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Designing Ourselves


Designing Ourselves

Daniel Miller


Mary, who lives next door to you, is a museum curator and designer, specializing in interior decoration; indeed, you could say she is something of an artist. OK, perhaps her name is not Mary. Actually, I have no idea what the name of your next-door neighbor is. But the point I am making is that I don’t need to know their name. Whoever you are, and whatever the name of your next-door neighbor, I am going to persuade you that that person is actually a museum curator, an artist, and perhaps even a designer. And if you don’t believe me, then please read on…

For me to be able to make that claim, it would have to follow that everyone who has a place to live in can be described in those terms. Finding an ‘anyone’ within an ‘everyone’ is not an easy task, which is why this paper is based on a rather peculiar experiment: an exercise designed to capture this idea that all people are equal in their capacity to exemplify this design and curating capacity. For this purpose, all the examples used in this paper come from a publication called *The Comfort of Things* (Miller 2008). The book is a description of the material culture of thirty households mostly from a single street (and its side streets) in South London. The thirty were selected from the one hundred that took part in this anthropological study. There was no particular reason to pick this street other than convenience of transport for the two researchers who undertook this research, myself and a PhD student, Fiona Parrott. We were looking for a place with a range of housing, from government estates to reasonably affluent looking single homes. Other than that, we knew nothing about the place.

One reason for seeing this as an example of ‘anyone’ and ‘everyone’ is the unprecedented degree of cultural heterogeneity that characterizes contemporary London. Unlike most US cities, London’s minority groups have now dispersed widely from earlier enclaves (Johnston, Forrest, and Poulsen 2002; Peach 1996; Simpson 2007). Only 23% of the informants involved in our study were born in London, and yet there was no particular minority group present. A ‘typical’ household might be a Brazilian married to a Frenchman. Our research also suggested that predetermined parameters of identity may not be the most salient generalizations. For example, although there were thirteen gay individuals represented, we found nothing in common between them relevant to our study. In addition, this paper cites examples from an initial pilot study of twenty friends and colleagues also based in London. I will divide this paper into two halves. In the first half, I will examine everyone in terms of the evidence for how they work as museum curators, and in the second half I will focus on their work as designers, more particularly as interior decorators.

Householders as museum curators

What does it mean to suggest that we are all museum curators? Well, to curate is to feel responsible for, and look after, the objects in your possession. To be a museum curator suggests that at least some of these objects will be chosen for public display, and these will illustrate some theme. Mostly, they are historical evidence for past events, but they may also be evidence for taste, or the work of an artist or some such. Now, it is very rare indeed that we could enter into the front room of our next-door neighbor and not expect to be confronted with some sort of public display chosen from the possessions of that household. Many of these are likely to be clues as to the past history of that household, some possession the household may have had for a very long time, perhaps some more recent acquisitions to their collection. Indeed, collections may form part of the display. As well as history, this display may demonstrate their aesthetic sensibilities and may include the work of artists, or at least copies of such works. At some level, the sense that individuals have selected from their possessions which objects to display, and given thought to how they will be organized and presented, makes it reasonable to see a normal householder as at least analogous to a museum curator. In the second section of the chapter, I will deal with the organization of the display that runs parallel with design and interior decoration. But for this section, I am concerned to understand why people select certain objects as important to them in the first place.

One of the reasons an object may be selected for display is that it has become inalienable (Weiner 1992), something that perhaps once was a mere commodity that could have been owned by anyone. But over time, possession itself has turned it into something that has deep resonance for that family, not just a display item, but perhaps even a potential heirloom. At this point, it is inalienable in the sense that no one would sell such a thing; its monetary value is just not the point. So, on a bookshelf lies grandfather’s tin from the First World War. By now though, this tin simultaneously represents the specific grandfather, England, and history itself. A ring is felt to be inalienable because of the deep love between one’s parents but also for the importance of love in general. Objects may also be inalienable because they have come to stand for Nigeria or Argentina or some other place one has come from. A clock from one’s grandparents’ farm stands for roots in the countryside as well as them specifically. A print of one of the heroes of the IRA also stands for one’s specific Irish roots within this cosmopolitan, but possibly hostile, social environment. Inalienability tends to pass within family or occasionally across deep relations. A man may want his wife to wear something he inherited from his grandmother.

For decades, Orson Welles’ masterpiece *Citizen Kane* topped the polls for the best film ever made. The narrative of that film is dominated by the search for Rosebud, the last word ever spoken by the great man. The characters never discover the secret of Rosebud, which is eventually revealed to us to have been the name of the snowboard that Kane used as a child. The film’s portrayal of Kane’s life represents one of the foundational myths of American ideology and, to some extent, British also: the myth of materialism, which implies that in the modern world we have become so oriented to developing our relationship to objects, especially commodities, that we have lost the ability to forge relationships with people. In the case of Kane, we see his ability to garner unprecedented wealth and luxury based on his media empire. But this was achieved at the cost of any sustained and fulfilling relationship with the people around him, so that in the end he leaves the world with the memory of the one thing that he could look back on as a meaningful relationship, an object whose memory supported him in his isolation: a childhood toy.

Dominic is no *Citizen Kane*. He is not wealthy, and I doubt he ever will be, partly because he is unusually satisfied with the level of economic success he has already achieved. He is even talking about taking some sort of midlife break from work to be spent trekking around the world as a kind of late gap year. But, while I would be very glad to be wrong, I can’t help imagining for Dominic a deathbed scene somewhat reminiscent of *Citizen Kane*. In the case of Dominic, the place of Rosebud would be taken by the pottery figure of an owl. I don’t know if this owl has a name. It’s not a particularly impressive owl; I doubt it was expensive. Aesthetically, it’s pretty ordinary. It was made by a Belgian pottery workshop in a style typical of contemporary folk arts and crafts, that is, slightly more upmarket than mass-produced souvenirs. It is not intended to be realistic, since there are bright green, blue, yellow, and orange patches that signify modern craft’s continued allegiances to modern art. While as much abstract as realist in style, it is clearly an owl with those large eyes and what would-be characteristic ears – except that one of them has been broken at some stage.

It is not a particularly visible owl. It stands among other ornaments on the mantelpiece, along with brass candlesticks and bowls – very much the sort of ornaments and souvenirs one expects to see these days on mantelpieces, although this one doesn’t happen to have the typical invitation cards, vase of flowers, and clock that are found on most. The owl only stands out from the rest through the filtering effects of Dominic’s own narrative and an understanding of how he sees this room. When you first enter the flat, it seems crowded with possessions: bookcases, ornaments on the walls and windowsills. But then Dominic explains that the flat is just a temporary let and belongs to someone else, as do ninety percent of the things in it. Dominic himself has really very few possessions, given his age and income, and in any case does not see himself as staying long enough to want to make major changes. So, rather as one views a play against a theatrical backdrop, one needs to find a way for most things to fade into a fuzzy background and allow his possessions to visually come into focus. Only then can one see the room as his room. I try to do this as I listen to him, but even then the owl does not really fly out of its own accord.

It is simply that everything else he possesses has, in his own mind, an aura of transience, leaving only this one single object to stand for the connected thread that is his being. The owl is the only object that actually comes from the past, from his own point of origin, the only thing that conceptually, along with his own body, has a sort of ‘made in Belgium’ stamp forever attached to it. It is also the only object that, in his mind, is destined to remain with him, accompanying him into the future. I hope he never loses this owl, because I fear a time will come when, just as for *Citizen Kane* and Rosebud, there will be only one relationship that has remained faithful to Dominic and that stands as the material presence of the man. One of the poignant moments of *Citizen Kane* is when we see Rosebud being burnt, unacknowledged and unmourned, along with countless other possessions. Archaeologists are much beholden to the ancient custom of burial goods, where certain prized possessions were placed with the dead. Sometimes, I wish this custom could be continued. I think that one ought to be able to place this owl with this man one day, when he is no more than dead flesh or ashes. Not for an afterlife but because the idea might be a comfort to him.

Dominic starts from a condition of poverty, a house with only an outside lavatory and no electricity. Historically, many such families would send their children out to exploit economic niches as they emerged, with opportunities for employment. In his case, he found work with the seasonal tourist industry, which provided labor in catering and other such activities for the summer months. For Dominic, to work at the English seaside was a natural extension of the more traditional work on the Belgian coastline, and it established him with skills in the catering industry. From the coast, he worked his way inland to London, and through his hard work and the thrift ingrained by his family, after ten years of seasonal work he was able to accumulate sufficient capital to open a place for himself. Eventually, this led to the establishment of his wine bar near Richmond, which has sustained him for more than a decade now.

For many years, then, Dominic had moved about as employment possibilities opened up and, in particular, had traveled frequently between England and Belgium. This created an expectation of continual mobility in which possessions were largely a burden. The few things he kept from his life at home were subject to attrition and, in consequence, this single possession, the owl, established its position as the sole representative of his life in Belgium from quite early on. Like Dominic himself, it was destined to be an individual by default, but, once it possessed this particular significance, it became the single object that always traveled with him and thereby managed to keep up with his restless movements between sites and circumstances.

Dominic is unusual in this emphasis upon a single object as all which remains. For most people, it is more a case of objects that speak to different times of their lives. When a person becomes elderly their possessions may start to seem like a museum that amount to a précis of their past. Such was the case with Dora. We carried out an inventory of all the objects found in her living room. On reflection, these turned out to be a résumé of her full life. One of the most poignant is the bright red piggy bank that today she still fills with twenty pence coins. When full, it contains fifty pounds that can be spent – a routine that reminds her of her origins in poverty. There is one photo of her as a little girl, living a life made hard from birth when her father was gassed in the trenches in World War One, and another photo of her as a girl guide. There is just one table inherited from her mother, from the period when she first worked is her sewing machine, also a decorated box and a valance from the Jewish family that ran the alteration shop where she was employed. There is a picture of the first wedding dress she made for herself, six decades ago, that sees its counterpoint in several examples of needlework from recent years.

Though she has the two engagement rings from her two marriages, few possessions remain from the first marriage, which was mired in poverty, only the government condolence letter for his death. From the second marriage, which took her to Portugal and Spain, she has a table, a carpet, and an ornament from Portugal. She displays a photo of herself with her husband at a dinner party, another of one of his ancestors, and a decorated box from his family. Following his death, she left most of their lavish belongings to his family, returning to England to unpack some of those things she had saved on her own account. Of these she treasured the stylish cutlery, egg cups, and silver cups from a high class London shop. With the thrift that is reflected in her piggy bank, she would buy cutlery one at a time until she reached five, when the manager would give her the sixth for free. She has a certificate from the ambulance service she worked with during the War and a photo of the luncheon room where she worked afterwards for twenty-five years, ending with a certificate of freedom from the City of London where the luncheon room was sited. There is a picture from when she looked really good in the 1960s, a photo of a close friend, a letter from Mrs. Thatcher, and a picture from a holiday in France. There is no reason to imagine that Dora intended this résumé effect. It is rather the result of this ‘economy of relationships’, such that each significant relationship, whether to persons or periods and events of her past, ultimately becomes reduced to just one or two objects as other mementoes make way for other relationships. Clearly, the more relationships one has lived through, the more any one relationship has to be pruned back to one or two totalizing mementoes in the performance of economy.

Sometimes, the relationship is not to a single object but to a collection. Take, for example, Marina’s relation to McDonald’s Happy Meals. For six years, she took her three children every week to McDonald’s to eat a Happy Meal and keep the toys produced in series that came free with them. If going on holiday she tried to make sure she went to the McDonald’s at the airport so as not to miss out on the series as a whole. She is lyrical in her praise for both the toys and the place. She says, “I just think they are incredibly well made, such beautiful things and they’re free, you get them with the meal. They are mass-produced to an exceptionally high standard.” She also harps on about McDonald’s itself, their baby changing facilities, the way they encouraged breastfeeding, how she got to know the personnel, the reliability of their food, which she also claims is healthier than alternatives.

Why? Firstly, it turns out that Marina, like Sharon, repudiates her parents by becoming a tomboy and then, in her case, training in engineering. Her parents were brought up in the colonial office in Africa, but without quite enough money to live up to their class pretensions. She feels she was neglected, given over like the other kids to their African nannies, but carefully trained to make sure they only ever said lavatory, never toilet. So, at one level, McDonald’s is a repudiation of these class pretensions, of parents who would never go to McDonald’s, who treated their children so coldly. But there is more. These six years were sandwiched between this conflict with parents who she stopped speaking to and the recent unemployment of her husband, which means, while working, she never has enough time to spend with her children. The ‘McDonald’s period’ was the only time that wasn’t either alienated from the past or from the present.

Taking her kids to McDonald’s, including the half-hour playing with the new toys, was for her almost the only moment of pure indulged motherhood, away from competing domestic tasks. These were precisely Happy Meals where her children learned to care, systematically collect, develop imagination, and create perfect moments of family life. All her precise memories of her children’s development are associated with obtaining specific toys that still today come out as collections in the summer. McDonald’s Happy Meals became an aesthetic totalization of her existence. She is delighted that her children are regaling us with detailed stories evoked by these toys while we are sitting having tea.

To keep up the analogy with a museum curator, I have focused on objects that might be on display and that relate to the past. But actually, the core objects may be ones that are of particular importance today, not just the things that a person curates but that which helps them become a curator, organizing their relation to their past and their present. Malcolm’s work fluctuates between Australia and the UK, but what he understands as his permanent address is his email, and the nearest thing to home is his laptop. Both his friendships and his work are largely organized by email, a place he constantly orders, returns to, cares for, and where in many respects ‘his head is’. But to understand the intensity of this relationship to his laptop, we need to read the anthropologist Fred Myers (1986). Because, Myers notes, for many Aboriginal groups there is a tradition of avoiding the physical possessions of the deceased. Malcolm’s mother was Australian Aboriginal, and most of her possessions were indeed destroyed at her death. But he took from her a mission to locate and preserve the history of his family, including those members once taken away from their parents. As he sees it, too much Aboriginal history is viewed as lying in police records; he wants a proper archive that he will deposit in an Australian State archive.

Malcolm has an antipathy to things. He has given most of his inherited or childhood objects away. In his devotion to immateriality, he prefers anything digital. He is getting into digital photographs; he downloads music and immediately throws out the covers. Very unusual in this street study, he even gives away his books after he has read them. One could relate this to his mobility, one could relate it to his interest in the potential of new technologies, one could relate it to this Aboriginal inheritance. There is more. His father sold antiques, but the result was that as soon as he started becoming attached to things in his childhood, they would be sold – another possible source of his detachment from things. Once again then, his personal habitus (Bourdieu 1977), this over-determined meaning when trying to understand why people do things, is actually usually not from a single influence or cause but rather the reinforcement that comes from several different influences. Even Malcolm can’t decide how much his mobility is cause and effect. But the overall result, as he puts it, is “I think I’ve set myself up to be out of touch with objects and things, so there’s probably something psychological behind that”. He has a more ambiguous relation to less tangible things like documents, sorting both his mother’s and his own things into neat box files. But his real identification is with digital forms. He constantly updates and sorts his emails, which becomes the updating of his social relationships. In going through them, he recalls all those friends he owes emails to.

One could try and stretch the Aboriginal inheritance. The laptop as a kind of digital dream world that connects current relationships with those of the dead, a place he comes in and out of, as more real than merely real life. He retains this intense concern with lineage, devoting much of his time to creating order out of kinship history. He seems obsessed that if he were to die that thanks to constantly sorting his emails he would leave a legacy that was archived and up to date, so no one would have to do the work he did recovering and ordering his ancestral lives. But for my purpose, what he typifies is firstly the multiple determination of his cosmology. His father, mother, and his work come together as possible explanations. One could not claim to have predicted him, but given what we now know, this relationship to his laptop that at first seemed so bizarre can certainly make sense. It is an aesthetic, a material cosmology. One can see how the horizontal dimensions of order, the various current influences, merge with the verticality of historical influences to produce this over-determination in his background.

Householders as designers and interior decorators

Treating householders as though they were museum curators helps us understand how they relate to particular objects and why they may choose to display them. But the other analogy I want to stress is the idea of householders as designers, especially in this case interior decorators, since they may care just as much about the aesthetics and the order of their display as for the content. Home interiors come in a vast array of guises. In some cases, the emphasis is on the order of design, and no objects are allowed that intrude upon the aesthetic. Here, the designer aspect has won out against the curator. In other cases, it is obvious that the person has scattered around the room things that are souvenirs or gifts or memories. These don’t mean anything to us, since we did not share those memories, but we may feel this is the more comfortable sort of room, because we feel at home in such a place that seems somehow less pretentious and more human in its emphasis upon curation rather than design. Mostly, however, people try and combine both of these relationships to objects.

There are the more extreme examples of paramount design: when a house objectifies the values of its inhabitants with unrelenting aesthetic consistency, such as designers whose house is a shrine to their cosmology. The house that proclaims there is ‘no color but cream’. The house whose doctrine is that objects must express dynamism rather than denote museums. So, on the wall are not pictures, as in other houses, but clothes hung as decorations, which can be changed over time. Thirty pairs of jeans are carefully ordered according the precise degree of wash, fade, and distressing. A similarly overt cosmology is evident when one walks into a Feng Shui house. It speaks to a life that insists no sentiment or other interest can disrupt the tyranny of calm order. Gifts from relatives – indeed, all gifts – are carefully stowed away in unseen cupboards or given away. Here, light, the sound of fountains, rock and wood, are all where they should be, consistency resolving contradiction. This Feng Shui is just as important as an antidote to the householder’s wife’s stressful work as a management consultant as it is to his own work as an acupuncturist with an Eastern spiritual inflection.

More often though, people compromise such aesthetic principles. Di, for example, like many others, wants to retain something of her parents’ possessions as memories but doesn’t want these to undermine the autonomy she has carefully constructed for her own life. So, when they move house she takes certain things but keeps them today not in the house but in her garden shed. The shed is both near enough and far enough to exemplify the place in her life she wants her parents to inhabit. This matters because the most consistent relationship she has cultivated in her life is to the house itself. Starting from her hippy days, the house became the repository of ethnic paraphernalia that stands also for her liberal attitudes reflected today in her work with immigrant children. Even her husband at their divorce knew he could not ask for things from this, their once shared, house. The house is full of her emotional repertoire. It has places to cry in, to have great sex in. She can look at a wall of tickets to rock gigs she has been to. But it’s also her logistical base, without children, the object of her practice of care. The house links the very particular schema of emotions and pragmatism that is Di’s aesthetic form.

If Dora as a curator has objects that mark each stage in her life, the same principle can be applied to the spatial design of the interior. One Irish couple, who have retired from a life of owning pubs, recognize that the photographs and images on display are so numerous that they joke there is no need to paint since you cannot see the color of the walls behind. On careful inspection, it emerges that the relationships are grouped around themes. One cluster relates to their lives as publicans. There is another area that is effectively a Catholic shrine of religious images. Yet another is dedicated to the educational qualifications of relatives. But as well as kin, there is also a small area that preserves mementoes to deceased customers, some of whom, one comes to realize, ended their lives with no one else to remember them but the landlords of their favorite pub. Sports, weddings, Irish Republican heroes, childhood, and holidays all constitute additional genres of relationships that jostle for room within an economy constituted essentially by the size of space available for explicit memorialization.

Quite often, we have to understand this interior decoration not just as a passive representation of a life but an active process by which people manage their current relationships. Marjorie doesn’t just have an extraordinary range of content in her photographs, her figures, her ornaments, and her decorations. She also manages to exploit the multitude of ways in which these can be displayed. Humor and banter can be extended through a playful technique of alternating order and disorder. So a serious-looking, quite glamorous image, professionally framed, is disturbed, say, by a newspaper clipping or some related old, frayed sepia print stuck into the frame and disrupting its posture of philosophical solitude: the serious square, with the jaunty intruder stuck in at an angle. There are clipboards, sequences of images, postcards, things torn from magazines; some images are half-hidden behind others, some are hidden completely. There are photos over photos over photos. A white ceramic Chinese figure of serenity is coupled with a plastic farting fish. Real flowers must compete with plastic ones and with all the mirrors and clocks, and things that seem to be waiting to find a lasting place of rest.

No one would suggest that this was the result of order or strategy. It seems the perfect sign of mere haphazard accumulation, things gradually displaced and reconfigured by new things that needed to be shown when there was no free spot where they could be placed. Yet this, too, is a kind of order, a refusal to allow anything to be privileged and protected from the vagaries of the future. In most other living rooms, inertia itself commands increasing power. A thing and its place matter merely by virtue of the time it has remained in that place. It gains the deepened authenticity of time, respected merely for its own laziness. But not in Marjorie’s living room. Here, what doesn’t continue to contribute to love isn’t worthy of respect. What doesn’t grow fades. There is nothing gained here by mere inertia.

Equally resisted is the tyranny of conventional aesthetics. Nothing at all in this room is designed to ‘go’ with anything else: not the furniture, not the ornaments, nor the displays. There is no place for color, shape, or texture to claim an abstract regard for itself, as though it could transcend its true service to humanity. In this room, humanity and materialism are found to be one and the same: an unlimited respect for the capacity of people expressed through things. Marjorie also understands that what matters is the presence of the person, not their particular form. Nor is any particular genre especially worthy. A person may be here as a photo of their face, a drawing they did as a child, a framed piece of clothing, their name in wooden letters, a present they brought back to Marjorie from holiday, a prize they won playing snooker, a book they recommended, a fluffy animal, or their wish that this old chair be placed here rather than there. It doesn’t matter if this is evident to anyone other than the person it speaks to or speaks of. All that matters is that feelings are respected and placed here, in some form or other, with feeling. This is a *living* living room, an animated scrapbook of juxtaposed relationships.

In this display, no one can be embarrassed by what they are, have been, or can be turned into by others. That little penis on the then three-year-old looks like it could still pee out of its photo to the consternation of the now six-foot lanky lad, who is there to be teased. That shy young lady looks ridiculously glamorous and unfeasibly beautiful in the specially crafted studio portrait: It has become the final evidence which forces her to admit that she can be every inch as beautiful as everyone tells her, although she has always denied it. The pavement caricaturist gave that huge elongated chin with a dimple to a neighbor, and a friend can’t pretend that it was anyone else who gave Marjorie that lurid liquid in a glass slipper bought in Tenerife. After all, they are all prepared to enjoy the scene of Marjorie’s suspenders, displayed when she tripped on a paving stone in her twenties or the photo taken when she was off guard, where her expression makes her look like a constipated aristocrat. Much of this is personal, but there is one value expressed throughout that is not spoken about and yet is instantly evident. Marjorie and all her family proudly claim their long roots in the South London working class through their accents, their choice of dialect, and this constant defrocking of the pretensions of those who would seek to place themselves on a higher plane. Amidst the images, one finds celebrities, from the Beatles to TV newscasters. But these are likely to be present in the spirit of those magazine pictures of celebrities caught at their least prepossessing appearance rather than crafted glamour. And in Marjorie’s living room, they mix as free and easy as you like, with Marjorie herself, her relatives, and her friends.

This is the point of designing ourselves. I started by claiming that I knew that your neighbor Mary was a museum curator and interior designer. I said this with confidence, because what I am arguing here is that all householders should be understood as museum curators and interior decorators, and in that sense also designers. But the difference between them and a professional designer is that in a way their job is a lot more difficult. They are not just trying to earn a living through their design practice, they are using material culture as a means of ordering a multitude of relationships to all the people they know, their family, friends, possible visitors to their house, and to all the multiple aspects of themselves that jostle for a place in these museums and galleries that are people’s living spaces in every sense of the word *living*.


Bourdieu, P. 1979. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Bourdieu, P. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, D. 2008. The Comfort of Things. Cambridge: Polity.

Myers, F. 1986. Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self. Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press.

Rose, N. 1989. Inventing Ourselves. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weiner, A. 1992. Inalienable Possessions. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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