Q&A: Rob Walker, co-editor of 'Significant Objects'

Rob Walker, co-editor of the Web site Significant Objects -- and a new book with the same name -- discusses the value of creative narratives in determining a product's worth.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor

One person's junk is another person's treasure--or so the saying goes. A new book, Significant Objects, looks at the phenomenon of the subjective value of products in a unique and playful way: by creating fictional histories of knickknacks to possibly increase their worth. It's based on a witty Web experiment launched in 2009 by Rob Walker, contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and author of the book Buying In, and Joshua Glenn, an author and editor who specializes in semiotics.

The book, published by Fantagraphics, features 100 stories about random tchotchkes found at garage sales and other second-hand outlets, written by literary stars such as Jonathan Lethem, Curtis Sittenfeld, Neil LaBute, William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling, among others. The throw-away pieces, such as a kitschy ceramic bank shaped like a golf ball with legs, were then auctioned on eBay. Many saw their value go up with a fictitious description or narrative to give it (faux) context.

The writer Dan Reines, for instance, wrote about a coffee cup with a trompe l'oeil Post-it note on it that says "You always find happiness at work on Friday!" that originally cost 50 cents as a second-hand object. It then sold on eBay for $12.50 after it was associated with Reines' story. The value went up astonishingly, even though Reines' fictional piece gave it the context of the "Death Mug"--a vessel that, in the fictional tale, consistently brought layoffs and even actual death to those who drank booze from it at an office. Other entries riff off of the standard format of an eBay listing, like the made-up description for a "nutcracker with troll hair (or something)," which is exactly what this throwaway object is. It was originally purchased for one dollar and later sold on eBay for $14.50 with its fictional context.

So how and why does fiction help translate an object's worth into one with higher value? To get insight, I spoke with Walker on the "economic experiment" of Significant Objects, as he and Glenn describe the Web site and the book--and what lessons designers, companies, consumers and novelists alike might learn from it. Here's an edited version of our conversation.

SmartPlanet: Let's talk about the decision to create a book. Why the need for a print version?

Rob Walker: The project was conceived as a 100-story experiment. Actually, I'm not even sure we agreed on 100. We thought, "let's line up stuff." Maybe 50, 100 stories...we'll see. Pretty quickly, we saw the idea was working. When a duck-shaped change tray went for $70, we thought it was just crazy. It was way beyond what we hypothesized the effect of the fiction would be on these objects' worth.

And the writers were embracing the creative challenge of the project. Some wrote fake diary entries, or letters, or spam. The variety was amazing. But archiving 220-230 stories on a Web page did not feel great. Doing a book gave us a chance to step back and assess the whole experience. It was agonizing to pick 100 stories to be featured in print, but we didn't publish anything we didn't love.

The book has a very distinctive look and design to it...

Actually, proof exists to show that we weren't really planning for a book at the beginning. This proof is in the pictures of the objects. We took these with the sole intent to be legible enough to be on eBay. We were not taking glamor shots! But the best way to be "authentic" is by accident. We figured we would tap into the fact that we were really just trying to follow an eBay look. There are some images where someone holds a penny next to an object for a sense of scale. That is completely an eBay trope. And it becomes a style in the book.

Would you say the book is more a critical look at branding, or an optimistic look at the power of creative writing?

In the branding world, people don't see our idea as critical--it's a justification of what they do. But we were coming at from direction of the consumer's side, of looking around at the stuff in our lives that has meaning. For instance, once I broke a coffee cup and was really bummed out about breaking it, although it was just a mug from a Baltimore diner that cost $7. I could have easily bought a new one that looked just like it. But that particular one I'd bought on trip with the person I married. The mug had a story to it. It's interesting how we impose value on things.

This context does does raise funny questions about stuff. Why is a certain thing considered one of a kind, even if it is not? Can we change the definitions of mass-produced versus unique? A big sub-theme in the project is the power of words. Imagination can't be put in a jar, but we show that it can have a measurable effect.

How did eBay react?

We had no reaction from eBay [before news of the release of the book on July 10]. In the beginning, when we posted the listings on eBay, we had all sorts of disclaimers that these were not real stories. We were nervous. The writers had no restrictions, except that we asked authors to not use the F word, because we thought eBay might look for those types of words and ask that such listings be taken down.

To your knowledge, have companies picked up on the concept of Significant Objects to market products?

Not exactly, although we have seen blog references, including one posted by an ad agency. Somewhat related, a couple of writers have been approached by buyers of the objects they wrote about at literary festivals. I hope the book has the same effect with some of the less-known writers who contributed and that they sell [their own] books out there. We picked up-and-coming writers, not just big names, for the book. We knew there was discovery to be had!

On the site for Significant Objects, you state that proceeds of the eBay auctions went to the authors as well as to non-profits. How much did you raise, and for whom?

For the second round of stories published online, we gave thousands of dollars from the proceeds to 826 National. For the third, we chose Girls Write Now. These are educational, writing non-profits. When came time to do the book, we told the writers we could pay them in dollars or they could waive the fee and we'd give it to 826 National or Girls Write Now, and again we were able to write checks to those groups. This was in the spirit of the project, as it was always an economic experiment about pushing the idea of the value of writing and of stories.

Do you think the book will have an impact on the design world, and not just within the literary and economic fields?

The book could make designers humble. They always talk about "the story" or "storytelling" as an important element of design. But to designers, this is always the story of the intrinsic elements of an object: its beauty, utility, effectiveness, ability to solve a problem, even magicalness. I think this idea makes an object an extension of its designer. But objects really are completely indifferent to designers! Looking at the things in Significant Objects like the pink ceramic cow on the cover...well, no one's going to say that Yves Behar is going to be jealous of that pink cow's design. But whose story is the more important story, in terms of the context of an object? The designer's story? The owner's? A completely invented story?

If someone set that pink cow on a coffee table next to a slick Jawbone boombox designed by Yves Behar, and we had to see which object people would point to and say, "what is that?" with interest--well, the pink cow will crush the Jawbone, or any other well-designed piece by Karim Rashid, Michael Graves, or Dieter Rams. Every time. [Laughs.]

Seriously, design matters. But so do other things. Anybody who looks at the book will realize that we all have, somewhere, a shelf or container full of weird little things that don't make sense to anyone else but us. It's very human. So I think it would be interesting for designers to read and think about the idea that people, consumers, will create and accept narratives around things. If there is a compelling enough narrative, it can change the meaning of an object.

Images: Photo of Rob Walker: Ellen Smithee; book cover, Fantagraphics

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards