Every belonging must be essential when space is at a premium. By Susan Cohn.

Small wonder

When I first lived in Japan I shared a room about the size of a king bed with a fellow student. We had a cupboard for our things and one small shelf. We joked we were sleeping together. Shortly after, we moved into a tiny house at the end of a garden. We had few belongings: we were in a foreign city for a short time. We furnished our little house with discarded furniture and personalised the space with some significant objects to sustain our sense of being.

Cities keep growing at a rapid rate; space becomes a premium. Micro-unit apartment buildings address this scarcity to a degree, and there is even a tiny house movement emerging in great metropolises such as New York and London. In Japan, where land is limited, there has been a long tradition of creating eccentric living spaces on small parcels. As our culture shifts its focus to reducing the effects of consumerism, this movement to living in small spaces is being embraced.

Our spaces may shelter us, but they also mirror our experiences. The objects we choose to display will signal who we are, and who we are not. These objects remind us of times, events, people or just simple daily pleasures. It makes no difference if they are anonymous mass-produced objects or carefully handmade objects. We ascribe value by what these objects mean to us: they talk to us, and for us. These objects gently remind us about ourselves.

But an object can also be a pleasure in itself. It is not just the aesthetics that draws us to them; it can also be the touch of a material or the creative expression of an idea. I think about objects such as Ian Mowbray’s snow domes, which enclose miniature landscapes, each element painstakingly made of glass. His tiny tableaus are intriguing, but as you look closely you discover amusing dark comments on life and death. Stopped from his Dead Country series features a flower tribute at the side of a road, a poignant reminder of the fleeting nature of life.

An object can also take on its own story. There is a souvenir Pinocchio with broken legs on our kitchen bench, from a trip to Venice. It has become a family favourite, guarding our keys, medicines and notes. Each time we pass, we position the legs differently, sometimes for fun, sometimes as a message to each other.

I’m reminded by simple objects of that time in Japan, how everything fought to be essential in our little tatami mat room. I think about the quiet elegance of a potted plant, the pour of a good teapot, the accent of a brightly coloured music speaker. I think of the Mr Kitly X Décor self-watering plant pot, a lightweight planter made with simple ingenuity from a pioneering Australian design by Richard Carlson. Or this striped teapot from Hakusan Porcelain, with their reputation for high-quality, inexpensive tableware guided by the famous Japanese designer Masahiro Mori. Design and craft may shape these objects, but they do not exist in a vacuum, they are part of the world in which we live.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2016 as "Small wonder".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Susan Cohn is a contemporary jeweller, designer and curator.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.