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Culture of objects is focus of professor's new book

September 13, 2010

Ask anyone about their favorite things, and undoubtedly you will get a story about how a person came to inherit a rare ring made by hand, how someone chose to relinquish three meals a day to purchase a pair of shoes, or how a grandmother knitted an awful sweater (two sizes too small) as a birthday gift.

Objects tell stories and have fluid meaning over their lifetime.

But most importantly, objects have agency in ways that are not obvious. Objects and people have a cross-causation effect, meaning that as we shape objects, they tend to shape us. But in what ways?

“In very subtle ways [objects] become a part of who we are," says Prasad Boradkar, professor and director of ASU's InnovationSpace at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. "They shape our identity, routines and even our behaviors.”

Boradkar  is the author of the recently published "Designing Things: A Critical Introduction to the Culture of Objects." In his book, Boradkar doesn’t just explore the aesthetic design of objects, but their value, agency and impact using different theoretical perspectives and multidisciplinary approaches. The book also is the companion to a graduate course of the same title.

“Design education, in general, tends to follow the model of the studio," Boradkar says. "One of the things I wanted to do was bring theory into discussion to help students understand what objects mean from a cultural perspective.”

Among the key concepts Boradkar discusses in his book is the idea that no object has inherent value, but that the meaning and value of an object are the result of fluid aggregation. In other words, objects are part of a network of things that have agency over one another. Boradkar says that no one can claim absolute ownership; no one can claim absolute influence.

However, Boradkar is quick to point out that many objects can have disastrous consequences to society. For instance, research shows smartphones and media devices have begun to have an impact on our ability to concentrate and be creative.

Cars are a perfect example of identity, but also charged with environmental messaging. In his lectures, Boradkar often presents images of the various iterations of the iconic Hummer SUV and asks students to interpret the consequences of producing such a vehicle for mass consumption.

“Our conversation with objects is one of configuration – we configure each other," Boradkar says. "The result of this conversation is that if we are careless, it can have some effects on us as a society, our behaviors. It could have impacts on our environment."

There is no better example of how objects shape our behavior than when addressing the issue of fetishes – a concept to which Boradkar has dedicated an entire chapter of his book. Fetishism is the attribution of inherent value or powers to an object. For example, shoes (particularly high heels) are among the most highly fetishized objects of the modern world.

“What often happens in the overvaluation of high-heel shoes is sexual fetishism," Boradkar says. "The shoe becomes a replacement for the woman. So certain men will become obsessed with the shoe, and almost disregard the woman and focus all their attention on the shoe."

For a sample chapter of "Designing Things" or more information about the book, visit

What are a few of your favorite things?
Do you have an object that brings a unique meaning to your life? Why is this object important? Leave a comment.