On collector zest and garbage dumps

A column by Michael Erlhoff
How design preserves itself

There are some themes that, were anyone to write a piece about them, would no doubt incense a lot of people. The following is aimed at the very marrow of such sensitivities. Because collecting is held in high social regard and even benefits from tax relief and support, and appears to be the cultural activity per se. This applies to public institutions such as museums as much as it does to private individuals, and it is not even just the privilege of the rich.

After all, everything gets collected, and often it then gets exhibited publicly and otherwise always (at least in the private context) presented to other people almost obtrusively, whenever they should drop by. There really are museums for Coca-Cola cans, office appliances, instruments to process heads of cabbage, knives, scissors, glasses, wine bottles (a massive market especially in Asia), traffic signs, books, cigars and any manner of other things that essentially seem absurd. Recently, state institutions such as secret services and companies have also been in on the collection ecstasy act: collecting data ad absurdum.

A tentative explanation for the motivation behind such collecting zest will be offered a little later; here initially the focus is on the fact itself, namely that everything gets collected. Which includes money, incidentally. They all form museums, and it is hard not to get the impression that when visiting such a collection one is actually perusing a waste dump. It is just that these are either granted premium status by being labeled a “museum” and thus as it were legitimized a priori, or these collections are presented by those who did the collecting with such emphasis or even pathos and at least love that any thought of a waste dump should immediately be dispelled. Everything is presented as valuable and designed, and in fact one could quite generally or meta-theoretically think or even admire that such collections in such a marvelous manner preserve history and make it available for subsequent generations. It is no doubt admirable if someone, for whatever specific interest, preserves and nurtures otherwise transient things and symbols and then makes these publicly accessible in a more or less dramatic way. As the complaint, and this is not completely unjustified, is that otherwise history would simply disappear and with it any awareness of history, too.

And things get even more complicated. Because after all even the very idea of what constitutes history is not uniformly regulated. Even those who work in the historical sciences are not so sure of the answer, as the definition is clearly subject to fashionable currents (at one point the Middle Ages are en vogue, at another the 19th century or Byzantium or something else). At some point the historical possibilities or conditionality takes pride of place (what would have happened if …), and philosophically various notions of history have emerged. One can certainly agree with philosopher Max Horkheimer when he noted that history is always connoted in three ways: by what once happened, by the narration of that, and third by the (financial, power, possibly social or cultural or merely competing fashionable) interest of those who process this and report it. Meaning any idea of there being a history we can objectively grasp is obsolete.

But let’s be much simpler: Today we may find a coach in a museum or a kettle by Peter Behrens in a private collection, and admire them for all I care. However, the outlook today has absolutely nothing in common with the perception of people at the time when these things were made and used on a daily basis. Because for us today these are simply things handed down that we no longer use. Even if we handle them today, certain aspects of the time when they were created no longer exist. For example, today it takes some effort to reconstruct (but not experience) that in its day the “SK 4” radio produced by the Braun company and designed by Dieter Rams triggered a scandal and evidently prompted people to then throw stones through the windows of dealers who displayed it, trashing the radios in the process. We can note this down, but without any of the fright it caused.

Such collections thus simply leave us prey to the illusion we are participating in history and truly learning from it. For the latter would only apply if we always remembered when contemplating and thinking about it what Max Horkheimer said and were able to endure the ineluctable inner contradictions.

Incidentally, this also applies to all museums. Not to forget that of late museums have been popping up in all manner of places. In a former brewery one on beer brewing, one on mining in a disused colliery, one on furniture design in a former furniture warehouse, another in a gasometer, or in a forest or at the top of a mountain. The exhibitions on offer simply present nostalgia and the need to create jobs at and find uses for the properties in question. And just by designing exhibitions and the spaces as a whole, visitors are served up a pretended contemporaneity and a sense of concern is fostered. In the final analysis, all that remains is some at least very hopeful astonishment at seeing historical innovations, design and its realization and the optimistic notion that given such historical articulations one’s own present should no longer be considered normal, but rather considered and felt to be invariably mutable.

Complicated enough. In fact, what transpires on closer inspection to be truly very obscure is the addiction to collecting all manner of things. We can seek assistance here from an essay by Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi entitled “On the Ontogenesis of the Interest in Money,” written in 1914. It bears paraphrasing and expanding on the text here. Ferenczi starts with an observation we can all follow at all times: The infant’s first physical material expression is urinating and then, more firmly, defecating. Babies are gleeful at accomplishing this, no doubt rightly, as in so doing they experience their creativity for the first time. The adults’ response to the act is therefore all the more dramatic and depressing for these toddlers, as the deed is sanctioned and the results disposed of as quickly as possible. Usually in a toilet. One can well imagine the despairing gaze of the infant watching their creations disappear in a toilet bowl.

Gradually, and this is called being raised, the children adapt and internalize the adults’ disgust, attempting to compensate for it. Ferenczi describes how, for example, children now joyously pee on the sand in a playground sandbox and then form something pretty with the moist sand, or at least they find the result attractive. At any rate, still forging a link between their firmly physical action and the object of sand that they thus appropriate.

Needless to say, they get talked out of doing this – or it gets forbidden. As a result the children focus their creative eroticism and narcissistic wishes on some toy or other that they then take to heart, kiss, or ruffle and destroy. Until, or so Ferenczi already showed, they start to collect firm items. Again, initially it is things that are not expressly made by others, such as stones or shells or dried leaves. Incidentally, this also tends to still involve the adults, who try to expunge any creative imagination from their kids. Indeed, if, as is the wont of small children, a child simply draws a few colored lines and surfaces on a piece of paper, the parents often exclaim, “Oh, a fish” or “a cloud” or “a car” or the like. Until the child finally draws fishes, clouds, cars and the like, no longer indulges in phantasmagoria and some beautiful thing or other, but simply adheres to pale imitations.

But back to collecting: This shows just how much collecting derives from the externally controlled destruction of one’s own dreamlike creativity and idiosyncratically made objects, i.e. from deep frustration, and purely reflects compensation for anal problems. Such a brutal act by those raising the child, abusing and destroying the very first creations in life, must invariably lead to this experience being repressed and replaced by a comparable act that is however socially accepted, precisely by collecting or by still realizing the dream of being able to create something, albeit slightly differently as a hobby or profession. It is noteworthy that those who like creating things by design almost always also like collecting.

Now the title of Ferenczi’s essay promises more, namely the path to the interest in money. Which is swiftly explained: At some point in the course of the child’s development it ceases to collect stones or shells, moving on, for example, to postage stamps or other things that society deems materially valuable. Autos, art, rarities – and finally money. Since, strangely enough, we know that those who have accumulated a lot of money passionately continue to search for even more to collect it, the desire to collect takes on a life of its own as a zest for collecting. That such ardor stems from the infant’s experience is also suggested by the fact that such collectors (now they may collect different items depending on their gender, but that is something for a different study) intensely nurture the collected objects, stroke them, clean then, passionately show them to others, always hoping to kindle affection. The best illustration of the anal character of money or at least of intensively collecting money is old Mickey Mouse comics: In order to live out his good fortune, Scrooge McDuck jumps from a diving board into the midst of the mass of money he has collected. What collector would not love to be able to cleanse themselves in their collection?

Needless to say, all of this definitely has to do with design, with the desire to design things oneself, to realize this in various crafts activities and in the passion to wash, clean, cook, sing, do sport, take photographs, etc. And this extends even to all those so emotionally charged pseudo-creative entries on Facebook, in blogs or elsewhere on the Internet. Indeed, even the enthusiasm about the prospect that at some point we will be able to print out furniture or accessories using our own PC is no doubt fired by this craving. To be clean and creative and thus to cleanse oneself of that trauma in early childhood.

On the other hand, all museums, private collections and of course the collected items are almost exclusively objects that someone designed. And all these collections are preserved in or on designed shelves, rooms, archives and websites. In this way, design also energizes the anal character of collecting. Incessantly.

Michael Erlhoff

He is an author, design theorist, corporate consultant, curator and organizer; he has been, among other things, CEO of the German Design Council, Advisory Council member of documenta 8 and Founding Dean (and until 2013 professor at) of the Köln International School of Design/KISD. Erlhoff was founder of the Raymond Loewy Foundation, is a founding member of the German Society of Design Theory and Research and as a visiting professor heads projects and workshops at universities in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney. Since 2016 he teaches as an honorary professor at the Braunschweig University of Fine Arts.