On Objects and Meaning

How We Connect

The relationship between objects and the value they hold has been an occasional thought ever since happening upon Peter Buchanan-Smith’s lecture at the Walker Art Center a few years ago. The Canadian-born artist and designer explains the connective potential of objects made and acquired via a walkthrough of the defining points in his career and personal life. Buchanan-Smith’s talk inexplicably affected me, and finding a way to craft that internal process to writing has since been a struggle.

When Microsoft’s latest campaign to promote Internet Explorer’s newest browser caused quite the buzz online, I — along with many other Millennials — immediately became swept into all of the nostalgia befitting the 1990’s. In a world where media are increasingly abandoning the tangible form, “Child of the 90’s” succeeds in propelling us back to the simplicity of the physical object. Whether or not it succeeded in re-marketing a failing product is yet to unfold, but it was through seeing that ad that I was able to finally form my words.

Connecting to the Past

“Child of the 90’s” is the new ad campaign for Internet Explorer 10, Microsoft’s latest version of the ailing browser. The talented folks over at Column Five contributed to one of its multiple approaches in returning to relevance, and on January 23rd, released its most recent and sentimental incarnation, yet. Now, supplemented with assets, such as an official YouTube channel and a cleverly named Tumblr account with archives dating back to March 2012, Internet Explorer 10 takes to the task of fulfilling its current promise through the tagline: “You grew up. So did we. Reconnect with the new IE.”

Microsoft acknowledges those who have turned their backs on them for alternate browsing experiences, and instead of fighting them, writes that long overdue love letter to the cohort who ever gave them a fighting chance. The two-minute visual pleaser approaches the Millennial demographic in a friendly yet respectably distant manner akin to the initial halting dialogue between individuals catching up after years of absence.

In long durations of silence, the lifeblood — and ultimately, the glue — to any conversation is often the past. Microsoft employs this nugget of knowledge through triggering a collective digital walk down memory lane. The wistful feelings evoked by the ad through the display of “relics” of a slower time aim to connect with Internet Explorer’s objective to prove that it can and has grown up.

Popular objects, such as the troll doll, slap bracelets, Lisa Frank folders, Tamagotchis, and 56K dial-up modems, grace the video, and are tinted in pastel hues of a more innocent time. For a playful touch, many of them are compared to their former popular associations. Recalling the troll as a vibrant-haired and bejeweled friend instead of a nefarious online presence, or lunches as puzzle pieces instead of potential Instagram captures bridges chunks of those lost years. The question of the ad’s success is still up in the air, but the reach of “Child of the 90’s” created a stirring within the Millennial conscience.

Connecting to the Present

Facebook released “The Things That Connect Us” the day the social networking site announced one billion active users on October 4th, 2012. The 91-second ad doesn’t share the exclusivity of Microsoft’s appeal, but instead, expands the target market to Facebook’s own populace: today’s average online user.

The combined efforts of film director Alejandro González Iñárritu and independently-owned American agency Wieden + Kennedy (of Nike fame) offers an art house angle to unveiling the milestone. “The Things That Connect Us” boasts a wealth of cinematography, flowery copy, and beautifully composed shots that ultimately highlight the ability to build and create. In a nutshell, our very humanity. In the words of Facebook’s head of consumer marketing Rebecca Van Dyck:

What we’re trying to articulate is that we as humans exist to connect… We make the tools and services that allow people to feel human, get together, open up.

The movement starts with a chair. The ad opens with a single red unit levitating in the middle of a forest. What follows is slew of vignettes featuring people utilising them, with the narrator defining the purpose of the piece of furniture as a tool that encourages relaxation and interaction. From there, objects of seemingly no correlation appear in the video — doorbells, airplanes, bridges, dance floors — all ways of bringing people together. (Perhaps “bridge” is rather obvious.) Lastly, “basketball” and “great nation”, though non-objects, are mentioned for inspiring social acceptance within particular groups of people. Converging, belonging, and the purpose of our being tie back to the core principles of Facebook, according to themselves.

The ad acts less like a drive to the product — because goodness knows they don’t need it — and more like an emotional note of gratitude to all who have contributed to its success. Through honouring the creative nature of humans, and the revolutionary objects honed with our hands over the course of time, the conception and maintenance of Facebook is acknowledged as a collective effort of many who converge and get along in real-time. Perhaps this makes Facebook an object, though not a tangible one.

“The Things That Connect Us” received mixed reviews, but most reservations relate to execution, and the apparent unaddressed “chicken-and-egg problem” between object and human. But, there have been fun reactions, as well. In fact, the now-named Facebook’s Chair has gained a cult following of its own, and a Twitter account has been created in its name. Ironically, there is no Facebook page.

Connecting to the Ordinary

The early 2010 Walker Art Center lecture of Canadian-born artist and designer Peter Buchanan-Smith is precisely what planted the seed in my head. Getting an initial foray about the value aspect of objects fostered in me a change in the way I look at the things that surround me. Watching his talk took my breath away, and I haven’t been able to get my second wind.

A product of a small town just an hour West of Toronto, Buchanan-Smith’s illustrious career has its genesis in a production assistant job accepted just shortly before embarking on graduate studies. For a little less than an hour and a half, he walks his audience through key points in his personal life, and the work produced coinciding with those times. Buchanan-Smith takes the extra length to publicly acknowledge an dwindling pre-Best Made business venture plus his divorce, and draws a particular insight out of both experiences, both intimate and poignant:

I spent the better part of last year dividing, discarding, pondering, loving, hating, hauling, lifting, boxing, and selling objects. Not only my personal possessions, but for the first time, I was manufacturing objects, and shipping them all over the world. Sifting through the effects of my personal life, I could stumble upon objects that would, upon very first glance, bring tremendous sorrow and grief, say a photograph, or a love letter. And at the same time as being called upon the by our new and excited customers to box up these sharp and colourful new instruments. Tools, that as it turned out, could evoke an amazing sensation of hope and promise, both for me and our customers. It was also last year that I finally realised that for a very long time, maybe since I was a kid, I’d always needed something tangible to hold onto, something tangible to create, something tangible to share. So, in the thick of last year, I started a company called Best Made, with my oldest and best friend, Graham Cameron, and our first product was an axe.

Far before Best Made, Buchanan-Smith’s fascination with objects and people bound to them started much earlier in his life. His first formal brainchild, a tome entitled SPECK: A Curious Collection of Uncommon Things, is a exploration of ordinary objects with a heightened degree of consciousness. The book has many contributors, and consists of various every day objects, such as the egg (which Buchanan-Smith cites as “the perfect design object”), the oft-overlooked underside of paintings, micro shots of used lipstick, and the most fascinating, collections of the earth, air, and water. It started out as a thesis project, but was published in 2001.

Other notable pieces include the the cover design for Wilco’s “A Ghost is Born”, and, alongside Maira Kalman, an illustrated version of The Elements of Style. Ultimately, these contribute to the conception of Best Made, a company born out of the desire to re-kindle people’s inspiration to go outside, use their hands, and awaken their sense of adventure… with an axe.

My desire to make a simple and quality-driven product, my desire to build a small and inspiring place to make and shape those products, and ultimately, my desire to build a world in which to share these products, the inspiration and culture had completely registered in my head.

Buchanan-Smith states that the idea of designing axes may have been a figurative grapple for security in the midst of losing an old business, his dog, and his marriage. The fact the axe is one of the world’s oldest objects is a testament to the human condition is a wonderful connection. Around 74 minutes into the video, an audience member prognosticates a metaphorical significance to the tool as a way to cut clean the pains of the past. Buchanan-Smith entertains the notion, and it seems to add to the genius that encompasses his work.

I cannot begin to imagine how difficult yet liberating this presentation was for him, and I am very happy to have stumbled upon it when I did. Please spare the time to this talk. It is worth every minute.

What About You?

What are your thoughts on the general relationship between objects and people, as well as objects and their value? What are your reactions on any of the above videos?

3 Comments

  1. Krysten

    I think that objects can help bring back memories for someone. I can pick up objects from my past and remember specific memories that involved that object.

  2. Ashley

    This is such a good post. Lots of good information to and honestly, I really enjoyed this post!

    I believe that you can like objects, but once you start having a huge emotional attachment to an object, I can see that as a problem if it is causing issues with other things such as relationships or whatever. It’s hard for me to put my thoughts into words. I don’t know.

  3. Jannie

    Thank you so much for sharing the Child of the 90s video. It has definitely brought back so many memories. Slap bracelets and Lisa Frank remind me so much of junior high. That Hungry Hungry Hippos game was fun too. Objects and people definitely make a big connection with one another. Other than creating wonderful memories, objects create common bonds between people and beautiful friendships. It’s like us when we talk about 90s related things. Hey, maybe we can include music here too. :D

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