What is this stuff that surrounds us and what does it mean?

A great deal of this blog is about what to buy (or rather what not to) and how to relate to what you buy but when all is said and done – and I do mean done – what do you leave behind, what does it say about you, what is its true value? This subject’s been on my mind a great deal, as I sort through the things my mother left behind.

It’s been so interesting a journey on so many levels. I don’t mean that cynically or snarkily or as a euphemism for feeling awful. I mean it’s been truly interesting: an education in the notions of value, of enduring design, of taste, of what the things you choose to surround yourself with say about you.

Now it helps that I’m a little analytical, not terribly sentimental and that I have the distance that comes with a complicated relationship and lots of therapy. And it helps that I have an abiding curiosity about what objects reveal about their owners and their times.

Nonetheless, the shadow of “stuff” is long.

Let’s be clear that by “things my mother left behind” I’m not talking about some reality show-worthy hoarding problem here. I am grateful that I haven’t found a house full of tons of scary “stuff” (with the exception of a deeply vile 1950s fox fur collar that I can’t even bring myself to write about). I am grateful that for the most part, I had a sense of what was there. Except for a few things, she had no aversion to editing throughout her life. She threw stuff out every year, and thank goodness for that.

What makes it truly interesting is that my mother came from an arty family and had a strong sense of aesthetics. She had what many called “good taste”, was conscious of what she brought into her life, and had money – not gobs of it by a very long shot – but certainly at middle class levels so she could afford to buy quality. In most ways, my mother favored old-fashioned luxury, where it was about the maker, not the marque. Instead of ready to wear Schiaparelli or Dior, she liked things that were designed and created by local designers. And until she developed a thing for Elsa Peretti’s pieces from Tiffany, she preferred the work of that lovely little White Russian jeweler who had fled both Russia and Shanghai to set up shop in Hong Kong. Instead of vintage Knoll and Eames, she had a thing for custom furniture that worked for her, was of exceptional quality and was made by the unsung little guys of local furniture making.

Oddly enough, all this taste complicates things because our culture (as in many other ways) is really geared for the high and the low but not the more subtle middle.

If my mother had left behind utter crap, it would have been so much easier. You just call Salvation Army or 1-800-junk and you’re done. Alternatively, if she’d had closets of major vintage, tons of “name” jewelry, and “important” art, disposal would have meant auction houses and vintage shops, also more straightforward. So where does that leave me? I’m having a really easy time moving some Tiffany pieces. The rest? Much more complicated.

It seems that without brand, there is no aftermarket, no matter how deliciously made they are. And it makes you wonder: what is value? And what things have intrinsic value?

It seems that unbranded things really only have a fighting chance to live on in this world if they are truly extraordinary, or if they are imbued with a history or spirit or sense of sentimentality that creates a value for the next generation.

Now I do think that my mother enjoyed her art and many of the things that surrounded her. Even the things like china and silver and all the entertainment paraphanelia gave her pleasure and reminded her of her many Mrs Dalloway moments. They gave her pleasure, and connection to her culture and past and that is what being around good things should be.

Her things have now gone to antiques dealers, a few vintage shops, jewelry consigners, and yes, to Salvation Army. It takes a lot of work, but I feel good that it’s gone to a place where there’s a chance that her taste and the workmanship that went into a lot of her things will go on to live.

So what have I kept for myself? Very little, actually. Because of that complicated relationship I had with her, because I didn’t really share her sense of aesthetics, because at this point in my life, I have enough of my own “stuff” thank you very much.  It’s all about the William Morris dictum now. Many in my situation would just say, “Take as much as you can, put it in storage, and pass it onto the next gen.” Well there’s no next gen and even if there were … would they really want it? I seriously doubt it. In which case all you’re doing is leaving a legacy for them that they won’t want. It’s called kicking the can down the road.

So what value does last? Must you buy “brands” to have things that will maintain value after you are gone?  Does everything need to be “important”? What assumptions should we make about what future generations want? Should we even care what lasting value is when we buy things? And does that matter, as long as you love what you have, and have what you love?

PS. I always had loved the bottle in the picture. There was something dignified but rough about it, a bit wabi sabi. Though the camera angle doesn’t capture it, it actually has something in Japanese characters written onto the back of it. Now I thought it was some charming or wise Japanese saying. But according to a friend of mine who actually paid attention in Japanese class, it’s just a phrase commemorating something about Standard Oil in the ’60s. Yes, corporate swag. Hilarious, and it makes me love it even more. I did keep that item.