Tag Archives: Significant Objects

Five Telling objects (how to be your own curator)

Yesterday, I invited people to identify objects that they find telling.

I got some great answers.  (Please, it’s not to late to submit.  Send me entries as comments to grant27 AT gmail DOT com, or leave them as comments below.)  

From Richard Shear:

I would submit two things, one I own and one I admire. The former is my Macintosh 128 purchased from a Manhattan Apple dealer on the Monday morning after the now iconic 1984 Super Bowl ad.

The latter is any plate from Josiah Wedgwood’s 944 piece "Frog" service produced for Catherine the Great, and introduced with great fanfare in a custom designed London showroom in 1773.  

These are both products of unique businessmen and entrepreneurs with a keen sense of design, technology, retail merchandising, marketing, showmanship, the power of brands, and, yes, contemporary culture.

They may have been introduced 211 years apart, yet they both created the same kind of buzz, with people waiting in line anxiously anticipating the chance to see and admire.  The legacy of Wedgwood has endured.  It would be interesting to see where Steve Job’s legacy stands in the year 2195, 211 years after the introduction of MacIntosh 1984.

From Carol Saller:

The diary my father kept as a teen during WWII. His older brother was a bomber pilot, but Dad stayed on the farm.

Students love the war passages, the girl-crush passages, the mischief, and just generally the look into such a foreign time and place. (There are passages that make almost no sense to modern urban kids.)

The diary has launched conversations about the war, farm life, writing a diary or journal, 1940s culture, and how language changes and stays the same.  

For Carol’s blog, go here.

For more on Carol’s father’s war diary, 
go here

From Grant McCracken:

This is one of the few personal things to survive from my childhood.  Happily, it’s one of the most telling. It’s a toy soldier, a Scottish Highlander.  It’s made from some kind of rubber.  The left arm, the one bearing the rifle, actually swivels, something I found thrilling as a kid. On the bottom, it reads "Made in England."  

This soldier comes from a Canada long since passed. This was the (part of) Canada that admired things British, the Canada that was still very much a part of a commonwealth, the Canada not long removed from it’s status as a colony.  

How did these Canadians raise their kids?  With toys that celebrated their Scottish connection as this was played out in the service of empire.  It sounds a little sad, I know.  But it was an excellent childhood.  Any kind of service is good training.  You can change the object of the service as you go.  

From Steve Crandall

I have indirectly done this [the Prown teaching technique] when I teach and bring in a slide rule.

I worry about the high level of innumeracy among students and a slide rule represents an elegant way to immerse yourself in ‘back of the envelope’ calculations.

It gives a sense of what a logarithm is and you have to sort out the powers of ten and carry them in your head. It is also only approximate and I believe that gives a natural feeling towards understanding and analyzing errors and error propagation.

Of course these are archaic in general use, but it is a way to be playful with simple calculations and perhaps understand more deeply than students who blindly plug numbers into spreadsheets and the like.

From Carlen Lea Lesser:

I think it’s telling that I’m having a hard time choosing just one or two things. I was going to pick the toy stuffed rabbit I’ve had since I was a baby, but I realized I don’t have any pictures of it!

Then I racked my brain a bit and settled on my "Prophets’ Cup." I had this custom made for me a few years ago for Passover.

Traditionally there is an Elijah’s cup at Passover and some have also added a Miriam’s cup. I actually wrote my own haggadah for Passover (even sold a few copies), and evolved this concept into a "Prophets’ Cup."

To me this cup represents a lot, since it’s a product of my research, scholarship, imagination, creativity, writing, experimentation and eventual collaboration with a potter to create it. I feel like this cup presents so many opportunities to have conversations and ask questions that I guess it would be the one I would use.

Telling objects: which one would you choose?

Jules Prown, then Professor of the History of Art at Yale, would sometimes start a seminar, I’m told, by slipping into class, and taking his seat at a table at the head of the room.  As students began to settle, Professor Prown would produce, say, a 18th century teapot from his brief case, and place it ever so carefully at the center of the table.

And then he would wait.

Students would eventually gather that the teapot was the object of study.  And they would warm to the task of making the teapot speak.  More exactly, they would begin to extract illumination from the object, discussing and when necessary, surmising the producers, the consumers, the economy and the culture from which the teapot sprang. 

The question: of all your possessions which one would you place before a group of students? What does this object say?  What illumination can be extracted from it?  It can be any object. It need not be art and a museum-worthy artifact.  Sleds, without "rosebud" decals, are most welcome.    

I am hoping the comments section below takes photos.  I have an uneasy feeling it does not. If that’s the case, send me your photos and wee essays.  I will post them both in a future entry.

Handmade marketing

It’s turning out to be a long march.  Some 50 years ago, marketers made mass meanings…for mass markets…with mass media.  Nowadays, people are crafting brand meanings very much more particularly, making micro meanings…for micro markets…with micro media.  

At the extreme, this would mean making entirely custom meanings for very individual individuals with ever finer instruments of meaning manufacturer.  But we are some way off. And we may never reach that station.  

Still we get glimpses time to time of a world of absolute particularity.  Rob Walker and colleagues at Significant Objects give us objects to which meanings have been added in acts of handmade marketing.  It’s pretty astounding.  And of course, we know that some consumers are customizing like crazy.  

And look at this.  It’s a passage from a review of The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. By Edmund de Waal. (Chatto & Windus in the UK, and as The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US.  Not till August.)

But Mr de Waal, a noted British potter and ceramicist, is intently concerned with “how objects get handled, used and handed on”. For him the netsuke, so small and captivating, were not enough as a mere signpost to a family history. He wanted “to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers—hard and tricky and Japanese—and where it has been… I want to walk into each room where this object has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows.”

And, wonder of wonders, this is exactly what he achieves. We learn not only how the light fell from the windows, but how it reflected from the carpets and brocades that vied for attention with the netsuke nestled on green velvet in their black lacquer vitrine, and how it grew greyer when wartime privations in Vienna limited the cleaning of the glass. We learn about Viktor’s nervous tic of wiping his hand across his face as if rearranging it, and the way Emmy would spend 40 minutes having her curls pinned one by one to the brim of her hat for a day at the races, and at what times marching bands paraded past their windows and what epaulettes they wore, and how Charles carried his cane and arranged his paintings, and the mix of awe and sensuality that he must have felt as he picked up a netsuke and turned it over in his hands. From a hard and vast archival mass of journals, memoirs, newspaper clippings and art-history books, Mr de Waal has fashioned, stroke by minuscule stroke, a book as fresh with detail as if it had been written from life, and as full of beauty and whimsy as a netsuke from the hands of a master carver. Buy two copies of his book; keep one and give the other to your closest bookish friend.

Fantastic.  This is a kind of retroactive meaning making.  It take it it’s mostly surmise.  But what surmise!  By constructing the life of the object, and it’s life in the lives of people and other objects, he gives us a feeling for the nuance with which objects take on and give off their meanings.  Not to mention inspiration for those who wished to make marketing by hand. 


Anonymous.  2010.  Review of the Hare With Amber Eyes.  The Economist.  May 22.  here.

Significant Objects here.


Tumi and the case of the talking suitcase

Yesterday, I puzzled a few readers.

Let me be more clear (and less alarming). The best way to do this is to talk by example.

Let’s begin with the Tumi bag I bought in Seattle last week.

What I want is a stream of messages from this piece of luggage. It can come in the tweet stream on my iPhone. Or it can print out in the handle of the bag itself. We are assuming the bag is equipped with wireless capability and GPS.

I like the idea of learning on the taxi to the airport that my Tumi bag is, in truth, a little afraid of flying. I like the idea of learning that when in Seattle last week it really liked that carpet in the elevator (pictured here). My Tumi could have an entire, entirely poetic, vocabulary for hotel surfaces. I like the idea that it is noticing things I don’t.

I love the idea of the hearing my bag murmur (by way of twitter) that the man at the check-in desk wasn’t really very polite. Or, more dramatically, that he has only 5 days to live. (The idea of a piece of luggage claiming mystical knowledge of the future is especially charming. Perhaps that’s just me.) I like the idea of luggage that’s a little bad tempered, put upon, inclined to grumble, quick to take offense.

I am not asking for a full time writer standing by. There are only so many hotels in Seattle. When GPS signals that I am staying at the Sorrento, I would be easy enough to determine where the bag is and what it is "seeing." When I am in any moving vehicle on the road, chances are it’s a cab. In other words, it wouldn’t be very hard to feed locational cues into a machine based grammar which could then generate messages so situationally sensitive they have the hum of veracity.

The larger issue is straight forward. We already charge inanimate objects with meanings. We do this routinely through the branding process. The question is are there other kinds of meanings that could be brought into play. They would be more companionable message, more customized and customizable, and, more to the marketing point, they would make Tumi a brand with whom I have a deeper bond. There is no brand loyalty like this loyalty.

How about this as an anthropological indicator. I don’t name my luggage at the moment. (In fact, I don’t think I name anything that’s inanimate.) But if my Tumi luggage were expressive in this way, I pretty certain I would give it a name. Maybe this is what we should be shooting for. Naming. If and when the consumer names the product, that’s when we know something remarkable has been accomplished in the way of meaning manufacture. We have so animated the product that consumers no long see goods as inanimate.

Less alarming. No?

Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle of 2009.  It was reposted Feb. 2, 2010.  

Buy this product: we have writers standing by

Today Very Short List pointed us towards a site called Unhappyhipsters in which images like the one above are fetched from the pages of Dwell magazine and then given small narrative indicators that give them new meaning.

"It become their routine…"  Wonderful.

Last week, on the post on Significant Objects, I contemplated a commercial world in which new products came with narratives attached, new meanings, which we could use to reimagine our present circumstances.

I just bought a new bag from Tumi.  My last one gave up the ghost last week in Seattle.  I like the idea of getting messages from Tumi as it imagines the things that are or could be happening to me.  With a link to my TripIt file, Tumi could know where I am, even, if I allowed it, what hotel I was staying it.  With GPS location permission, I could have a rough idea of my circumstances.  All of this data makes it possible to feed me a stream of narrative suggestions that are plausible at least by time and place.

Oh, alright.  This isn’t quite right.  But the idea remains promising.  Consumer goods, thanks to brands and meaning makers in the world of marketing, have always come with meanings. And they will continue to do so.  But in addition to these quite general meanings, it is possible for the brand to communicate many more particular meanings.  As long as they some how resonate with what is happening in my life, they will be interesting and fun.  Animating, actually.

"We have writers standing by!"  When does this become a brand promise?


The Very Short List treatment is here.

The Unhappy Hipsters website is here.

Meaning manufacture, old and new (Significant Objects)

In the old days, most of the meanings of our objects came prefab.

This what brands did for us. Brands, and the advertisers, planners, researchers, and  marketers who made them.

Inevitably we would add meanings to our possessions.  We might finesse the ones we found there.  But mostly, anyone with the same objects had the same meanings.  Thus did our material culture make our culture material.

We have since seen the rise of custom-made meanings.  This is one of the reasons we like antique fairs, and farmer’s markets is that these objects have been stripped of their original meanings and taken on new, historical, ones.  What used to be someone’s tea cup is now our Victorian teacup.

It’s the reason we like the tourist trinkets we bring back from vacation.  These were likely hand made somewhere.  That textile just says Mexico.  More than that, it says, "our vacation in Mexico."

It’s also the reason we like artisanal goods, the chocolates, beer and bread that is so popular now.  There are no brands here. These products take their meaning mostly from the process of hand crafting and the person who made them.  These objects come with stories more than meanings and we like to tell these stories.  "Well, Frank, that’s the guy who made these chocolates, he’s got that little shop down on Cambie, Frank used to be a professional football player.  No, I am not kidding."

Of course this sort of thing has always been true of high end restaurants.  This has always been hand crafted, unbranded (at least in so far as national brands are concerned), and meanings that come with this food are all about this very particular restaurant, chef, owner, designer, etc.  Here the brand is a man or a women.

The rich like to live in a relatively unbranded world.  Kitchens, furniture, bespoke tailoring, all of this is completely custom made.  It’s fun to go due north on Madison, I think it is.  In mid town, we are looking at branded stores, but as we hit the the upper east side, the brands fall away.  Now all the shops are little and very particular.  This is no brand land.

Experiments like Etsy give us a glimpse of a democratized version of this world.  Now, the rest of us can own customized stuff. No brands.  No manufacture in the industrial sense.  What we buy from Etsy.com is unique and if its to mean something, it will be because we have invested it with meanings particular to our own lives and sensibilities.

So I was interested to note the website called Significant Objects.  (Thanks to Leora Kornfeld for the head’s up.)  This was invented by Joshua Glenn, Matthew Battles, Rob Walker and others in the summer of 2009.  Here’s how they describe what they do.  (Sorry to be vague about the founders of Significant Objects but they appear to take pains to efface their identities on the SO website.  I can’t but wonder whether they are waiting for authors to supply identities for them…or at least names.  Excellent strategy.)

Significant Objects has three steps:

1. The experiment’s curators purchase objects — for no more than a few dollars — from thrift stores and garage sales.

2. A participating writer is paired with an object. He or she then writes a fictional story, in any style or voice, about the object. Voila! An unremarkable, castoff thingamajig has suddenly become a “significant” object!

3. Each significant object is listed for sale on eBay. The s.o. is pictured, but instead of a factual description the s.o.’s newly written fictional story is used. However, care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers. (Doing so would void our test.) The author’s byline will appear with his or her story.

The first version of Significant objects can be defined still more particularly:

Significant Objects was originally intended as an experiment exploring the relationship between narrative and value. (In fact, we didn’t think many writers would want to participate — before we launched the experiment, we listed 100 writers we knew or just admired and asked ourselves, “How do we convince/cajole/trick/browbeat these talented people into helping us with no guarantee that they’ll get anything out of it whatsoever?”) Our goal, then as now, was not simply to generate content, or to provide writers with a fun creative exercise, but instead to pair our carefully curated objects with stories that we’d curated every bit as carefully. We want the site to offer a consistently great reading experience — and we put a lot of effort into that.

The relationship between narrative and value.  How very interesting.  Economics is not very good on this relationship.  Indeed the idea that stories can create value is a little mystifying.  And this would be a good time to come to terms with this, because as I say, it is the coming thing.

I fell to thinking about a variation of the SO theme.  As it stands, in what remains of the old world of marketing, a watch comes charged with some standard meanings, crafted by the CMO, the brand, agency and its creatives.  Take for instance the Rolex that uses the Bond movie franchise to give the watch a certain quality of romance, danger, adventure, etc.

A SO approach would craft the meaning of the objects more particularly.   The brand could engage a team of writers and have them standing by to deliver stories to the owner, perhaps on a just in time basis.  What I am a buying the watch then is also a stream of stories that might come to me every day or week or month.  Tomorrow, I might get an email that reads

Today your watch is owned by a functionary, a man who lives in Ottawa and works for the Canadian government.  You have a secret.  You have embezzled $3 million from the Canadian government.  Today is actually is your last day.  You wouldn’t be here, but the embezzlement will finalize today. You are nervous.  Actually you’re sweating bullets.  Make it through today, and you can spend the rest of your life in some sunny country that laughs in the face of the Canadian extradition.  But you can’t help feeling that suspicions are flourishing.  You know people are looking at you.  Aren’t they? Every glance, every comment today will be charged with menace.  Have a nice day.

This is narrative and I believe our Rolex is more valuable for it.  As these stories change, as we enter the narratives that come with the watch, the watch becomes more and more valuable.  It serves as a portal on alternative realities and multiple selves.


See the Significant Objects website here.

See the Smoking Man Figurine complete with a very interesting story by Vicente Lozano here.  (this image lost in the melt down, see note below)

Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle of 2009.  It was reposted December 25, 2010.