The Things We Live With
What’s your relationship to objects?
Objects have a significant role in my life, which I put down to two formative aspects of my childhood. My granddad was in the navy and he and my granny lived in several different countries around the world. Their home was a treasure trove of extraordinary curiosities, which I found fascinating. Each one had a story attached to it - not just about what it was, how it was made and where it was from - but also as a portal to anecdotes of my grandparents’ exotic lives. Subconsciously I presume, I learned from a very early age that objects had talismanic properties as vessels for memories. Today, I have several of the objects I marvelled at in my grandparents’ home, and I consider myself the guardian of much more than just their things – I am safeguarding their memories also.
I grew up in a hotel on an island off Scotland, and went away to boarding school when I was seven. Being transplanted from the security of a domestic setting into an institutional one at such a young age made me aware of the potential to invest a feeling of home in small things I could take with me to the times when I was away at school. I find a powerful comfort in being surrounded by my things, as a result. Objects contain memories and also feelings. They are conduits to different times and places, and are deeply personal as a result. My own feeling towards objects is divorced from commercial value, and more about emotional resonance. Some of my most valuable possessions are stones and bits of wood that are utterly worthless to anyone else but they mean everything to me.
What objects and pieces of furniture interests you and why?
I am drawn to things that bear the marks of time and use, more than pristine or box fresh perfection. Natural ephemera fascinate me. Rocks hewn by millennia of tides, glaciers and volcanic activity remind me of the fragility of humanity and the resilience of the planet, which I find disturbing and humbling in equal measures. It is a similar mindset that leads me to seek out old furniture over new. I don’t need to know who a chair belonged to or where it came from to love it. It is enough to see its upholstery frayed or legs worn down from the teeth marks of someone else’s dog, to know that it has been enjoyed in former lives, and I am merely its latest caretaker. I’ve never fully understood how people can be so attached to new furniture. It takes several decades of heavy bottoms to shape a good chair into something irresistibly comfortable. There can be no greater proof of furniture’s quality than time.
What pieces / objects / furniture do you like to bring to your own studio or home? Do you collect something specific and how does that inform what you do?
I have been fortunate in my working life to travel extensively, to some of the world’s biggest cities and most remote retreats too. Every trip is a precious experience of people and discovery of a place. I have taken a stone back with me from almost all of these trips, and today my study is like a rock garden. The British landscape writer Robert MacFarlane described stones as mineral postcards, and that says it all. My collection is well into the hundreds, and I have them displayed in serendipitous groupings not just in my study but increasingly all over our house too. I can remember where most of them came from, but not all. And this doesn’t bother me so much. They inform my thoughts in so many ways. Most obviously, the memories they carry from specific ventures to windswept beaches, dank jungles and rugged mountain trails. They connect me to the places I have been and the things I have seen, and in that connection they make me feel infinitesimally small and insignificant, which I find strangely inspiring. I am surrounded by a skeleton of bones from the earth, quite literally. The weight and scars of time and tides these minerals carry is mind-blowing. Collectively, they help keep the daily mundanity of a tiny life at my laptop in perspective.
How do you think our relationship to objects and owning will change in the coming years?
“Fewer, Better Things” is the way forward, as Glenn Adamson’s recent and wonderful book tells us. Recognising the need for this and practising it are not the same thing, however. What does “enough” mean and how do we regulate rampant consumption in such a bloated, unfair world? Is personal, individual restraint the only way? We are at the mercy of forces that need and feed greed, so any hope of reaching collective consensus to “just buy less” feels futile to even imagine.
The allure of objects and owning runs deeper than consumerism and status. There is something primal in the sense of possibility inherent in what we gather and buy. Alongside my stones, I hoard books and even at the tender(ish) age of 40 am aghast to think that I have amassed a collection that I will never possibly read in my lifetime. Yet still I buy more. It is the possibility of the knowledge they contain that makes me feel alive.
This interview was originally published in The New Era magazine, issue 03