Make it yourself!

Hidden Designs

Cultural history rarely commemorates home-made objects – even though they often have extraordinary tales to tell.

On the rack of an old stroller is a white refrigerator without a door with the opening upwards. On the side are the following numbers and letters 4E6YPEKU.

Boris Tikhonovich Kapustin built this thermos wagon from an old refrigerator in the 1990s. It is used to sell filled dumplings at the market

After the Creator had kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, they supposedly fashioned some kind of tool out of a stick which they could use to root around in the earth or for fishing. That was the birth of material culture. This tool hasn’t been preserved, and the phenomenon of hand-made, practical artefacts for everyday use has not yet featured in the broader history of culture.

There’s still not a single museum for homemade objects in the world, although millions of these self-made articles exist. I’m not referring here to professionally hand-crafted artefacts here, of which there are billions.

Rather I’m talking about those things that surround us every day and which we don’t notice. And why don’t we notice them? Because their creators aren’t artists, designers or architects (who do everything they can to get their creations noticed), but “ordinary” people.

Normal citizens who are often embarrassed about their products because they see them as inconvenient evidence of their own poverty and isolation and – depending on where they’re from – of deliberately or unavoidably limited possibilities. From another perspective these objects, since they’re not trying to please anyone and are only intended as objects for someone’s own use, are the result of a free and improvisatory art. They show the aptitude and ingenuity of their makers, and consequently a paradoxical mix of necessity and freedom.

“Unconventional solutions to problems generally lead to unusual and, especially, aesthetic outcomes”

For me, the less it’s about the original maker coming up with something pleasing, the greater the aesthetic “wow” factor. For some reason, it’s usually assumed that bringing forth aesthetic values requires people from the relevant profession. But in fact, the aesthetic is a by-product of practically every random labour. What’s key is reflection: what things do we confer value on? Notions of worth vary depending on context. In a situation of quarantine or enforced isolation, it’s important that you can fix a plug for example or, as a famous Russian fairy tale has it, that you can make soup “from an axe” (from scratch). Unconventional solutions to problems generally lead to unusual and, especially, aesthetic outcomes.

When Russia was still part of the Soviet Union (and cut off from the world), there was a shortage of goods everywhere. People tried to deal with their everyday problems using their own resourcefulness. My father, Vassily Grigorievich Archipov, worked in the 1960s as an engineer in a workshop where you had to wait two years for a refrigerator you’d ordered. So my father decided to build a fridge himself. The result was a rectangular fridge because plywood was known not to bend (the fashion at the beginning of the ’60s was for fridges with curved lines). Because of this, my father became a pioneer of a new era in fridge design.

In the 1990s the shortage of products in Russia was pretty much over. Objects lost their fetish-like character, and refrigerators ended up on the scrapheap because of minor defects. Boris Tichonovich Kapustin got hold of one of these fridges, completely gutted it, took the door off. He laid it flat and attached pram wheels to the fridge – it ended up as a heated trolley from which he sold chebureki (fried beef dumplings) on the market in his town (see picture). 

“These quirky objects and gadgets are produced by people of all creeds, nationalities and ages”

When I started to become interested in the phenomenon of handmade everyday objects in 1994, I thought at first that these products would only be made by poor people and only in Russia. I found about 1,700 Russian objects, which were presented in my book “Home-Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts”.

When I later had the opportunity to trawl other countries for home-made things, I realised this phenomenon is pretty well universal. These quirky objects and gadgets are produced by people of all creeds, nationalities and ages. If kids aren’t being inundated with Lego bricks, then they’re all the time thinking up ideas for games and what you need to play them. A stick becomes a sword or a rocket.

But these reincarnations are so short-lived and fragile that it’s hard to track them, talk about them or share them on the internet (especially with YouTube’s new child-protection regulations). The ability to create something is a genus-specific feature of humans capable of reason and is especially noticeable in childhood.

Rationality gains the upper hand later, we become inhibited by societal conventions and we only recall our creative beginnings when “the shoe pinches” – when circumstances force us to recollect them. You can find creative ways to slice bread or make soup, but, just like with love, you shouldn’t approach creative work in terms of business – you can love and create, or trust in chance.

Things that emerge as accidental products are clearly distinct from intentionally planned objects. Accidental objects can be created by anyone, with no professional skills and expertise – the only thing that matters to him or her is to find a timely solution to a problem, whether that’s a makeshift shaver or a shovel made from an old crutch (see photos). Whereas if you have time to think about and do something carefully, often something much more perfected will emerge.

Either way, the aesthetics of homemade things that are derived from the functions of actual objects are not the main concern of their creators. The makers of self-made inventions are not viewed as real “designers”. On the other side this design is perhaps not even the “most proper”. Because it refers to an ideal, a sacred artefact. They cannot be copied; they belong to a unique individual and serve only one person – their creator.

Translated by Scott Martingell