Inanimate Objects and the Stories They Tell

John Freyer '95 describes to the Chapel audience the path his possessions took after he sold them.
John Freyer '95 describes to the Chapel audience the path his possessions took after he sold them.

Most people would not devote much time or energy into thinking about a bookshelf. For John Freyer ’95, however, this was not the case.


Members of the Hamilton community and guests gathered in the Chapel on Sept. 24 to hear Freyer, an assistant professor of photography at the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History, discuss his passionate fascination of objects and how they define who we are as individuals.


Through a variety of projects and studies, Freyer analyzed the ways in which simple objects, such as a bookshelf from Ikea, carry much deeper meanings.


Freyer began his presentation by naming many previous works and projects that influences his studies, such as Evocative Objects, a collection of essays edited by Sherry Turkle about the emotions surrounding mysterious objects left in remote places, and “Significant Objects,” an online project created by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn that collects fictional stories based on objects purchased in thrift stores.  Evocative Objects was the common reading for the class of 2016. Freyer became so captivated with the stories behind such mediocre and random things that he decided to commence his own range of projects.


In a collaborative effort with Johan Lindqvist, a Swedish anthropologist, Freyer traveled to Sweden to begin a Fulbright study. “When I think of Sweden, I immediately think of Ikea,” Freyer admitted, adding, “It’s even in Swedish colors!” Freyer went on to explain that Ikea was an extremely broad topic to take on, so they immediately had to consolidate and focus on something much more specific. Freyer and Lindqvist decided to structure a five-week class for 16 students from 13 countries based around the Billy, a bookshelf sold in Ikea.


Billy, an 80-pound, 6 foot tall bookshelf with six shelves, has been in production for 45 years, sells for about $29, and is one of the more popular items at Ikea. Freyer and Lindqvist sent their students out to collect research on how the bookshelf fits into daily life in Sweden.

Throughout these five weeks, Freyer discovered many interesting facts about Ikea and Billy. “There is quite a bit of overlap between Las Vegas and Ikea,” Freyer explained to an amused audience. “When you’re in a casino, you tend to lose track of time, and that’s exactly what happens in Ikea.” He elaborated and focused on how Ikea is structured so that shoppers must follow arrows, which cause them to zig and zag throughout the store, often having to stop to avoid displays or other shoppers. “People have to pause and stop, which leads to buying,” Freyer described. “Sixty-five percent of what people buy at Ikea is not initially on their list.”

The students also came up with their own ideas and theories about Billy. For example, one group determined that the fourth shelf up from the bottom was where people most commonly placed items of value or memorable emotional value; based on these findings, the team renamed the fourth shelf the “Golden Shelf.” They went into even more detail and pinpointed a spot about a third of the way from the left of the shelf as the “Golden Object,” which is, in essence, the place where you put your most value object that you want guests to see first. “We even created a Facebook page for the Golden Shelf, so make sure to like us,” Freyer stated comically, adding, “It’s very anecdotal, I’ll admit to that.”

Another group of students created a kit for Billy, which owners could purchase to help them interact with their bookshelf. The kit contained many essential elements to help maximize the bookshelf’s potential, such as a focus magnifier to highlight favorite passages from books on the shelf, and “You can have me stickers” that people could place on items that were essentially for sale on their Billy. Throughout the duration of the project, Freyer and his students gained a deeper understanding for the complexities involved with life’s most simple and average objects.

Freyer went on to discuss some of his other projects, such as his HD video project titled “Dress-Up,” which contained projected images of young children playing dress-up and attempting to stand still for five full minutes. Freyer explained that the outfits and roles defined the children’s identities and caused them to put on alternate personas. This project correlates to Freyer’s larger goal of defining how objects delineate our identities.

Finally,, Freyer elaborated on his project called “All My Life for Sale.” In the Syracuse Post-Standard ( July, 2001), Freyer writes, “The overall idea is that increasingly we are defined by the objects that we own…I wanted to see what would happen to me when I no longer have the objects that define me.” Curious about his own identity, Freyer sold all of his belongings on eBay and later tracked down the owners to see where his items wound up.


He sold anomalous objects, such as a kidney-shaped ashtray, a cement brick, a can of chunky soup, a lunchbox complete with lunch inside for the owner to enjoy, a salt shaker, exposed and unprocessed rolls of film, and a Jesus nightlight from the Dollar Store that would only work if plugged in upside down. Freyer shared many humorous stories and images associated with his objects, which triggered laughter throughout the Chapel. He received an array of information from his buyers, and was able to collect the data and publish a book titled All My Life for Sale, which was published in 2002.

Throughout his presentation, Freyer exemplified how heavily we as individuals rely on objects to define who we are as humans, and how exploring the path these objects travel on is, above anything else, good for a long laugh.

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