Joshua Glenn | Essays

Taking Things Seriously

Taking Things Seriously, Princeton Architectural Press, 2007

On January 3, 2005, I emailed my friend Carol Hayes, a graphic designer: "My motto this year is 'Less talk, more rock.' So I want to get this photo book project going right away. Are you still in?" She was.

The photo book project was one we'd talked about at a party months earlier. I'd been poking around our hosts' Brooklyn apartment, admiring Joel's bear lamp and Kelly's tiny pine cone, and discoursing tipsily on the counterintuitive fact that we enlightened citizens of the 21st century still fall under the spell of savage totems — tutelary spirits, that is to say, in the form of natural objects. Many of us invest ordinary objects with other sorts of extraordinary significance, too. My friend Tony crams a U.S. Navy 100-pound practice bomb into his tiny workspace for much the same reason that Greg, a colleague of mine at the Boston Globe, displays a wobbly wooden Santa in his kitchen year-round. These doohickeys are actually fossils, petrified evidence of a vanished epoch (young adulthood). Other writers, thinkers, designers and artists of my acquaintance cherish things — sunglasses found at a yard sale, a colored-sand-filled glass clown, a one-eyed ceramic frog — for equally irrational reasons.

The more we talked about it, the more we agreed that almost everyone we know reverentially displays in his home or workspace at least one oddball, funny-looking, apparently worthless item as though it were a precious, irreplaceable artifact. Carol's interest in these objects was more aesthetic than philosophical. Now that every single manufactured object, even garbage cans and soap dishes at Target, are stylish and tasteful, she admitted, it was refreshing to contemplate something tacky, even vulgar, that hadn't been over-designed and focus-grouped to death. For example: Her friend Lissi's seven-foot-tall bowling trophy, which she didn't win bowling; or Deb's pious porcelain hands, now used as an ashtray; or Kris's "Sexy Camera," a shockingly obscene plastic novelty item.

A few drinks later, I picked up an attractive photo book — about New York's sneaker culture, it turns out — from our hosts' shelf. It was titled "Where'd You Get Those?" Aha! We'd do a book, some day, about objects with unexpected significance. We'd ask engaged, imaginative, passionate individuals to photograph their significant objects and write us a short essay about where they got them, why they kept them. The resulting collection wouldn't be a didactic object lesson — like so many "material culture studies" texts written and edited by academics. Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance, as we would later title it, would instead be a wonder cabinet, a show-and-tell for our fellow enlightened savages.

This essay is an introduction to a series of essays and objects which Design Observer will excerpt from Taking Things Seriously in the coming months. We thank the many authors for their contributions.

Comments [9]

An ironic title?
I miss people taking things seriously.
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

I have a ceramic bobble headed dashbaord dog who sits on top of my mac. His name is Tito. He helps me through my most serious design moments. I can't wait to check this book out.

Is a ceramic a california education research association microphone?

Is bob ble related to Robert Bly ?

Dashboard to a OSX feature?

This makes me wonder if you can't really live without these things.Or I can see right through your stuff.



Great concept. Will check it out.

Have a prized painted saw with "hidden" spooky eyes. Really treasure it. Seriously!

Joe Moran

I'm looking forward to seeing this book, I'm always fascinated with the accumulated bits of life's flotsam that we all seem to cling to.

Can we live without these "things"? Of course we can, but this conversation isn't about consumerism.

There are objects that we hold dear for readily evident, personal or sentimental reasons — the baby shoes that I wore in my first year, and which were presented to me by my mother at my wedding; or the sportscar racing trophies my father won in the 1950s.

Of less obvious value are the totems that appear along life's path. I have a fencing foil, recovered on a dumpster diving excursion, that has hung in every home I've lived in since... more than 25 years now. I can't come up with a convincing argument as to why I keep it, but it would be sorely missed.

I honestly don't understand—this is not a criticism—people who display no sentimentality or affection for any personal objects.

How can anyone miss people taking things seriously? I never see anything but increasing seriousness with regard to things, whether it's indie-film eccentric baloney skin collectors or big-screen TVs.

The distinction some people seem to want to make between the two is frustrating. And it is essentially a discussion about consumerism. If you lack understanding of people who lack these connections that you have, you can try having a conversation about it, that might work.

Nor did I think it is about consumerism.
Can we live without this stuff?


Before my husband and I parted ways, I had this collection of rose petals from flowers he, the kids, and I had bought over the past few years. I don't know why, but i just started saving them as memories. It was probably because as things were getting tougher, they were something to hold on to that there were good times to remember. Maybe I saved them because I had read too much symbolism in stories and films with words like Rosebud, or some story where a rose is found in a dictionary that someone pressed and forgot about and the reader wants to imagine the emotionality. Maybe it was just to remind me of pregnant women who labor in rose fields in Central and South America because I had once researched that question.

Anyway, when we did decide to part ways, he cleaned the house of every single rose petal. When i noticed them missing, I was livid. I couldn't understand how he could throw all that away. I think he said something about them just being old rose petals. Maybe it was too painful for him. Maybe it was part anger. Maybe it was part relief. He never told me exactly and probably can't.

After that, I went out quite often afterthat and bought myself roses and have made an arrangement of all the dried bouquets. I left them in his house in the corner of the kitchen. I am sure if the house is sold someday, the real estate agents might say they look tacky, but for now they stay in the corner.

I am in the house occasionally, but I live without them most of the time. I don't know if he notices them at all, but i want to believe he does.

Note: I am a real keeper when it comes to these think-things. Enough so, that a trip to the basement is so much more enjoyable than spending money.

And it's not because of the hallucinatory book and map mold down there either. Though....


One fencing foil, not hundreds of them, and not scouring antique stores and the web looking for more. One artichoke. One spooky saw. Collecting is, again, another subject.

We could open a real can of worms and discuss the concept of "soul" in inanimate objects.

Now, with that in mind,
you think if I take the pitchfork and that rusty hose reel from the attractive nuisance house out of this basement it will stop flooding?

Jobs | July 19