Slow-Design Saturday : "On Stuff"
“Does the world need more stuff?” asks New York Designer Alissia Melka-Teichroew, in an interview with Freunde von Freunde at her lower manhattan studio.
Alissia’s question is one we confront daily in Retail where constant consumption and bottom lines are often at the forefront of our industry. After four days at the NYNow Trade Show, combing through the glassy Javits Center's 840, 000 sq ft of product, we lay our heads down on the pillow and thought; Do we need more stuff?
The answer is sticky, primarily because of the bloated entitlement in this use of the word "need" and the instant understanding that by “stuff” we do not meet necessities. Stuff is a loaded word that conjures up images of indeterminate matter and the worst kind of consumption – the empty kind. Stuff is a word that only those who have it understand.
So what are we to do as retailers who work with independent designers, craftsman, and the thoughtful makers of what some, including Alissia, call ‘stuff’? If we've learned anything as buyers and collaborators on the retail experience, it's that stuff ceases to be stuff and starts to be belongings when they activate memories and, as the cult-following of Author Marie Kondo will tell you, when it brings you joy.
As a Japanese professional organizer, Marie describes a simple and practical approach to declutter your life. For many her words have become a guiding philosophy spanning beyond objects to dietary choices, professional crossroads and even relationships. Her method is based on the idea of joy. While for many the question of organizing said "stuff" is based on its use-value or functionality, Marie wants you to answer just one simple question when it comes to any of the items in your house:
Does it bring you joy?
If you answer yes, you keep the item. If you hesitate or say no, you donate it or throw it out. It’s simple, it’s brilliant, and it’s something that's completely intuitive. You can spend a lot of time justifying how something might at some point be useful to you and therefore decide to keep it, but whether something brings you joy is an emotional question that kicks you in the gut and that can be answered almost instantly: either you feel joy, or you don’t.
Which returns us to the original question of whether or not we need more stuff? The immediate answer seems to be no. And yet, what we find as we explore the concept of objects as receptacles for joy is that what do need is much more valuable. What we do need is a higher ratio of stuff : joy.
Later in the interview Alissia makes a similar point, “When you’re surrounded by things you love, it puts you in a happier place,” Alissia says, perhaps answering her own question about the quantity of “stuff” in the world. “It makes your life more fun.” What, she wonders, could be more important?
We agree with Alissia, there is true purpose in the stuff that keep us grounded in our best selves, souvenirs of notable experiences and stories. They act as wedding bands to the life choices and people that matter. “Daily life has become a cacophony of experiences that disable our senses, disconnect us from one another and damage the environment,” say the designers of the not-for-profit slowLab. But as Pentagram Partner and Design Champion Michael Beirut says in the New Design Observer, “...Deep experience of the world — meaningful and revealing relationships with the people, places and things we interact with — requires many speeds of engagement, and especially the slower ones.”.
When asked if she can remember the first thing she created that excited her Alissia responds “When it comes to design, I’m more excited about the process than I am about the outcome. When a concept or a story that you have comes together with the details, the material, the finish—when everything falls into place, I’m happy. After that, I kind of don’t know what to do…”. The truth is, for the makers designing, producing and perfecting their craft the final product is only an artifact of their process. It’s a fossil that tracks their creative journey. To ask them to make less stuff would be to deny them the process of creation. And so, we return to the age old concept that to be human is to create, and thus be surrounded by the products we create. So where do we find elegance in this cycle? To us at Lakeside, the solution is, quite simply, to do it with grace. To create sustainably, to produce ethically, passionately and with immense gratitude to the material and social resources.
Similarly, as consumers we can choose to purchase with grace, to exercise the same gratitude for what unlocks a joyful flood of memories within us. A ceramic mug whose glaze and colors reminds us of the lake where we spend the summers, candle sticks whose even distant relation to our grandmothers' soothe us, bookends that hug our favorite books with compassion and dignity.
We can choose to create and consume thoughtfully. Learn more about the slow design movement and read their principles here.