Designers have a deeper appreciation of the beauty of objects compared with most people, but they also tend to live minimally. That got us wondering: When designers do cave in to their basest impulses and start hoarding, what do they collect, and why?
So we reached out to more than a dozen of our friends in the design community. To say we weren't prepared for the responses we got is an understatement. Designers collect lots of things, and many of their collections are far weirder than you would ever possibly expect. (Ahem, the cofounder of a designer sex toy company who collects three-headed parakeets). Here's what the designers we asked collect, and why.
I’m a collector of Stig Lindberg ceramics. My first piece was from the Reptile vase collection and a gift from my husband, Mike. Over the past 15 years, I have collected pieces from a range of series—Pungo, Domino, Fajance, and more. When I look at the pieces, I see rational beauty. I love his work so much that my husband agreed to naming our Welsh Terrier Stig!
I collect coffeemakers. I have an espresso machine, a Chemex pot, a syphon pot, two Mokapots (small and large), and a French press. My interest has mainly been around the different methods of coffee extraction and how each method can provide a different taste or experience, even though they all really just do the same thing, mixing coffee and water. I also tend to use them for different occasions. My family is Cuban and has traditionally used the Mokapots for making coffee. I typically use those or the espresso machine when they are over. For other larger groups, I tend to use the French press, as it's fast and can brew a large amount at once. My personal favorite is my Chemex pot as it has the right balance of time and difficulty to brew, consistency, and overall taste and mouth feel.
I collect all types of maps, but I have a particular love for retired USGS quadrangles with fascinating line patterns or comical place names. Usually I get them for free when libraries purge their collections. If I see a place I have a connection to I will take it, but mostly I take ones that grab me visually.
Why the fascination? First, these maps are retired. They're retired because the landscape has changed significantly or the place has been mapped in more detail. There's something super-neat about owning a slice of geologic time. Second, the lines. They're drawn, but they're real. Earth made them, but they look like they're from make-believe worlds. Lava flows radiate and quiver. Glaciers look like suctioned slugs with slime trails. I'm drawn to the subtle, the striking, and of course, the pretty colors. Third, the names. Everything everywhere that's named was named by someone for some reason. Flaming Gorge Reservoir is met by the Green River. Did the same person name both of those? What's it like at that intersection? Do they have dragons? There's a place called Jackpot. Jackpot! I hope it was named after the fact versus wishful thinking.
I collect taxidermy of mythical creatures—animals that don't really exist, for example, the jackalope, the fur-bearing trout, or a unicorn horn. They are bizarre, yet magnificent creatures. Many—such as the fur-bearing trout—carry a folklore that people attach to it. When you look at them, these are ordinary animals that are now remembered for something much more than they were. I think it's a beautiful sentiment. The fact that someone had the sense of humor, time, and taxidermy skills to immortalize these creatures into works of art ought to be appreciated.
I have a collection of transistor radios we house at the d.school. A portable radio is a really simple user-interface design problem of electronics in a box with a need to control only power, volume, and tuning (and maybe tone), but the solutions are all over the map and each speaks to its own era. I use them, too. We have a low power radio transmitter and scatter the radios around our space to broadcast whatever music we like. People really respond to the facades of each radio and their newfound novelty in the age of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Radio also happens to be magic: Music delivered invisibly across a great distance. The radio collection is utility, curiosity, preservation, comparison, and inspiration all rolled into one.
I collect midcentury Japanese prints. Ever since art school, I've been drawn to printmaking and works on paper. It's an underappreciated medium. I'm drawn to the way contemporary Japanese printmakers are modern and bold, yet their traditional techniques and craft have been preserved and respected.
I collect die-cast Japanese robots from the 1970s. Before there was Netflix we had The 4:30 Movie. As a geeky kid growing up in N.Y.C. in the era before streaming media, you had very few choices to amuse yourself in the hours after school, while avoiding your homework. The 4:30 Movie was a television program that filled that gap, showing an odd rotation of classic and B movies loosely organized by theme. My favorite was "Monster Week"—a seasonal installment of Japanese monster movies replete with actors in rubber suits (trampling model cities and trains) and choruses of Japanese girls. So you can imagine my delight when my local comic book store (on 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue) began to stock sets of die-cast figurines loosely based on these movies. These little robots were not cheap, even in the '70s, so I had to beg my parents to get them for me—pretty much every birthday and Hanukah gift for three to four years—along with my close friend Billy Farrell who went on to design BMX bicycles in high school.
They are designed in an absurd range of color, shapes, and materials with an extremely heavy die-cast feel. My favorites are almost surreal in nature—a mechanical King Kong that shoots knife blades out if its nipples, for example. The two series that I collect are fully modular and reconfigurable (like Lego). Each joint, limb, and head are separate pieces, which can be combined into an absurd array of concoctions. And they shoot a staggering range of projectiles and weapons. Another one of my favorites throws off actual sparks when you roll it along the ground. Yet, in true Japanese fashion, the dedication to the craft and execution reveals a level of seriousness and commitment to the "art of play" that continues to blow me away. I only found out later that in many cases the movies were a loss-leader so that the toy companies could sell more of these fantastic toys. Brilliant! I have been filling in gaps in my collection on eBay for the last few years and am almost done—which is actually a bit bittersweet at this point.
I have a small collection of hammers from previous generations of my family. It started when my grandfather, an engineer, passed away, and I inherited both his hammer and the hammer of my great-grandfather, which is a blacksmith's hammer because he was the town blacksmith. It was always meaningful to me to have them because it felt like they represented an identity that I had inherited as a maker, a builder. Subsequently, as they passed away, I inherited my other grandfather's hammer (standard hammer), an old family friend's hammer (mechanic's hammer), and my wife's grandfather's hammer (outdoorsman's hatchet/hammer).
I find way too many things interesting, so I have several collections. The largest collection is the books, of course, which I started in 1992 and has about 1,200 items now. There's also a collection of enamel signs, which has several hundred pieces now, from small office door signs to large subway and street signs. Also banknotes (several hundred) and stock certificates (a few hundred), and other ephemera like bus tickets and horse racing stubs. And of course old manual typewriters. The photographs are a kind of collection as well, saving examples of public lettering before they disappear. With the books, I want to learn as much as I can about the history of my discipline, both technically and stylistically. This "official" typographic history is exceptionally valuable, but it also tends to be a closed system, rarely referring to other letter-making crafts. So the other collections are a deliberate counterweight, recording traditions that were ignored by the old foundries, and again by the history books.
I collect all sorts of objects from my trips, but I specifically love collecting Legos. Each one is emblematic of a certain time in my life, from a trip I have taken abroad, to the car I drove. As a kid, I loved building things, and Legos were an avenue in which I could channel that creative energy. My favorite piece is actually the tiniest: the tiny yellow SUV, which is a representation of the car I drove for many years. These small toys are a great link between one of my favorite childhood hobbies and some of my favorite memories.
I love to collect arrows. Discarded street signs, hand-painted signs, or even metal arrow planters. The simplicity of the graphic form and the meaning behind it fascinate me. An arrow is a nice little packaged semiotic study. With a line and a triangle, a clear unmistakeable message is communicated.
Clay-based work is heavily manipulated by the hand of the maker. There are never straight lines or perfect angles in ceramics, it's just not possible. Therefore the ceramist must embrace those qualities in order to move forward. As a studio, we strive for perfection: As an example, the Starrett precision square is a frequently used tool during fabrication. Our ceramic collection serves as a beautiful reminder that we should allow space for imperfections. In the right hands, it will only elevate the work.
I collect historic California tiles. It all started with a fireplace in our 1936 San Francisco house. It had a strange tiled mantel depicting Mayan scenes. The tiles looked old, so I assumed they were original to the house, but I had no idea who made them or when. After weeks of online research I learned about Batchelder, Claycraft, Malibu, and the Golden Age of California art tiles in 1920s and 1930s, but I was no closer to identifying the maker of the fireplace tiles. Discovering Tile Heritage Foundation, the only nonprofit in the U.S. that is dedicated to preservation of historically significant ceramic tile surfaces, was the breakthrough. The kind people at the foundation knew that my tiles were made by Woolenius Tile Co. of Berkeley, California, and even sent me a page from the original catalog showing the Design No. 367, my exact mantel. And so it began—the journey through the wonderful world of historic tiles and, more specifically, tile tables.
Tiles are as beautiful as paintings and as resilient as stone—the modern equivalent of cave art. They adorn walls of buildings and survive for many centuries, outliving many other art forms. Decorative yet functional, mass-produced yet handmade, art tiles are an often overlooked and underappreciated intersection of art and architecture.
I collect obscure hot sauces. They are generally a record of our travels. We typically buy two, one to ingest, one to go on the wall. And you never know, maybe one day I’ll design a barbecue restaurant and they can be the design statement. For now they reside in the Lundberg Design conference room, affectionately known as the "Hot Sauce Bunker."
I collect too many things. My grandfather had many cork boards pinned full of various collections (tiny key chains on up to huge tools collections). I would stare at everything each time I visited. Additionally, my personal work often comes in the form of repetitive patterns and executions, so my collecting habit is pretty intense. Examples include: tiny props and furniture, boom boxes with TVs in them, vintage toys and action figures, mechanical counting watches, dice, film crew jackets, sci-fi sport hats, old Macs, signed NBA jerseys, or old NASA patches. Often these collections end up as props on sets or collaged in my artwork.
I collect patches. I love to travel, and these offer both a tangible and iconic memory of a place. (Plus, they are easy to pack for the trip home.) And when you return home and wear them on something, they make that thing unique and special, your very own. I especially appreciate the retro design of many of them, and the heralding cheer of the Best Made patches that underscore their brand promise. The bowling patches from my mother’s leagues are kitschy and cool, and remind me of how fun-loving she is. They are like temporary tattoos. And, of course there are all the Girl Scout merit badges (not pictured) that represent a so-called accomplishment. I laughed when my mom opened up a box with my old sash—apparently I rocked at rollerskating because I had two!
I personally collect pocket square and ascots. I like how intentional, colorful, interchangeable, portable, and cheerful they can be. I really enjoy how they can make almost any outfit better.
I collect memories. Rather than hide them in boxes or the attic, they are displayed in acrylic canisters to bind together a series of objects that reflect the moment.
I share a collection of matches with my fiancé. We love the design of matchboxes: It's visually punchy branding that doesn't take itself seriously. Our matchboxes have nostalgic value, too: they're souvenirs of shared meals or late nights spanning Venice Beach to Jaipur, India. Half the collection comes from my late grandfather, who pocketed them up and down the eastern seaboard between the 1940s and 1980s.
I collect old McDonald's Happy Meal toys, and old Magic Wand reader books. I like the Happy Meal toys because while they're produced with a limited budget, some of them are very well-designed, and have great technique behind them. As for the Magic Wand reader, it's an old textbook for children that uses barcodes to speak the text out loud. I'm just amazed by the technology.
I collect board games. I have a few hundred titles going back to the 1800s. I got into boardgames in high school through Matthew Baldwin's Defective Yeti blog in the mid-2000s. We're currently in the middle of a tabletop gaming renaissance, driven by the democratization of publishing (through services like Kickstarter) and the organizational power of the internet (through services like Twitter and Meetup). Even though the technologies involved (dice, cards, boards) are thousands of years old, it's a time of great conceptual innovation. I am somewhat obsessed with tracing the creative evolution of the games I love today back to their predecessors, and seeing how simple ideas with crazy constraints (size, cost, analog components) can be used over and over again to reveal new angles and ideas.
The collection is a great professional resource. I often borrow cards and tokens from games to use in my own prototypes, and there's at least one person's lifetime worth of mechanics and rules to think about. But more importantly, I also try to make my game collection available as a social resource. A good chunk of my games are currently organized into a library at the co-working space we run in Chicago, and each game has a library card in the cover. Anyone can check a game out, have a game night with their friends, and then bring it back. My colleague Sandor Weisz and I have called out a few of our favorite games as "staff picks" and they get little cards describing what we like about them.
I collect corks, and write the meal/occasion details with dates on them, then save them as memory triggers to revisit in the future. Old ones, new ones: They all have something special usually associated with them, whether a good time with close friends or an amazing meal. It helps remind me of life's little moments.
I'm afraid I don't collect anything. I'm more of a minimalist.
Are you a designer with a cool, weird, amazing collection? Tell us about it, and your story could appear on Co.Design: CoDTips@fastcompany.com.