Objects and Survivability – Questions

by guy keulemans on December 4, 2008

As part of my people research, I have written up a narrative spliced with questions that I am sending to experts in the field of design history.

What is the survivability of objects? I am using this term survivability because it implies a life force extant to those objects of which we know. My main concern is the investigation of those objects that continue to exist in a useful way for centuries or more. Archetypes fit this profile, such as the chair, but which chairs specifically survive better than others? I am trying to connect examples of of objects from different eras and discover qualities that have helped them become long-lasting. I propose that qualities such as materials, construction, aesthetics, and unbiquity play a role in keeping an object functional, but sometimes the ability of an object to survive is through some external factor, and these interest me also. One example is preservation, either accidental, (such as the case of the Pompeii ruins, preserved in volcanic ash, that influenced neo-classisicm when they were discovered) or purposeful (such as the many examples of tomb furniture).

Preservation also occur when the design is transmitted in another form other than the object itself (such as the Ancient Greek klismos chairs that only survived as images on pottery, later to be re-made in the 18th century.)

Finally, cultural significance needs to be addressed when discussing the survivability of objects. It may be that in a world where everything can only last for a finite period and must be remade or reproduced to continue existing, all other considerations are secondary to the matter of cultural significance.

I guess its obvious that with examples from pre-history and the archaeological record the qualities that can be assessed are fewer and mainly deal with construction and material, e.g stoneware and ceramic can survive thousands of years (example, the crude stone furniture from the neolithic settlement Skara Brae) whereas wood cannot. (in Skara Brae it is assumed that drift wood was also used for furniture and boats etc, but how do we know for sure?)

Whereas in furniture from more recent periods, say from the Renaissance to the 19th century, aesthetics and cultural significance must play a larger role than mere material robustness in helping furniture survive….. or do they? Perhaps with wooden furniture, wood being a more age susceptible material compared to ceramics, for example, strong construction plays a very larger role in survivability as a compensation for a weaker material. (I have noticed that my grandmothers old chair that dates form the Georgian period seems very solidly constructed, even though we are forbidden to sit on it).

And while it appears that furniture from the middle ages up to the Tudor period in England is made from heavy duty oak, is it not possible that this is a reflection of the ability of their design to survive i.e, is much of the antique furniture that goes up for auction around the world merely representative of the more robust furniture of its period? Or instead, is it that restoration plays an important part and the pattern of its application is based on factors related to aesthetics and cultural significance? In other words, can a fragile chair have as much chance as surviving the centuries as a robust chair, if the fragile chair has greater charm and better attracts instances of repair and restoration? (One example is the Jenson chest of drawers in Kensington palace, restored with non-original turned legs.)

Another factor that comes into play, is ubiquity. Popularity leads to high levels of production in turn helping the style or design survive, even if the majority of each example perish. On the other hand, some highly unique items (such as the Phaistos Disc) have survived despite being (seemingly) one of a kind objects. How does the uniqueness of an object affect its value and preservation?

I think this especially interesting in cases where the object is not intrinsically valuable from its materials, (unlike say, ancient Roman jewellery) but from other less tangible factors. Sometimes this value is mysterious, and if it remains so then the mystery around the object itself becomes an important quality (Voynich Manuscript).

Esoteric objects can also be ubiquitous and mysterious (such as the Scottish carved stone balls from the neolothic period). Can the case of these last examples be linked to contemporary design that also seeks to perplex (Codex Seraphinius)?

Concerning preservation; a fair number of archaeological finds have been in royal tombs, preserved underground and by the prohibition of trepass. Does this therefore mean that the archaeological records convey royal and upper class design disproportionately to those from the common classes? Is this always true? Even nowadays its fair to assume that qualties such as expense and the wealth of the owner must help to protect an object from factors affecting the common classes (less permanent residency, wealth fluctuation, lack of storage space etc. What is the complete range of these sociological factors? Off topic, but how much can it be said then that the history of design is the history of the possessions of the wealthy or ruling classes? (In Edward Lucie Smith’s book Furniture, A Concise History, almost all of the still existing furniture illustrated is from royal or church contexts.)

How can function improve or impair the the survival of an object? I guess the real issue here is whether an object has a basic archetypal function and therefore resilience to changing uses (most common furniture?), or has the ability to adapt to changing uses. I don’t have any examples of the latter yet, and maybe examples are few? In the medievil period when kings and landowners would were partly nomadic and moved from castle to castle, furniture consisted of those that were light and mobile, and those that were immensely heavy or built into interiors and could be safely left in place (example of the latter can be seen in some suriving castles.) (One interesting example is the heavy turned wood chair in Hereford Cathedral, which is assumed to have been part of a matching interior which has since been destroyed. The furniture survives but the interior it was attached to for protection, did not.)


It cannot be doubted that aesthetic choices and refinement play a part in acceptance and continuation of an object in the short term, but how exactly in the long term? Could it be, considering the cycles of fashion, that all the other factors above themselves set the aesthetic climate, contributing to the popularity of certain aesthetics and even causing the re-birth of older styles? This is probably a chicken or the egg type situation, but it may indicate that because aesthetics change frequently over time, aesthetics have little influence on the survival of an object except where it influences other more practical factors such as material or construction choices. On the other hand, it could be said that the aesthetics of an object are important in the long term because it can place them in relationship to a “grand narrative” or tradition of object design within a culture that in turn achieves a continual popularity (one example of this may be the sella curulis x-type folding stools of ancient Rome, which has precedent in earlier Egyptian and Greek forms, and which developed into post-Roman versions such as the 7th century Dagobert chair, and then into many contemporary forms.)

Cultural Significance:
This last example leads us to the subject of cultural significance. Can it be argued that while initially the function and beauty nature of the ancient x-type folding stool led to popularity, its continual development throughout history owes more to its historical essence? Is it that the popularity of the Barcelona ottoman lies not so much in its graceful curves but in its reference to the archetypal folding stool? So that its reflects not just the aesthetics of modernism but the whole of western design history; a tangible link between ancient and modern forms?

The desire to preserve the past in the object of the present is seen in the extreme example of the Ise Jingu shrine in Japan; every 20 years since the 7th century the shrine and its contents are rebuilt identically. For a few months during the ritual, k
nown as Shikinen Sengu, two shrines stand, twinned and identical in appearance, until the old is demolished. The same is true for more than 1000 holy objects and garments that populate the shrine. The design of the shrine and these objects therefore remains unchanged for 1300 years.

In the western sphere, there are many examples of architecture older, but they fall into ruin at one stage or another, though the materials of rock and stone prevent complete destruction. However, in the west the ruin has a nostalgic value.

Is it that this perception of ruin is intrinsic because of the associated values of age and history? (Comparatively, the Ise Jingu remains ageless in appearance). Can these associated values be exploited in smaller objects which normally have much shorter life spans? If so, how can this quality of being historical via ruin be communicated without structural dysfunction?

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