Before my world was reduced to a two-mile radius from my house, I never realised how interesting other people’s front gardens could be. When your life is confined to the same four walls, with each journey to the kitchen an odyssey, the world outside takes on a whole new allure. I now find myself entranced by all the different varieties of privet hedge, intrigued by people’s choice of gravel size and paving pattern, captivated by the clusters of cacti perched on windowsills. Front doors have become a new form of entertainment, as have the subtleties of window-mouldings and architraves. Who knew there could be so many varieties of mortar on a single street?
There’s nothing like six weeks of house arrest to give you an elevated awareness of your surroundings. And it’s a phenomenon that hasn’t gone unnoticed at the nation’s grand repository of objects, the Victoria and Albert. “The pandemic has this weird way of bringing to the fore objects you would never have thought about,” says Brendan Cormier, senior design curator at the London museum. “Everything becomes heightened.”
With future exhibitions on hold and collecting in limbo, Cormier has turned his team’s attention to thinking about how the coronavirus has reframed the everyday, casting familiar objects in a very different light. Which is why the V&A is just about to launch Pandemic Objects, an online series examining how a range of unremarkable items have become charged with new meaning and purpose.
“There are so many designed objects and inventions coming out of the pandemic,” says Cormier, citing all the hands-free door openers and 3D-printed face visors. “But it’s going to take time to work out which ones are actually useful.” He thinks there’s a danger that some much-touted innovations might end up being “vapourware” – flashy concepts that catch the attention of design blogs, but never come to fruition.
The V&A design department has made headlines with its Rapid Response Collecting, an initiative that has snapped up such zeitgeisty objects as the Liberator 3D-printed handgun, the plans for which were released online in 2013, and one of pink knitted pussyhats worn by half a million attendees at the Women’s March in Washington DC in 2017. But with everything now changing so rapidly, curators have decided there’s some value in slowing down. Instead of rushing out to collect Covid ephemera, Cormier thinks the museum’s time would be better spent looking afresh at what’s right under our noses. “Is the pandemic revealing anything new,” he asks, “about things we take for granted?”
One of the first things to catch his attention was the wealth of hastily drawn homemade signs cropping up in shop windows around the world, explaining new delivery services and warning people to keep 2m apart. It seemed to say something about our relationship with technology and public messaging: the 1990s craze for inkjet printers promised everyone the professional finish of a publishing house in the comfort of their own home. Yet, three decades on, most of us seem to have thrown out our printers, sick of clogged-up, eye-wateringly expensive cartridges, and have embraced the paperless society. “In the moment of need, when the situation is changing so rapidly,” says Cormier, “we’ve gone back to pen and paper.”
Putting signs in windows quickly spread to the home, too, as a means of both expressing community solidarity and keeping the kids occupied. Headteachers encouraged pupils to paint hopeful rainbows and stick them in windows, fuelling neighbourly rivalry with evermore elaborate formations, ranging from chalk to neon paint and Lego bricks. It wasn’t long before this homespun movement was co-opted by the art world, with Damien Hirst offering his own butterfly-wing rainbow to download.
Catherine Flood, co-curator of the V&A’s Food exhibition last year, will examine how the pandemic has changed perceptions of certain kitchen-cupboard staples. Flour and yeast, more used to being spilled on surfaces and swept into bins, have become sought-after luxuries, as we all try to channel our inner bakers. Instagram has become the Sourdough Olympics, awash with competitive posts, while flour mills are working around the clock to fulfil demand as wheat prices surge and well-stocked shelves become a rarity.
Traffic to the BBC’s basic bread recipe has risen faster than a cob in a 250-degree oven, with numbers up by 875%. But need does not seem to be what’s driving demand, as bread is still readily available in shops. It’s the therapeutic quality of baking that’s the attraction, Cormier thinks, the tactile and meditative quality of the process, along with a desire to feel self-sufficient.
“Flour is now a privilege,” he says, and he doesn’t just mean being able to find it in shops. “To bake bread, you need to be able to work at home, and have time to invest. It’s probably not frontline key workers who have the pleasure of rediscovering the miracles of baking.”
As research for a potential future exhibition on accessibility in design, curator Natalie Kane has been looking at the door handle – a seemingly innocuous part of the built environment that has become a villain in the age of coronavirus. Since early March, when it was first announced that the virus could survive on surfaces for up to three days, we’ve been elbowing and toeing our way through doors, suddenly aware of just how often we use our hands to navigate through the world. Could the pandemic finally force society to accept what disability groups have been campaigning about for decades – that such things are obstacles rather than aids?
Meanwhile, as travel has been curtailed, the online realm has offered one of the few options for escapism. Some have turned to Google Street View to sate their wanderlust, whiling away hours touring the side streets of far-flung locations or panning through 3D cityscapes. The Canadian artist Jon Rafman has revived his project The Nine Eyes of Google Street View. Begun in 2008 when the medium was still novel, the projects trawls the globe’s virtual streets for alarming scenes – from a moose careering down a highway to a gun-toting gang caught mid-heist, to naked bodies sprawled across the pavement.
Now, these unruly snapshots seem like glimpses of another time, glitches in the lockdown matrix. V&A curator Ella Kilgallon will examine the Street View phenomenon, putting it in the context of such earlier documentary initiatives as the National Photographic Record Association), established in 1897 in an attempt to create a comprehensive record of British life. Taking advantage of the expansion of photography as an increasingly popular hobby at the turn of the century, the association planned to form a countrywide “memory bank” to foster “national pride”. It culminated in 5,883 photographs by 1910. In the last 12 years, Google has captured 10 million miles of the Earth’s surface in 360-degree images, equivalent to circling the planet more than 400 times.
Further entries in the Pandemic Objects series will shine a spotlight on toilet paper, streaming services, cardboard packaging, balconies and more, one of the more triumphant stories being the revival of the sewing machine. “Despite all the hype around distributed manufacturing and downloadable customised designs, not many of us have a 3D-printer at home,” says Cormier. “Yet the great 19th-century invention of the sewing machine is still a ubiquitous household item.”
Sales of sewing machines have rocketed in the pandemic, recalling the Make Do and Mend movement of the second world war, as people join the effort to mass-produce face masks. One of the chief obstacles to such community craftivism, says Cormier, is managing production and distribution. After the recent bush fires in Australia, an international callout for people to knit koala mittens and wombat pouches triggered a tidal wave of marsupial mitts, far more than could possibly be used. As thousands of companies and hobbyists have sign up to produce face-shields in the great national struggle for PPE, it remains to be seen how effectively they can be distributed to where they are needed most.
Whether it’s a newfound respect for loo roll, a growing suspicion of excessive cardboard packaging, or a phobia of door handles, when the pandemic finally subsides, we may never look at everyday objects in the same way again.
• Pandemic Objects is at vam.ac.uk/blog/