Why do we value some objects more than others?

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Burning House is a photo project that asks people to share images of the objects they would save from their burning homes. It isn’t new or trending. I only stumbled upon it recently while looking for an answer to a question that has been bugging me: why do we get attached to some objects and not others?

Looking back, it all probably started after one too many experiences with fast retail (the immediate let-down we feel after we open the 2-day shipping box.)

So, really, why do we value some objects more than others?

After exploring a few angles, I stumbled on an insightful article on Mingei, a 20th-century movement in Japan that value some everyday objects as art:

“The Mingei Movement challenged society’s narrow definition of art. Traditionally, many people think of art as something produced only by artisans, separate from functional items produced by craftsmen. Mingei instead focuses on everyday objects produced by average people, as opposed to highly refined works of art produced by professional artists. Mingei can also be seen as a response to Japan’s rapid industrialization, as it elevates things made in large quantity by the hands of the common people, rather than in a factory. In this way, it can also be seen as a method of cultural and historical preservation. […]”

(for more: Toki)

There must be both parallels and differences between 20th century Japan and our world of today. However, I find the core notion of valuing everyday objects by ‘ordinary’ people as art to be a promising ‘ask’ for contemporary designers and commerce. In the age of Amazon Prime, affordable luxury, and fast everything, we seem to have lost the means to value our possessions.

The article defines Mingei through a set of principles (among others, made by anonymous people; produced by hand and in quantity; functional; representative of their region; etc.) I ran those through my own filters, aiming to contemporize them to our context. Here’ ’s my updated list:

Authored through a unique technique or language.

Produced under direct human control, regardless of the production method used.

Durable in quality and usability.

Relevant to everyday life and to an expansive community.

Culturally and historically rooted.

Through the exercise, I realized that technology and e-commerce are ‘democratizing’ access to cultural icons (that Turkish waffle towel I saw on Instagram and crave!)

But we seem to be losing our appreciation for attributes that used to be inherent in objects (such as talent, ingenuity, dedication to the craft.) Perhaps that is what Mingei was trying to value?

Anyway, this is as far as I got so far. It’s an open inquiry I plan to continue. More to come.


Design Executive, Startup Mentor, Professor

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