Rob Walker | Essays

Fun Stuff

Since January 2004, when this column first appeared, the American consumer zeitgeist has evolved. Some argue, in fact, that a decisive change has occurred, and that a result of the wrenching economic downturn is that we just don’t care about stuff anymore. I suspect this conclusion is rash. There are, however, interesting traces in the culture that suggest somewhat more subtle shifts — attempts, perhaps, to reconcile the more virtuously possession-resistant stance that some now strike with the stubborn reality that, ultimately, people really like stuff.        

A good example is the surprising success of certain online projects devoted exclusively to lovely photographs of carefully arranged groups of objects. This might sound not only out of sync with a professed societal object ambivalence, but also a bit dull. But take a look at the popular sites A Collection a Day 2010 (collectionaday2010.blogspot.com) or Things Organized Neatly (thingsorganizedneatly.tumblr.com), and you might have a different view.

A Collection a Day, which started in January 2010, promised just that. Over the course of a year, its proprietor, Lisa Congdon, posted 365 images of things she has collected. The stuff itself is not spectacular: groups of scissors, erasers, matchbooks, rocks and so on, culled from “flea markets, thrift stores, junk shops, garage sales, giveaway piles and family attics,” she has explained. Each bunch is arranged on a plain background. (Congdon is also an illustrator; in some cases she draws, rather than photographs, her things.) Day 24 presented 15 vintage bobbins. Day 78 documented eight old pencil sharpeners. Day 133 showed 14 midcentury napkin rings. Day 322, a dozen vintage Dixie cups. A book version will be published later this year.

The visual tone of Things Organized Neatly is similar. One day the site may feature an image of white socks on a blue background, on another, a patterned stack of tires or a careful arrangement of baseball bats. The site is overseen by a young Indianapolis designer named Austin Radcliffe, who seems less intent on collecting objects than on collecting images of collections. His site started less than a year ago, but since being written about in The Guardian and elsewhere, it has gained a following in the tens of thousands. And while these are two prominent examples, the Web is jammed with much-clicked-and-forwarded images of similar ilk — neat arrangements of everything from ingredients to disassembled appliances.

What is the appeal? Partly these images simply carry on the long history of the still life, a genre whose attraction, as the poet Mark Doty observed in his book “Still Life With Oysters and Lemon,” has less to do with documentation than with capturing a way of seeing, “a stance toward things. . . . A faith that if we look and look we will be surprised and we will be rewarded.”

Yet the visual language these contemporary projects use to address object culture itself differs from, say, naturalistic arrangements of ripe fruits and fine silver by painters in 17th-century Holland. For starters, the most satisfying examples now often depict more workaday stuff, treated with an unusual level of observatory respect; they frequently echo the “humble master­pieces” featured in a Museum of Modern Art exhibition of that name several years ago: just as that show prodded viewers to reconsider the paper clip or the matchstick as “marvels of design,” these (humble) blogs recontextualize things most people ignore. Perhaps some of us are in more of a mood to accept beauty in the everyday, rather than aspire to the latest gleaming luxury.

And then there’s the way this stuff is arranged. There’s certainly nothing naturalistic about it; these are practically inventories. It has become a cliché to talk of “curation” as the great skill of the info-saturated online world, but probably what matters here is the overt display of that skill — the de facto announcement that someone is in charge. After too many years when stuff seemed to rule many lives, these things have been culled, sorted and mastered.

Best of all, we don’t even have to deal with these collections as physical things; we can simply enjoy them as digital presentations. It is everything we love about stuff — but without the stuff. In a reversal of the desire to have your cake and eat it too, we can consume these lovely objects and not-have them, too. In recent years, we have added a form of vicarious possession to our consumption: there is so much covetable material to drool over online that it is no longer possible, let alone necessary, to imagine owning a tenth of it. You might say that simply pondering stuff has become a form of entertainment — and something very close to that attitude is what this magazine had in mind when introducing this recurring examination of the contemporary marketplace. Today’s column ends my chronicle of that journey in these pages, but in our daily lives I imagine it will continue to evolve in ways none of us can predict. Possessions may not be the object of life, but life without objects would be a lot less interesting.        

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, February 11, 2011.  

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