“A world drowning in objects,” the title of the introduction to Deyan Sudjic’s The Language of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects, is an apt description of the things-filled lives so many of us lead. It’s timely, too: rather than reveling in our objects, he explains, we’re feeling overwhelmed by them. How did it get this way? What makes one object more desirable than another? Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London, intelligently and thoroughly explores the emotional and thought processes behind our appreciation of and craving for beautifully designed objects. In doing so, he provides a history of the people and innovations that have been instrumental in shaping our tastes and environment.

He turns his curator’s eye on everything from cars to computers to banknotes, and offers analyses of the evolution of objects’ roles as status indicators. For example, thanks to the advent of high-end computers, iPhones, BlackBerries and the like, the fountain pen is not as attractive a status object as it once was—but the watch is. Why? Because it’s jewelry, which has a “long history of addressing the emotional and tactile interaction between people and things.” Sudjic also examines how designer archetypes (the chair, lamp, certain types of architecture, etc.) frequently are re-imagined and addresses the role of fashion in design and vice versa.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is his explication of design vs. art, where he writes of the “taint of utility.” Or: art is art because it is useless, whereas design solves a problem and/or performs a function . . . but price “can have the effect of making a useful object useless” because something might be too pricey to use in everyday life. The Language of Things is filled with such moments of clarity, including Sudjic’s warning that, although design offers us a way of understanding the world, “We find ourselves seduced into constantly searching for the fleeting high of a new possession, a new purchase, and a fascination with the new.” An excellent point—and one of many in this insightful book, which is, of course, nicely designed.

Linda M. Castellitto is surrounded by designers in North Carolina.


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