There have been vast tidal waves of change in the last year, but there have also been slow, steady ripples of it, gradually reshaping our place in the world.
Take the objects we surround ourselves with. Things that were once rare, such as face masks, are now commonplace. Things that were once commonplace, such as a daily coffee, or a good pair of socks, have become noteworthy.
Anna Talley and Fleur Elkerton were master’s students on the History of Design RCA/V&A course when the pandemic first took hold. Feeling compelled to document the pandemic as it happened, they quickly set about curating Design in Quarantine, an extensive online archive of items created in direct response to the virus.
“We thought that as historians, we should be able to respond to the pandemic in some way,” explains Talley. “And we thought the best way to do that would be to create an archive, where we could collect material for future historians to sift through.”
“There was this feeling at the beginning of the pandemic,” adds Elkerton, “of living through something that was really important, and that was going to be important historically in the in the future.”
Since last April, the pair have already noticed shifts in both the way we approach objects and the way they’re designed.
“I think there’s something to be said about touch,” says Elkerton. “How that connection with objects has been changed because of the fear of touching and spreading."
And in much the same way as we often fail to notice our own bodies until we become ill, Talley thinks that the pandemic has made us all more alert to our surroundings. “I think we're now more aware of how design, and objects, mediate our existence in the world,” she explains.
“The way we move about a space is in some way dictated by the way in which that space was designed, and I think with the pandemic - and the way that we now have to connect to each other through technological devices for example, or have to communicate through masks - these objects suddenly became something very obvious, something unusual.”
“I think it’s heightened people's perceptions, maybe not so much the fact that they suddenly recognise that their life is being mediated by design, but that there is this thing that is between them and the way that they operate in the world.”
Many objects in the archive seem to have been created as a self-conscious exercise, from an armchair made entirely of toilet rolls, to a lampshade made up of unused skewer sticks.
Another noticeable trend is a shift towards local or found materials, says Talley. She points to an Italian designer who has repurposed abandoned school desks into cupboards, and the “SE17 Chair,” created using only objects found within this London postcode.
But humour is also an overarching theme. The collection contains harrowing objects of illness and trauma, but it also contains a sanitiser dispenser shaped like a chicken, and another of Elkerton’s recent favourites: a hand-crafted coronavirus pin cushion. “That's the kind of thing I really wanted to be collecting when we set this up,” she admits.
Helen Goulden, CEO of the Young Foundation, has noticed a similar theme. The Young Foundation will soon launch their virtual Museum of 2020 exhibition, made up of the items people have chosen to illustrate their time in lockdown.
“We had an amazing video of a lady managing to swim properly in a paddling pool by attaching herself to elastic,” Goulden tells us. “It’s a genius invention!”
The “Jar of 2020” is another personal favourite for Goulden. Inside the jar are objects representing the entrant’s lockdown hobbies (such as baking and sewing equipment), but the outside bears reminders of things that became more limited, such as travelling and driving.
Most of the submissions, though, were a little simpler. A bench passed every day on a walk; pets who have proven to be excellent companions.
“We’re gaining comfort from things we’d taken for granted,” says Goulden. “Now we have empathy for the person who posted a picture of a pair of trainers, because getting out running was now a lifeline; or the pair of slippers, because getting out just wasn’t possible.”
“Our moments have become months as lockdown extended over the year, and our worlds have become smaller as we circle round a square mile or so. In a world of mass consumerism, we’ve come back to basics.”
As for the future, Talley and Elkerton say they’ve already seen some tentative steps towards a new wave of pandemic design. Plans for vaccination centres are now a common feature in the archive, just as designs for novelty face masks have gradually started slowing down.
“I think there’s something quite interesting, especially as historians, in thinking about what people in the future will try to draw from our archives,” says Elkerton.
But for now, at least we can still take comfort in a good pair of socks.