Thingness Essay


An essay by Karen Richmond and Maiko Tsutsumi

Thingness is a feeling as much as a philosophical debate. This essay is written from the perspective of a more grounded approach to materiality, by two people coming from different traditions of making: one from a Japanese craft tradition, the other from a 1990s UK fine art education. It has developed from the long-held shared interest in our connections to objects that came from these two very different perspectives. In one, ideas are believed to reside in the material, and for the other the making was concerned with how to reconcile the idea and the material.

As humans we experience our world through the materiality of things. We walk on concrete, wooden, or carpeted floors and drink tea from a ceramic, paper, plastic or polystyrene cup. There is a continuous, invisible exchange taking place between us, our objects and our environment. Thingess began from an awareness of the designers’ and makers’ notable sensitivity towards the materiality of things. In the culture of designers and makers, it was observed that there appears to be a cyclical nature in this producing, and receiving from things – “the way in which people make objects and objects make people.”1

Studies on what man-made objects do to humans have been conducted in many different academic subjects: anthropology, philosophy (of many different branches, including philosophy of technology), cognitive psychology and sociology, to name a few. What is evident in these studies is that, despite its seemingly definitive character, the very essence of objects evades linguistic articulation. How then can “material articulation” work? The anthropologist Daniel Miller observed that “the artefact may perhaps best be understood as playing a series of bridging roles. It does not lend itself to the…analysis of symbolism which identified distinct abstract signifiers and concrete signifieds, since it simultaneously operates at both levels.” Material objects escape intellectual scrutiny because they “tends towards presentational form, which cannot be broken up as thought into grammatical sub-units, and as such they appear to have a particularly close relation to emotions, feelings and basic orientations to the world.”2

We have observed that the learning of a making skill – by hand, or with tools – plays a vital role in developing the sensitivity towards materiality. It appears to be the case that through acquiring the skill by doing, the maker gains access with the “external physical world which is nevertheless in a more immediate relationship with the unconscious than the world of articulate symbolism.”3 We are particularly aware of the way learning and becoming accustomed to making skills can often feel like “living the knowledge”, as Peter Dormer put it. This sense of “living the knowledge” is characteristic of practical knowledge that includes tacit knowledge and the knowledge of familiarity. When the maker becomes at ease with his or her own skills, their mind focuses more on the act of making itself than the tool that is enabling it. Whereas “the knowledge of familiarity” is gained through senses that are grounded in experiencing sensations.4

Matthew Crawford, a philosopher and a motorcycle mechanic wrote in The Case for Working with your Hands, that he finds “manual work more engaging intellectually.”5 The way makers and designers engage with the world of materiality, through their skills or sensitivity to the physical/material world, enable them to produce the familiar, bringing the world closer to us. Material things are, in philosophical terms, understood to mediate the internal and external world of human beings.6 Their transcendent capacity is manifested in “how everyday people use everyday objects to transcend their everyday experience and to connect and mediate… universal human experiences.”7

The designer Jasper Morrison observed how objects affect the atmosphere of the space around it: “It seemed to me that the change in atmosphere of a room when an object is added might be hard to measure, but that in some way it represented an invisible quality of the objects.” He noted that “an awareness of this might be an important factor in designing things.”8 The kind of qualities with which objects “materially” affect their immediate surroundings are best exemplified in the essence of the anonymous objects for use. Their qualities that are recognized by many designers and architects, are described as quiet, almost invisible, but possess a strong presence.9

The exhibition Thingness is a collection of objects. However it is also a collection of people’s experiences, their histories, their connections to and interactions with the material world. Bruno Latour commented that “things do not exist without being full of people” and that “considering humans necessarily involves the consideration of things.”10 Here we would like to “take objects seriously,” and through taking objects seriously we are accessing the “humility of objects.”11 It was a surprise to Miller but not a surprise to us “that objects are important, not because they are evident and physically constrain or enable, but quite the opposite. It is often precisely because we do not see them. The less we are aware of them, the more powerfully they can determine our expectations, by setting the scene and ensuring appropriate behaviour… They determine what takes place to the extent that we are unconscious of their capacity to do so.”12 Like our objects, the exhibition and the dialogue around Thingness will hopefully open up the space for more exchange and engagement with making and living with objects.


1. Haidy Geismar, ‘“Material Culture Studies” and other Ways to Theorize Objects: A Primer to a Regional Debate,’ Comparative Studies in Society and History 53(1) (2011), 210.

2. Daniel Miller, Material Culture and Mass Consumption (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 107.

3. Ibid., 103. Miller suggested that Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of ‘habitus’ provides an example of how we might assimilate this apparent paradox.

4. Allan Janik’s concept referred by Peter Dormer in Peter Dormer, The Art of the Maker: Skill and Its Meaning in Art, Craft and Design  (London: Thames & Hudson, 1994), 21.

5. Matthew Crawford, The Case for Working with Your Hands, or, Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (London: Viking, 2010), 5.

6. Peter-Paul Verbeek, What Things Do: Philosophical reflections on technology, agency, and design (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), 168.

7. Geismar, ‘“Material Culture Studies” and other Ways to Theorize Objects: A Primer to a Regional Debate,’ 213.

8. Jasper Morrison, Everything but the Walls (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2002), 14.

9. The Italian designer Bruno Munari famously convinced the judges of the prestigious Compasso d’Oro Award in Italy to award the prize to the anonymous designers of a collection of anonymous objects.

10. Bill Brown “Thing Theory,” In The Object Reader, ed. Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins (New York: Routledge, 2009), 145.

11. Miller, Material Culture and Mass Consumption, 85-108.

12. Daniel Miller, Stuff (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), 50.