We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘turning trash into treasure’ to describe the process of repurposing useless objects into things of greater significance, but what happens when you flip this (fairly quaint, yet somewhat admirable) task on its head?
Although ascribing value to an object is inherently wrought with subjectivity – particularly when assessing something’s sentimental worth, some materials are universally recognised as having significant worth. Susan Collis challenges preconceived notions of value by embedding precious metals and jewels into mundane objects. Through this contradiction and the re-contextualisation of materials high in monetary value, Collis critically comments on society’s general inability to place worth on things of everyday use.
Waltzer effectively depicts Collis’ practice of uniting the precious with the disposable. Upon initial inspection, it appears to simply be an old wooden broom – stained with dried paint splatters. However, undergoing closer investigation reveals to a viewer that the object is actually carefully inlaid with an elaborate and eclectic mix of small gemstones. Opals, Turquoise, Garnets, Seed Pearls, Mother of Pearl, Black Diamonds, White Diamonds, Fresh Water Pearls, Coral, Black Onyx and Marcacite are meticulously embedded into the broom’s wood or attached to the bristles.
The philosophical strength of this design is better understood and appreciated when analysed within the context of an entire exhibition space. Collis’ exhibition, Since I Fell For You, combines a collection of similarly ordinary-looking objects, seemingly arbitrarily scattered around the room. As an art installation within a gallery or museum, the work could be very easily overlooked; a quick glance would leave a viewer thinking the space was under preparation or restoration of another exhibition.
This notion of making things of significance go unnoticed intrigues and motivates Collis in her design practice. In 2008, some of her work was showcased in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition, Out of the Ordinary. The specific objects were chosen for their fascinating ability to transform the banal into something beautiful and intricately hand crafted. In a video interview about the work, Collis remarks on her desire to make an object ‘invisible’ whilst still maintaining its physical and tangible presence within a room.
Collis came to realise that this process of disappearance actually occurred naturally in everyday life. The ability of making something invisible is linked to the illusion of it being so utterly ordinary that no one would pay attention to it. Consequently, although Collis’ objects, splatters and marks seem (at first) to be purely arbitrary in their existence and placement within an exhibition space, the contradiction of many hours of very precise labour – and the disguised worth of the materials used – creates a very compelling installation. The intentional (or ‘designed’) illusion of crudeness and incompleteness is powerful in demonstrating the reality of an all too common phrase that many of us love to hate, “looks can be deceiving”.
To conclude, I’d like to give voice to an alternative, more pragmatic (and definitely more cynical) perspective on Collis’ work. Although there is obviously some value in a designer’s ability to produce work with robust and deep conceptual meaning, part of me cannot help but feel like the use of precious materials for products lacking functional value are a bit of a waste. The expense of creating even just Waltzer must have been fairly obscene. Thus the question of value and worth remains at the very core of Collis’ work. In fact, her objects act as a sort-of synecdoche to poetic design as a whole – questioning how highly society should value purely conceptual design and how this compares with the more objective, logical worth of utilitarian design.