This week I’m interrupting our regular schedule with a short essay about collecting things.
I have somewhat magpie-like tendencies: strange or beautiful objects catch my eye as I move through the world and often end up on a shelf or window ledge in my flat. I’d like to try and convince you that a little bit of hoarding can help us design better things.
Before school when I was seven or eight years old, I’d always spend fifteen minutes hunched over the gravel in the drive looking for fossils. Occasionally, to my great delight I would find a fragment of a belemnite, and once I even found the crisp spiral of an ammonite peeking out from an otherwise dull-looking bit of limestone. These little bits of rock would unvaryingly make their way up to a cupboard in my childhood bedroom where they sat alongside other treasures like shells, gnarled bits of wood and old birds nests. Even now, when I am back home, I can see them lined up as I left them all those years ago.
This tendency to collect has never really left me, indeed it has expanded to accommodate the artificial as well as the natural world. There have been holidays spent combing beach sand looking for little “Puce” cowries and I remain unable to walk past a flea market or bric-a-brac shop without taking something small away with me. I eagerly await museum and gallery shops for the postcard opportunities within, and am a sucker for sending off for free material samples 🙈 My eBay watchlist contains an bafflingly eccentric selection of vintage photographs and pre-loved odds and ends of 20th-century design.
Sometimes it gets too much, my partner has drawn the line at me retaining every empty can of Perello olives for example. But boy would I like to.
I tell you all this, because these things that I’ve collected are important to me. I would even go as far to say that they are part of my design process.
When we design something, we have to reach into a situation and try to bring something new out of it. Whether the end result is a poster, a building or an app, it needs to achieve a goal. But it also needs to feel complete, to have unity. To feel, as it were, “nice”.
Examples of well-made, self-contained things can guide us towards what we need to do to achieve something similar in our own work, even if we can’t full articulate exactly what we’ve learned from them. If I’m feeling stuck or lost, sometimes just being in the presence of some of the things I’ve collected can feel like finding a compass, and knowing which way is north again.
“Studying great work from the past provides the means of comparison and contrast and lets us tap into the the collective creativity of previous generations…
…When I study the past, I make a point of deciding what I like and sometimes this this built-up catalog of refined-like responses about past works finds a suitable outlet and a natural expression in my present-day work.”
—Ken Kocienda, author of Creative Selection
We talked about Ken’s idea of “taste” in Design Lobster #52, and I’ve included the same quote above that I pulled out then. Collecting things is where taste begins. We may not know how the examples we gather might end up helping us, but we can be sure that one way or another they will.
In the tweet above Imran Chaudhri, another ex-Apple designer, talks about the sources of design inspiration for the original iPhone. What’s striking to me is that none of the examples cited are mobile phones. They’re films, pieces of music, even a plane. Inspiration is best encountered laterally. If you’re designing software, don’t just go and look at other apps and websites. Build up a collection of things from all the corners of culture and the natural world. You never know, it might even be a pebble from a beach in Devon that makes something click.
Indeed that’s one of the very reasons I write Design Lobster, to try and cross-pollinate ideas from very different disciplines. In a way, all this newsletter really is is another collection of nice things!
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The photograph above shows part of the sumptuous collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé at 55 Rue de Babylone, Paris. With furniture created by Eileen Gray, paintings by Warhol and sculpture by Brancusi, it’s at the extreme end of my definition of “nice things”. It’s easy to imagine Saint-Laurent finding inspiration for a new collection or a show as he strolled between his remarkable objéts.
But you don’t need to spend the same amount of money as he did. For the artist Morandi, a tray of old pots and vases he kept in his studio in Bologna was a source of endless inspiration for his paintings. Perhaps my favourite example is Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, where Jim Ede’s idiosyncratic collection of pebbles earned his house the nickname “The Louvre of the pebble”.
The point is that “nice things” can come from anywhere. They don’t need an art-historical pedigree or an eye-watering price tag. All that is required is that they move you in some way.
“Collecting things is a psychological condition: that of a person who is looking that’s lost and will never be found.”
—Rolf Fehlbaum, founder of Vitra
In Weil am Rhein, Germany, Rolf Fehlbaum has amassed an ocean of chairs in the hangars and sheds of the Vitra headquarters (I highly recommend the documentary Chair Times about the collection, if you haven’t already watched it). I was thinking about his quote from Rolf as I wrote this piece, wondering what to make of its psychologising.
What I realised was how integral the feeling of ‘lostness’ is during the design process. Design is the act of seeking something, though at the beginning (and throughout) you aren’t quite sure what. Perhaps collecting things appeals to me both as a map for that journey, and as a mirror. Reflecting in miniature the roving eye of the design process.
Perhaps, as Rolf suggests, we never quite find that destination. No collection is ever complete and, as they say, design is never done. But, as I see it, this is just the burden of remaining curious, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hope you find something nice this week 😉
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Thankyou. I am also a collector. One of the things my grandparents taught me to do. I am grateful to them. My wife not so much. My father was in design, and also a collector, who happened to work in a museum for much of his working life. It is definitely the journey for me. I have kept many of my mobile computing and phones, partly to remind myself that I was part of the journey to the future in technology. I collect books of my favourite writers, exploring the journey of their careers. I collect musical instruments, most of which I play. I also collect memories....
Thankyou. Your essay brought a tear of happiness and understanding to my eyes.