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Skates, sewing machines, and sex toys: See the everyday objects that got us through COVID-19

When asked to share their lockdown essentials, people from around the globe showed what they really need.

The pandemic has changed our relationship to stuff. More than a year into the COVID-19 crisis, my blazers, work pants, and heeled boots—typically worn down after a couple of seasons—remained untouched in my closet as relics of my last day in the office, right next to my whiteboard calendar that still reads “March 2020.” A winter’s worth of sweatpants later, the things I use every day have been very much replaced.

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Paula Zuccotti [Photo: Beacky Beamer]
That’s because many of us adopted new everyday essentials to cope with new pandemic routines. And in a project called Lockdown Essentials, ethnographer and designer Paula Zuccotti set out to capture how, with photos from across the globe. Zuccotti, who previously authored the book of everyday items called Every Thing We Touch, put out a call on Instagram for people to submit a photo of their 15 most essential lockdown items. She got responses from more than 1,000 people in 50 countries spanning five continents, reached out to submitters for image rights, and has now compiled them into an online archive.

There were some familiar themes—masks and hand sanitizer abounded. So did tech gadgets. The throughline was how this collective experience made people more vulnerable and open about how they’re getting through, and how the objects overall show the ways that our habits have changed.

China [Photo: courtesy Paula Zuccotti]
It’s no secret that the global economy took a nosedive last year. It shrank 4.4%, according to the International Monetary Fund (compared to .01% during the 2009 recession). Retail was especially hard hit: Sales declined 8.7% between February and March of last year, though the sector has since started to bounce back, according to the Brookings Institution. Countless companies filed for bankruptcy after consumers were forced to stay home under lockdown restrictions.

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Argentina [Photo: courtesy Paula Zuccotti]
Those behaviors are reflected in these personal collections of must-have pandemic objects. For Zuccotti, the objects represent both basic needs and self-care: What do people need to get through this? What helps them cope? “It was refreshing to see choices were made purely for oneself, and brands or trends or the look of things weren’t a priority,” says Zuccotti. “The eye of the beholder wasn’t there to give an opinion.” This meant purchases such as maté tea (“In Argentina, people couldn’t survive without maté,” says Zuccotti, who’s Argentinian), candles, flowers, incense. It also meant recreational objects such as paint and puzzles, and objects pulled from the attic to do things you don’t typically have time for—sewing machines, for instance. There were lots of cultural references, such as movies and books. “Everything that had to do with oneself,” she says.

Cordoba [Photo: courtesy Paula Zuccotti]
There were some surprises, too. Two brothers made barbells out of water bottles filled with sand. Another man photographed a welding mask. And people weren’t afraid to be vulnerable. People photographed sex toys and sleeping pills as essential items, which Zuccotti credits to a shared understanding—”There was no point in pretending,” she says, because everyone was going through the same thing.

As an ethnographer and industrial designer, analyzing the objects people use every day is second nature for Zuccotti. Previously the director of futures at the design firm Seymour Powell, Zuccotti has traveled the world to research people’s everyday lives and design objects such as cell phones, cars, and vacuum cleaners. “I’ve always been studying how people use products. I’ve been studying the relationship they have with them, how they use them, how they look after them, the value they imbued in objects,” says Zuccotti. “I think in objects.” This new project shows how others do too.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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