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things 6
summer 1997

Wanting everything

'Tell us, they'll come and say to me. So we may understand and close the case. They're wrong. Its only what you do not understand that you can come to a conclusion about. There will be no conclusion.'

Peter Høeg, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, 1992

The thing I love about history, said one of the editors of things as we tucked into large plates of pasta after an evening spent coaxing the computer into new ways of dealing with subscriptions, is that its bigger than everything else. It contains all the rest. Except poetry, said someone else. 

When we first started things, we called it a journal of writings on design history. Very soon, we realised that the word design could not contain either the range or the direction of our interest in objects; and simultaneously that, as our interrogations of the objects and written records of the past had rapidly taught us, there can be no one history of any aspect of the past, but rather many possible stories. And writing about the past is another name for writing about the world. And so things became, as it remains, a journal of writings about objects, their histories and meanings.

By saying we are telling stories about the past, we do not mean that we are making them up, but only that none of us, in the end, can claim a knowledge of how it really was; and that someone else - with different documentary evidence, different questions, a different sense of how the world works - would tell a different story. In looking at objects, our narratives spread, intoxicatingly and impossibly, simultaneously in two directions: toward the grand narratives of society, politics, economics, where we find we can say less and less about more and more, and toward the intimacy of poetic diction, where we can say more and more about less and less. It is our ambition, somehow, in looking at the world through objects, to bring the two together: to combine the big stories with the little ones of our everyday lives through what is at hand - the many and various objects through which we articulate our position in the world. 

In this issue of things, Rosemary Hill explores the relationship between an object and some of the most famous words in the English language, Keats's Grecian urn, and how his immersion in the decorative tastes of his day were condensed into poetry. The neglected story of the influence of gay fashion on the menswear revolution that became the Carnaby Street phenomenon is traced by Shaun Cole. Ruth Levy offers an early, and provisional, history of graphic design software; a story that combines nerdy back-room discoveries with board-room battles, and ended up transforming the world of the printed world (among other things, making this journal possible). Having made itself an icon, to use one of the decade's favourite words, of the acquisitive Eighties, the Italian household goods company Alessi is working hard to give its playful plastic products of the Nineties the same status; but, as Grace Lees writes, harnessing the ironies of post-modernism as a selling force is not an easy business. And, in our first picture-essay, we present a collection of images of collectors, historians, restorers of meaning by the Finnish photographer Veli Granö. 


We are as voracious in our approach to the world and its objects as we are in our approach to pasta after a hard night's work. But although we want to know everything, we are aware of the accompanying dangers that, in the end, to explain too much can be to explain nothing at all. Total and watertight explanations, as anyone who has worked with victims of paranoia knows, are a symptom of that disease. 

And so, in our investigations into the past, we cast other things in our paths: objects, non-words that lie outside our systems of explanation, and creative prose and poetry, which remind us, as we tell our own stories, of how much of the world we are seeking to understand will always remain unknown and confounding. For things are not words; they do not offer the ready interpretations that are part of the baggage of human experience. And so intertwined are language and the physical world that, in reaching back into the past of objects, we reach into language itself, unravelling metaphors and usages invented by sensibilities shaped by experiences that we have long forgotten. 

things 6, summer 1997

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