Material Culture: Re-discovered sensibility

It is 2016 and I am part of a generation of young adults that is the richest in history. In the western world we still experience – if not ever stronger – the results of the industrial revolution with a never-known accessibility of industrially produced goods.

For many a lifestyle with a massive turnover of physical goods has been the norm for their entire childhood; we all as part of a massive junk society, our never-fulfilled hunger for the New not only resulting in the coining of the M. King Hubbert term ‘peak oil’ but pretty much ‘peak everything’. At the same it is the same generation who grew up to face one of the biggest challenges for humankind yet: climate change. A term so big and scary that running away from it in your new sweatshop trainers seems easier than taking action to shrink your footprint.

Manifesting your lifestyle through objects and putting them on display for others is nothing new. Yet, the tribe that manifests their lifestyle not in the amount but the choice of the right products is – if right is interpreted as consciously chosen in respect to the environment – ever growing. With them, a forgotten sensibility for materiality has risen from the ashes of burnt-out factories in Indonesia.

Putting the materiality and material that an object is made of at the centre of a purchase decision, the urban sustainability soldiers are on the lookout for artefacts that are either easy to recycle or suggest great reliability, resulting in an extended product lifespan. At the same time, when making a decision against binge-consumption and committing yourself to an object for years or even decades, the object – and maybe especially its material – need to have qualities that will keep owning and using it interesting and fulfilling.

I find one of these objects to be my metal water bottle. It’s a in the middle-european hemisphere rather well-known Swiss-made, cylindrical, quite simple yet intriguing design. In the age of over-consumption of cheap throw-away goods many of us are on the lookout for symbols and indicators for quality and long product life.
Some companies use their geographic location and national produce history to connect their products and thereby product image by using the country’s flag as part of their logo. Switzerland’s connection with premium watches and generation-lasting army knives is undeniable. Therefore, also Sigg, the producer of my water bottle, has chosen to incorporate the Swiss flag in their logo.

I find the material quality of this object particularly interesting: I have owned and used it on a daily basis for years and as a result, on some edges the shiny light blue coating has chipped, exposing the aluminium underneath. The many times it has been tumbled around in my backpack, tipped over when placed on unsteady ground or even fallen out of my bag when running for the bus, has left smaller and bigger dents. In a sense, they make up a pattern of my everyday life – and sometimes carelessness and clumsiness.

Yet, by leaving its perfect fresh-out-of-the-factory appeal behind, it has undeniably become my water bottle. Its use-induced imperfections do not make it unusable, they rather add a quality of material storytelling. If the materiality of an object affords you to use it without too much care and effort over a long time, this object can become your companion. Seeing it change over the years lets you establish a greater sense of affection and ownership. Sensing these qualities in an object’s materiality and making aware purchase decisions is a sensibility of a new generation that was long forgotten, buried under a pile of past-consumer junk.