Why We Love

There are some objects in our lives that we hold onto more dearly than others. It might be the first mug you grab out of the cupboard, or the beat-up hammer you rescued from your Grandpa's basement. Maybe it'a beautiful little yixing teapot or a giant overstuffed couch or a finely-machined sports car; there are things that we don't just like, but love.

But why do we love them? They don't love us back. They might be mass-produced, ubiquitous, and easily-replaced. They might be ugly, non-functional, or impractical. But we hold on. Why?

Here are three ways to approach that question. Think of them as the future, the present, and the past.

The Future

It's a rare master of Zen who is perfectly satisfied with the present moment. Instead, we all yearn to become a different (hopefully better) person. We want to match our actual self to the image we carry in our heads. Often that adjustment can be done by filling in the blank: "I'm the kind of person who __________".

 Rosewood rocker by Sam Maloof

Rosewood rocker by Sam Maloof

For example, I really want to be the kind of person who owns an original Maloof rocking chair. It's probably not going to happen -- they're worth tens of thousands of dollars -- but that object reinforces my perception of myself. It says:

  • As a woodworker, I have a deep respect for those who elevated my craft.
  • I'm the kind of person who likes to sit contemplatively.
  • I'm special, because these chairs are rare and expensive.

Some of these may not actually be true (I'll leave that determination as an exercise to the reader), but I certainly want all of them to be true. And a Maloof rocker would get me that much closer.

We're constantly matching our acquisitions to our self-perception, and not just with big-ticket purchases.  It might be a set of shiny new gardening tools or a stack of self-help books. Or a vintage Porsche.

Sometimes, we love things because they reflect back to us who we want to be.

The Present

Some objects just beg to be touched. They have enticing lines, or the color is just so. When we encounter them, we're instantly smitten. We didn't know we wanted a new mug, but this one fits in our hands ... perfectly.

When it comes to human relationships, we call this chemistry. Everything just seems to work at an effortless, unintentional level. And this can also be true of objects.

 Classic Century Shakers by Eva Zeisel

Classic Century Shakers by Eva Zeisel

In fact, I'd argue that it's the focus of most design: to create an object that is effortlessly desirable or useful (or both). We don't need to think about enjoying an object. We just do.

When I sell cutting boards, this is the level at which most people respond. The colors and patterns draw them in, and few people can resist the silky texture of the polished wood. People can have the same response about a painting, a toaster, an electronic device, or a jacket. When it comes to some things, we just seem to get along so well.

This can operate independently of our feelings about our future selves. A set of Eva Zeisel salt and pepper shakers doesn't match any notion of who I want to be, but ... damn, those are some sexy shakers.

The Past 

And finally, there are the things we love because of how they have existed in our lives, or the lives of people we love. It's not about the object itself, but it's about the meaning the object carries. I have one of my grandmother's fine china teacups. It sits on a shelf and I don't use it. But I love it because I loved her.

 My apple tree, my father's hands

My apple tree, my father's hands

My father is an accomplished woodturner, and fifteen years ago I gave him an apple tree burl from the first house I'd owned. When he gave it back to me, finished, it was doubly-endowed with meaning: the wood came from a place I love, and it was shaped by a man I love. It's not about the object, it's about the connections it represents.

We bring nostalgia to the objects in our lives because it helps to give us a sense of legacy. We have made an impact on the world. This is my grandfather's hammer, and with every stroke it became more valuable -- not because of the object, but because of the hand holding it. Objects can connect us to people or places or memories in a way that transcends the physical. An object doesn't need to be well-designed or useful or beautiful. We can simultaneously hate a thing for its ugly awkwardness while loving it as a pathway to a memory.

Timelessness

Ultimately, my aim as a designer is to create objects that hit all three dimensions. I want to create an object that draws you in effortlessly; that becomes a positive reflection of yourself; and that lasts long enough to become a part of your legacy. This is what people mean when they talk about timeless design.

Steve Leroux