A version of this article originally appeared in Metropolis magazine in November 1995. The text was included in the book Curious Boym: Design Works, published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2002. Reprinted with permission.
Constantine Boym & Laurene Boym (SVA MFA Designer as Author faculty) are principals of Boym Partners, an industrial design studio whose souvenir-like "Buildings of Disaster" and "Missing Monuments" series have received international acclaim and earned a loyal following of collectors.
A strange incident took place in the city of Seoul on September 2, 1994. Dozens of angry South Korean students attacked an exhibition of traditional Japanese ceramics at a prestigious museum, smashing display cases and destroying valuable artifacts. The protesters were demonstrating against the Japanese government’s past policies toward Koreans, and they had nothing against Japan’s arts and crafts. So why did they take on a cultural institution to express their anger?
Their choice would probably not surprise some of today’s leading political scientists. According to Samuel P. Huntington, a professor of government at Harvard, the great boundaries that used to divide humankind are no longer primarily ideological or economic—they are cultural. Throughout most of the twentieth century, conflicts between communism, fascism, and Western liberal democracy formed the basis for human history. The confrontation between communism and democracy, for example, drew boundaries across almost all continents, with the Berlin Wall as its most visible manifestation. But with the end of the Cold War, the globe can no longer be separated out into first, second, and third worlds. It is more meaningful now to group countries in terms of their shared heritage of language, customs, and values. “The Velvet Curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology in Europe,” attests Huntington. Indeed, contemporary developments on either side of Europe illustrate in different ways the validity of culture as a political concept. In the West, the leaders of the European Union invoke a homogenized culture as they pursue the abolition of borders and the establishment of a common currency. On the other hand, tragic events in the former Yugoslavia showed how the elusive line of cultural difference could easily become a front line of bloody confrontation. As the world becomes a smaller place—people now move around the globe as refugees, laborers, entrepreneurs, students, and travelers with great dexterity—and interaction between many different peoples increases, these closer contacts can intensify feelings of cultural identity.
Moreover, in the “soft” postindustrial economy of ours, culture is what provides the backbone to strategic economic development. Most developed countries have already witnessed an economic shift from production-based manufacturing to knowledge-based industries like software, telecommunications, entertainment, and tourism. Culture is soon expected to become the world’s largest industry. In the last decade of the twentieth century, American cultural exports, such as popular movies, music and information, constituted a large part of our economical well-being. From theme parks to museum stores, there is a market direction to meet a worldwide public demand for culture-related merchandise.
One could argue that design as a discipline is supposed to related to the world at large. And if the world is changing, so should design. Since the spread of the Industrial Revolution, design has internalized the century’s reigning economic, technological, and social influences. The entire vocabulary of the design language reflects this: We talk about practicality, cost-effectiveness, new materials and manufacturing processes, and human benefit. Good design is often synonymous with design that “works.” Nonfunctional objects, on the contrary, are automatically banished from the field. Such a view, however, may no longer be adequate. In a new world where culture has become a major determinant, design will have to find a new paradigm, a different mode of “working”—one based less on performance and more on communication, emotion, and joy.
In this respect, it is worthwhile to look at souvenirs. These objects represent an important part of our civilization’s material culture. They can be found in every home, regardless of a person’s economic or social status, and they can be as different as a miniature marble leaning Tower of Pisa and a monkey made of coconuts. Not surprisingly, the sale of souvenirs amounts to big business—more than $20 billion annually in the United States alone. Yet the entire phenomenon of the souvenir is largely excluded from the high culture of design and completely ignored by the design professions. If we accept that design is a way of communicating ideas, then souvenirs are quintessential design objects. They can carry complex layers of information, from “programmed” messages to personal sentiments. Beverly Gordon, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, makes a distinction between souvenirs and mementos: The former are commercially produced, universally recognized, purchased objects; the latter are individually saved or found objects that have a deeply personal meaning. It is the first category that provides an interesting case study for product designers. A souvenir is manufactured to serve as a reminder (the word, in French, means “to remember”) of a non-ordinary experience, place, or culture. The object works metonymically, as a part or a fragment that evokes larger places and events. Its partialness, however, is always supplemented by a personal narrative or recollection. The popular appeal of souvenirs is rooted precisely in this combination of material object and immaterial, fleeting sentiment. Unlike many “serious” products or appliances, the souvenir always contains a built-in emotional value, such as a memory of a past journey or the affection of a faraway friend. Preservation of memory serves as profound motivation for a lifetime passion of collecting. Once in New York, I visited an apartment of two elderly Holocaust survivors. They met in Europe shortly after the Liberation, and soon got married, but could not conceive a child, her health being seriously damaged after years in the camp. One day, he gave her a small toy bear, a touching souvenir of the family they were never to have. Collecting and giving each other bears has become their life-long tradition . Eventually, their spacious apartment became home to over a thousand bears of every conceivable material, size, and look. These are not functional useful objects, and most of them have little or no “artistic value”. Yet how is it possible not to take this collection seriously, not to treat it with a proper affection and respect?
People’s attitudes toward souvenirs, though, can best be described as a love-hate relationship. Everyone has and buys them, but they are easily dismissed and thrown away. Designers are the most critical, instantly relegating these keepsakes as kitsch—but you can always find them in designers’ own homes. Often, they try to find the tackiest, most outlandish souvenir possible to bring home for the amusement of their peers. Why is it that a certain silliness and tastelessness prevails—and is even appreciated—in this product genre? According to Beverly Gordon, such objects help to accomplish an “inversion of the ordinary”—just as when fun and recreation briefly substitute for the realities of everyday life. When on vacation, people tend to go to the extremes of good taste, spending money on strange, whimsical, nonfunctional items precisely because they wouldn’t do it in their daily existence. In this sense, a souvenir’s emotional, accessible, funny design is essential for it to function properly. “Inversion of the ordinary” puts souvenirs in opposition to objects of “good” design, with their characteristic usefulness, seriousness, and value. Instead, souvenirs offer the option of different attitudes and aesthetics—for people who are, at least temporarily, not practical, serious, or thrifty.
Traditionally, souvenirs have been manufactured exclusively for the tourist market. But in a new, shrinking world—as the mobility of the population exponentially increases—souvenirs, in a different form, are among the few objects from home that can accompany a person to a foreign land. Souvenirs, then, have the potential of being transformed from a superfluous product of consumption to an object of emotional survival. Instead of a tourist cliché, a souvenir can serve as a proud representation of a person’s cultural identity. Think of all those souvenirs that multinational New York City taxicab drivers display on the dashboards of their cars. In the aftermath of the September 11th events, many of New York ethnic shops placed American flags and souvenirs next to symbols of their own cultures as a message of peace and understanding. In a world divided along the lines of culture, such object-symbols can no longer be marginalized. Almost always, souvenirs are designed anonymously—no well-known designer, it seems, would ever attach his or her name to one. And designing a new souvenir is rarely given as an assignment in design schools. So there’s been little progress in the genre; all the design movements of the past few decades have just passed it by. But, hopefully, these attitudes will change. The world needs a lot of new souvenirs—for culture’s sake.