Private View Believe in the bibelot

We’ve all been guilty of buying tasteless frills, causing house guests to grimace at some hideous ornament on our walls. But why do we insist on keeping such oddities? asks Hugh Pearman

They are always there, aren’t they? Household ornaments. Knick-knacks. Bibelots. Collectables. Most people have them, whether they are at the kitsch end of the spectrum (the glass or ceramic animals or figures known as ’whimsies’, or those painted thimbles you see advertised in tabloids) or positively designer-y, like the miniature chairs produced by the Vitra Design Museum. Carefully positioned in the line of vision from my desk, for instance, is a small silver die-cast model of a Citroen Traction Avant, made by Eligor, France’s answer to Dinky or Corgi Toys. Why is it there? Partly as an inspiring thing or an object of good design. Partly as a repository of memory, since I once owned a derelict example of such a car and wasted an awful lot of money trying fruitlessly to restore it. But is my little 1/43 scale model really any different from a comical ceramic pig, say? Not really. It’s just a bit of unnecessary clutter.

Modernism was meant to banish fripperies, though it allowed certain kinds of art, sculpture and found objects, particularly if the found objects had a sculptural quality, like an evocative piece of driftwood. Modernism is nearly always snobbish in this regard, quickly getting enmeshed in the tricky business of taste. Even those few Modernists who embraced clutter, such as Charles and Ray Eames, did so in a somewhat condescending manner (see Charles Eames’ short film ’Toccata for Toy Trains’ to catch the mood). Philippe Starck’s gnome stools or gun lamps, meanwhile, are chronically irony-laden.

People are messy. We accumulate things, clutter builds up constantly. How many paperclips, rubber bands, old postcards and half-dead batteries do any of us need? Why have dozens of pens and pencils when just one of each is fine? This is normal. The great graphic designer Alan Fletcher never threw away his pencil-ends, for example – he just arranged them artfully. But what possesses people to actively seek clutter by buying knick-knacks of the kind that we tastemeisters would probably regard as useless and ugly? Ah, now there we are in a different, strange, and rather ancient, world.

Souvenirs make a sort of sense: a miniature Eiffel Tower at least says you’ve been there. Then there are gadgets in allusive forms: an egg-shaped egg timer, say, or a milk jug in the shape of a cow. Alright, you can see the connection, even if it’s functionally daft. You could possibly admire a tiny minority of porcelain miniatures for the workmanship, but flying-duck syndrome is utterly resistant to reason. The collecting of tat, sometimes to the extent of buying cabinets to display it in – what’s that all about?

Some research suggests that the little objects collected are ritualistic. They may be thought to bring good luck or stability, and are more prosaically a cheap and easy gift, especially between children and mothers. ’Sentimental value’ is important. Monetary value would almost defeat the object. Taste is irrelevant.

I’m intrigued by the continuing power of the bibelot. What can we learn from it? Perhaps only this: that design in the round can never be wholly either functionalist or form-based because there’s something else, something very irrational, but very human, out there. When William Morris uttered his famous phrase ’Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,’ he solved nothing. Because knick-knacks are nothing to do with either usefulness or beauty, but more to do with the ancient Roman notion of household gods.

Hugh Pearman is an architecture and design critic whose house is full of Arne Jacobsen door handles, most of them on doors

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