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A woman sitting alone at her desk, in the shadow that she casts there’s a random assemblage of items, including a refrigerator, a lawn chair, a shelf, and hamper. Illustration.

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The case for keeping things

We live in a throwaway society, but our objects deserve better

At the Weald and Downland Living Museum in Singleton, West Sussex, England, the cast and crew of the BBC and now Netflix show The Repair Shop lovingly restore cherished items brought in by Britons around the country. Think of it as the anti-Antiques Roadshow. Instead of focusing on how much the items are materially worth, Repair Shop centers around their meaningfulness to those who own them, their emotional (and sometimes historical) value as objects. Most of the items brought into the shop are unremarkable—teddy bears, an old piano bench, a phonograph—and the stories behind them are often equally quotidian, defined by memories of Mom and Dad, childhood, a deceased spouse, places one used to live. That’s what makes the show so compelling. When participants see their restored items for the first time, it is often a tear-jerking moment. The show captures a rarely seen role ordinary objects play in our ordinary lives. And there is something deeply soothing about watching a craftsman assemble a clock or repair the veneers on an old desk.

A common refrain on The Repair Shop is that we live in a “throwaway society”—a society that produces cheap, low-quality goods we would rather discard and replace than repair. The show aims to change this by example, demonstrating the joy and value in lovingly mending the old. Though our lives may be replete with fast food, fast fashion, and fast furniture, for every one of us there are special objects that carry deep emotional value and are therefore irreplaceable, as the beloved old writing desks, stained-glass windows, and clocks on Repair Shop sensitively demonstrate.

The philosophy of Repair Shop has its roots in the English Arts and Crafts movement, which arose in the 19th century as a reaction against mass production in the decorative arts. The artists and writers of the Arts and Crafts movement believed that mass production had severed the intellectual act of designing from the actual (and deeply meaningful) physical process of producing the good itself, and that this separation was socially alienating and a threat to aesthetic taste. As a countermeasure to this, movement figureheads like William Morris encouraged the mastery of craft skills, the formation of a guild-like society of designer-craftsmen, and the rejection of industrial machinery in favor of the hands-on creation and repair of objects. In his oft-quoted words: “without dignified, creative human occupation, people become disconnected from life.” The Arts and Crafts movement emphasized the role of nature, vernacular British traditions, the importance of craftsmanship, and simplicity of form, all of which combined to create a warm and rustic aesthetic.

A lot of random items like a soap dish, dog statue, and vintage watch being tossed in a wire trash bin. Illustration.

Morris was a utopian socialist who attributed the loss of quality in decorative objects to the rise of capitalism and the division of labor brought about by industrial production. What was once the slow, methodical, dedicated work of rural folk, craftspeople, or artisans was now the work of low-wage workers toiling away in smoky, hellish factories that robbed the joy from the creative process.

Despite their age, the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement still resonate. The industry Morris critiqued a century ago has only accelerated in both scale and disposability, and with the climate crisis looming, criticisms of modern modes of production, once considered passé in a time of emphasis on technology and efficiency, have once again reared their head in contemporary architecture and culture, informing the shift toward vintage furniture and arguments for banning disposable plastics.

Two current movements in particular, upcycling and degrowth, are perhaps the most politically charged and subversive, tying them ideologically and practically to the utopian goals of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Upcycling, also known as creative reuse, takes items that are not wanted or are discarded and repurposes them as something new and useful. The term was coined as an antonym to “downcycling”—what we commonly think of as recycling—the extraction of raw materials from a discarded product for the purpose of reusing them in the production process. Though its roots lie in 1990s Germany, the movement gained momentum in 2002 with the publication of William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The goal of upcycling is not only a reduction in waste, but a rethinking of the way we design and produce products.

Most people know the term “upcycling” from Etsy or Pinterest, where you’ll find bathtub flowerbeds, cheese graters turned into lighting fixtures, and all kinds of repurposed furniture, crafts, and even clothing. While some may laugh at the premise of a cheese grater chandelier, isn’t it ultimately better that a rusty utensil see new life than rot away in a landfill for generations? The inherent premise of upcycling, which is that objects have value beyond their raw materials or expected lifespan, is so antithetical to the way we consume that its revolutionary glimmer shouldn’t be written off as the province of “Etsy Moms.” Like Repair Shop, upcycling argues against the wasteful discarding of everything from furniture to clothing, and like the Arts and Crafts movement, upcycling sees objects as a way to fight back against a materially rich but alienated world and to advocate for hands-on craftsmanship as a possible solution.

Degrowth is an environmental and philosophical movement that has its roots in the 1970 book The Limits of Growth, by Dennis Meadows, Donella Meadows, J?rgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, which warns that if we keep producing and consuming at the current rate, we will bring about environmental collapse. Almost 50 years after its publication, the rapacious pursuit of economic growth above all else has continued unabated, with devastating ecological consequences. One example of such unsustainable practices is the fast-furniture industry, which is responsible for the daily disposal of 9 million tons of cheap furniture, including 50,000 mattresses. Degrowth, once an obscure academic topic, has recently seen a renaissance with the publication of Kate Raworth’s book Donut Economics. The premise of degrowth is the shift toward a society where economic growth is not the main priority of nations and societies, a world where we produce and consume less, and where production and consumption are self-sustaining when they do occur.

Recently, the Oslo Architecture Triennale, titled “Enough: The Architecture of Degrowth,” asked architects around the world to imagine what architecture and design would look like in a post-growth society. Instead of the traditional coffee-table book of exhibitions, the curators produced a book of speculative fiction that explored what it would be like to live in a world without growth. (My favorite story involves the resurgence of traveling by river, and how it would undo our conceptions of time that originated with the railroad and the factory, thereby interrogating our need to get places as fast as possible and reframing travel as a time for reflection.) The Triennale exhibits, centered around the concepts established by public spaces—libraries, theaters, playgrounds, and schools where people share space, play, and knowledge—feature an eclectic mixture of display items, including books of experimental theory, board games about co-living, analog toys that interact with the sun, new materials made of garbage, and imaginative video and illustrative works that explore a life unmoored from the need to constantly work, produce, and consume.

Not quite utopian, degrowth aims for realism and interrogates how our obsession with growth disconnects us from nature, other people, time, and, yes, the meaning of objects in our lives. One leaves both the Triennale and a viewing of Repair Shop with an imagining of a better world, a world where we take care of the earth, those around us, and our belongings, a world where relationships are emphasized and the emotional connections we form to place, space, objects, and time are reconsidered. Watching Repair Shop made me examine my feelings toward the objects in my life and reconsider what would happen if something beloved in my home were to break. Even picturing such a thing engendered feelings of deep grief that I did not expect to feel over, say, an aluminum pitcher or a teakettle. Upon leaving the Triennale in Oslo in September, I had totally reconsidered the possibilities for the future, with hope for more adaptation to change and a new relationship to the world around us. On the plane back, I wished I could take an ocean liner instead, or perhaps a solar-powered yacht like Greta Thunberg’s, not out of guilt but out of the desire for a world where I had the time and opportunity to have the experience.

What does it mean to love things? What does it mean to consume? And if we had the choice and the time and financial security to execute that choice, how would we change the way we do so? Yes, we indeed, as the meme goes, “live in a society”—but what if that society prioritized care over consumption, repair over disposal, experience over efficiency? These are powerful questions with ramifications that touch every aspect of our daily lives. It’s time we, as a society, started asking them more.

Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses. Outside of McMansion Hell, Kate is a guest contributor for Curbed, 99 Percent Invisible, and Atlas Obscura. In addition to writing about architecture, Kate has worked extensively as a sound engineer.

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