A taste for old stuff

Stools by Artek 2ndCycle
At a recent work event – a seminar on the industry growing up around recycling – I found my mind wandering back to a book I read at University, called ‘In Praise of Shadows’. It’s a short but compelling essay, by a Japanese writer, lamenting the disappearing aesthetic sensibility of old Japan with the invasion of western-style capitalism in the early 20th century. He writes beautifully about the particular qualities of architecture, objects, art – and women – that used to be the ideal.

He characterises the difference between the aesthetic of Old Japan, and new Westernised Japan, as a penchant for craftsmanship, maturity, and the effect of shadow, as opposed to mass manufacture, novelty and light. In the old world, material objects and surfaces that had been allowed to age, that had acquired a patina – where years of use and the marks of hands were visible – were the things that were valued. Whilst some of his descriptions seem grotesque – a description of a bony geisha with blackened teeth sticks in the mind – the book is a valuable read for calling into question the ubiquity and subjectivity of western ideals of beauty.

But what has this got to do with recycling?

I was dismayed to learn in the course of the seminar that something like 48% of plastic bottles still end up in landfill. This can’t possibly be because we don’t possess the technological capability to recycle all plastic bottles. Of course it’s partly a question of systems, and the will of manufacturers to reclaim materials. But this is slowly changing. Greater attention is now being drawn to the issue of waste because of the economic impact of throwing so much stuff away. Not only is it a long term environmental hazard, it is a criminal waste of material resources. Raw materials are getting more expensive; and China owns too large a proportion of rare earth material sources for comfort. 80% of manufacturers said that materials shortage was a risk to their business in 2012. So material recovery from waste is becoming an increasingly lucrative business; and condemning perfectly decent stuff to landfill no longer makes good business sense. For its own part, government is now plowing investment into research and innovation that will lead us towards the holy grail ‘circular economy’.

The trickier challenge is persuading the consumer to do the right thing with their rubbish. Or, to not create so much in the first place. Part of the problem, the source of our buy-use-dispose habit, is our love of new things, our susceptibility to fashion, and the need to discard the old that this induces. What is important about ‘In Praise of Shadows’ is the suggestion that this ‘neophilia’ is not innate, rather a product of capitalism.

Obviously, it is convenient in a capitalist economy for consumers to want to buy all the time. The cycles of fashion grease the wheels of the economy. What is interesting is the degree to which our tastes – aesthetically and emotionally – have been tailored to suit the needs to the market. You can see this clearly being set in train in the nineteenth century, when women in particular were actively urged to decorate their homes in the latest mode, tricked into thinking it was a sign of patriotism, or of their own creative expression. This has been the subject of recent TV series based on Zola’s ‘Ladies Paradise’ and on the early days of Selfridge’s, where shoppers are subtly emotionally manipulated to serve commercial imperatives. The persona and treatment of the female consumer can be clearly traced from these pioneering days to the present. Little has changed.

For a long time now men and women have been programmed to constantly consume. Our social status and success is determined by our material possessions, and often by the degree to which they conform to ever changing fashions. You can’t keep up with the Jones’s if you don’t keep shopping, and you can’t fit more things in your house unless you throw some other things away. Thus rampant consumerism generates waste.

The design industry, for all its virtues, is a servant of this machine, invented to tap the ambitions, hopes, desires of consumers, and to persuade them to buy when there is no real material need. Take the example of chairs. We should really stop designing new chairs. We already have plenty, and there must be a style out there for everyone by now. No one needs to design any more chairs, and yet at design fairs every year, dozens of new chairs are ‘released’ on to the market. And, if they are popular enough, they make designers and manufacturers pots of money.

The problem now is capitalism has eaten itself. It’s running out of its own fuel. The neverending supply of consumer goods may be threatened as material resources become exhausted, but we all still want to buy new things. So what do we do? How do we persuade people to buy quality and buy once? Can we make design for longevity fashionable again? Can we replace neophilia with nostalgia?

I don’t believe we are a completely lost cause. This idea – of objects accruing value as they age – already exists in pockets. One can pay a fortune for antiques. The vogue for vintage seems to be enjoying unprecedented popularity at the moment, spearheaded by designer Wayne Hemingway. A few manufacturers are capitalizing on this: Artek, a Danish furniture company, have just started a new line of business, 2nd Cycle, reselling old models of their own pieces. And this imperative can make a difference to how we design in the first place. Students at Brighton University are developing products that incite a greater emotional attachment from the owner – for example, a teacup whose pattern emerges over long months of use.

But these are all niche markets, when what we need is a mass movement. It’s a tricky question: after years of being persuaded to value novelty, how long will it take us to learn to love old things again?

2 thoughts on “A taste for old stuff”

  1. Agreed, overall, though tentatively. Horrible PR people like me must take some blame for being the oilers of that design/capitalist wheel. I wonder though, what impact the widespread adoption of an ‘In Praise of Shadows’ ethos would have on the positive, beneficial technological innovations that capitalism also drives – healthcare springing to mind #politedevilsadvocacy

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