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We and our things. From consumers to users of our products?

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Each person living in Europe owns an average of 10 000 items – a figure set to increase. Antje Di Foglio of the District Future team is product designer and has been exploring the aging of things for years. She has a sustainable vision: Let us turn back into users of our products.

During his first week in kindergarten without his mom, little Jonas takes his cuddly toy with him. Grandpa Karl flatly refuses to trash the old, tatty carpet in the hallway. The things and we – there is definitely something between us, some sort of relationship, a connection, some flying sparks.

If we and our things have a common history: The owner of this polar bear is 25 years old. Picture: Antje Di Foglio.

In fact the things that surround us are more than mere objects of utility. The wardrobe in the bedroom, my jeans, the walls in my parents’ house, the little wall in the garden: Our things are points of identity and key elements in our world and help us to position ourselves. Who am I and where am I at the moment? We can express ourselves with their help and have something to hold on to. But what do we do if the number of things in our life is ever increasing? And we replace, substitute, and dump them more and more rapidly to buy new ones? What does this do to us and our world?

In fact the things that surround us are more than mere objects of utility. The wardrobe in the bedroom, my jeans, the walls in my parents’ house, the little wall in the garden: Our things are points of identity and key elements in our world and help us to position ourselves. Who am I and where am I at the moment? We can express ourselves with their help and have something to hold on to. But what do we do if the number of things in our life is ever increasing? And we replace, substitute, and dump them more and more rapidly to buy new ones? What does this do to us and our world?

Things are manufactured to be consumed

“Today, things are manufactured to be consumed”, states Antje, who studied at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe. While traditional materials like wood, metal, china, leather, and linen age with dignity and can outlive generations, most of the materials used today would only become shabby and damaged over the years. Shirts made of polyacrylics, sideboards made of pressboard, the sofa made of faux leather: “These materials do not age. They fall apart.”

This is, according to Antje, not only due to an economic system which relies on “planned obsolescence”, i.e. the built-in defects of products. It is also a Western concept of esthetics which we have all taken in by now. “This is the Hellenistic view of the world in whose tradition we are rooted and are familiar with”, she explains. “Everything is about perfection and youth! Today, products should be beautiful, shiny, immaculate. It is about personal optimization by ‘doing more’ and ‘buying more’.” Beautiful means new. And what is not new can go.

Wabi-sabi instead of everything new

In Japan, Antje discovered an alternative way of seeing things, a theory of esthetics, a philosophy: It is called “wabi-sabi” and includes the aging, the imperfect, incomplete and ephemeral, discovers the beauty within. A wooden flooring with deep scratches due to decades of use by a family. A jacket which was elaborately, but still obviously mended. A broken china plate, which was put together using liquid gold.

Impermanence in gold: the Japanese technique of Kintsugi. Picture: Wikipedia

“Wabi-sabi is about honesty and authenticity”, says Antje. Things are allowed to tell their story. They can show that they are in use, being needed, and live together with their people.

“The poor elves of Yiwu”

Fact is: During the last century we have lost our connection to things by distinguishing between manufacture and consumption of products, between craftspeople, workers, and buyers. A global phenomenon, which turned low-wage countries into the Western world’s textile factory and workbench. One example are the Christmas villages in the Chinese city of Yiwu which gained a weird sort of fame. Two-thirds of all Christmas decorations are manufactured there. Without even knowing what they actually produce, the migrant workers there work by the piece for a pittance; the German newspaper FAZ once called them the “poor elves of Yiwu”. And published pictures of the Chinese photographer Chen Ronghui who shot a father and his son at work – standing in red paint and chemicals, their heads only poorly protected by Santa hats.

Almost all Santa hats like this one are produced in the Chinese city of Yiwu.

Is Yiwu everywhere? Probably it can be seen as a symbol for our unrelatedness to our things. And this venomed, Far Eastern Christmas idyll quite plainly shows the impacts of this disconnection: People and the environment are being exploited for products which did not come to stay. Year after year they end up on the scrapheap. Year after year we buy them anew.

From consumers to users?

But: What can the consumers do? And which potential for change is implied in the self-understanding of the manufacturers? Anyhow, for Antje both sides are responsible – and she believes that change is possible. “We, the designers, act in a complex and ramified area of conflict and bear a huge social and moral responsibility from which we should not escape, are not allowed to escape. We designers work for the people and on relationships, our esthetic order of things keeps them grounded in a chaotic world. Products have to become more sustainable, more ecological, and more humane. There must not be design just for the sake of design.” What would happen if we would treat the things with respect again, honor and respect the work and care of the manufacturers? If we surround ourselves with things that are allowed to age and live with us – wouldn’t we realize that we do not need so many new things?

“‘Which are the things I like to live with? Which are the things I am related with?’ we could ask ourselves”, says Antje. “If we shop like this, we are also more likely to consume things which are more appreciated and loved and with which we want to live for a long time.” More and more consumers are, according to Antje, looking for the real, the true, for authenticity and meaning. “We are running short of resources, in a few decades the oilfields will be drained. A new understanding of the consumer will emerge. Maybe we could put it like this: We have to move on from consumers to users of our things.”“

Antje Di Foglio studied product design at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe. Her thesis “Spuren der Zeit” (The marks of time) dealt with the relationships and emotions into which people enter with their products – and their meaning for culture and society. A bound copy of her work is on display in the Future Space – come and have a look!
As a member of District Future, Antje wants to show the people and citizens how small steps can actively make a change for ourselves and others and change our consumer behavior. Because we are sure: Buying has an effect – on the world we are part of, the world that surrounds us, the world to come, and ourselves. In the new year, we want to contribute to a conscious, sustainable, and more regional consumption and revive cultural skills like barter and repair. Together with you we would like to think about the way sustainable consumption could look like in Karlsruhe’s Oststadt. We will keep you informed on our website, Facebook & Twitter!

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