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The Hidden Wisdom of Objects

by Glenn Adamson

Pub Date: Aug. 7th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-63286-964-7
Publisher: Bloomsbury

The impact and significance of the objects we shape and live with.

Adamson (Senior Scholar/Yale Center for British Art; The Invention of Craft, 2013, etc.) writes that “we are in danger of falling out of touch, not only with objects, but with the intelligence they embody: the empathy that is bound up in tangible things.” He takes us on a winding, personal tour of material intelligence, the world of things; sadly, “our collective material intelligence has steadily plummeted.” The author seeks to paint a “full, kaleidoscopic picture of material experience. Making things, using them, and learning about them.” The book is rich with examples and stories of objects and their makers. Early on, Adamson invites us to take the “Paper Challenge”: What is the best way to evenly divide a piece of paper? He also asks why the materiality of stuffed animals is significant, and he writes in awe about how experts split diamonds and the importance of tools. A fretsaw, a laser cutter, a Jacquard loom—all are “repositories of accumulated material intelligence.” Adamson discusses the importance of touch in making and appreciating things. A visit to Brussels Musical Instruments Museum teaches us how to navigate the displays with our ears as well as our eyes. The author also provides brief history lessons on plywood, aluminum, vulcanized rubber, linoleum, and how a material “rises into fashion, falls out of fashion, then rises again.” He introduces us to many fascinating people and their achievements: “one of America’s greatest basket makers” Dorothy Gill Barnes; master woodcarver David Esterly; Ian Hutchings, who’s “interested in what happens when things rub up against one another;” Murage Ngani Ngatho, master coconut carver; and Constance Adams, a “space architect” for NASA. Interested in footwear? Belgian design researcher Catherine Willems combines “ancient wisdom with new technologies” studying sandals made with reindeer, buffalo, and antelope skin.

Although a bit dry in spots, Adamson’s crafty enthusiasm is infectious.