that I had made the change happen. The happiness, and that sense of self-actualisation, was very real.
I had a lovely new bathroom – and I deserved it.
Good design, when it improves our lives is a wholly positive experience; and worth the cost and upheaval.
But life moves on and time passes. My new bathroom soon became part of my everyday life and I stopped noticing it. I can still ‘remember’ the thrill it gave me – but that strength of feeling is not there any more.
Over time our once highly prized and desirable ‘must-have’ items can become clutter and junk. Our homes become more ‘lived-in’; shabby and dated.
As new trends, fads and tech emerge our tastes will change. It can happen in very subtle ways, but sometimes it is sudden and dramatic.
Dissatisfaction and boredom, with what we have, creates a desire for new things and new experiences.
We have to be in the right frame of mind to embrace change – and to change our mindset. With change we want things to be different. Sometimes we want to be assured that what we have is what everybody wants/ has. We want to buy something we hope will work well – and last.
But, so many things we have in our home are not designed to last -umbrellas, electric kettles, shoes… and all things digital and tech.
Every ‘thing’ that belongs to someone, contributes to their spatial story.
A recent report by Accenture, suggests business should move from ‘customer centricity to life centricity’. That is: to think about more about customers in their ‘full life’.
“The net-effect is a growing acceptance of paradoxes, in which people make peace with the often contradictory and conflicting consumption decisions they make moment to moment.”
That makes sense. I am a real life person, with a past, present, future – and things. I am not a persona. No amount of marketing experts will ever be able to slot me into a tight demographic – and know what things I have in my life.
What Accenture calls “The Human Paradox” recognises (at last) that people’s lives occur against a backdrop of change: in tech, society, culture and lifestyle in a pandemic, a cost of living crisis, war, in fear, panic and instability.
When a product – or thing – enters my life for the first time, or stays in my home for many years, it must be viewed in relation to who I am.
To focus only on user-centred aspects of how I use it and what I do with it ignores where I keep it, how long I keep it, and how long it exists. It may mean a lot to me, or it may mean nothing.
New Tech is driving demand for new products that maybe we don’t really need, and can do without. When new ‘improved’ systems come on the market, everything changes and older systems and products become obsolete.
In a digital age it is more difficult not to change how we live, what we buy and use in our homes.
And yet, we must recognise some people don’t want to have to constantly change the way they live – even if it is an upgrade.
For example, the tenement house in Glasgow became an early 20th century time capsule because its owner saw no need to follow fashion, or move with the times, and the world. She was happy to live with things as they were.
As Accenture point out:
“To bridge the gap, businesses need to widen their aperture and move from focusing only on the consumption of customers to seeing their customers as they see themselves: multifaceted, complex and doing their best to adapt to unpredictable life circumstances out of their control.
“It’s time for companies to move from customer centricity to life centricity.”
Humans are not robots.
Robots don’t have the experience of storing clothes they no longer wear – or thinking of who they can pass things on to. They are not sentient so they don’t have rich and intimate memories of people, places and things. They do not have a need to be surrounded by personal items.
Unlike humans, robots are rational and decisive and make judgements unfettered by ‘life’ and by ‘living’. Robots do not need things, but humans do.