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Everyday repair

Opinion Written by Stephen Knott

The Japanese practice of kintsugi – gluing together pieces of a broken vessel with (gold) materials that emphasise the skilful nature of the repair – seems to epitomise the contemporary designer or artist’s approach to the task of repair. It is loud, communicable, and makes you aware of the hard work that went into solving the problem, much like Bouke de Vries’s work below.

Teapot, 2009, 18th century Chinese export porcelain teapot and mixed media, 325x250x230mm. Private collection, London.

However, unlike the human body that only in Hollywood film can resist age reversal, objects can be subject to the magic of returning to a former state through highly skilled repair. For this blog I argue that this object magic is more apparent in the realm of the everyday economy of repair, than in the exceptional spaces of the studio, gallery or art school.

Glenn Adamson mentioned in the previous post on his experiences of curating the Gallery S O show FixFixFix that the non-art objects in his show were the most captivating. This is no surprise since it is in everyday life that the power of the perfect, smooth repair maintains its magical power. The artist might want to draw attention in some minor way to a repair, even with the use of a readymade, but the wider economy of fixing and repair – handymen, computer hardware technicians and car mechanics – depends on the ideal that an object can be returned to its pre-broken state, and for the labour that went into its making to disappear entirely.

There is a distinction between repair as an economic imperative and repair as leisure-time activity. One cannot under-emphasise the potential joy of opting to fix things, even when buying a ‘new one’ would be more efficient in terms of price and resources. You can buck the dominance of planned obsolescence through using your own hands: sewing buttons back on to your shirt, fixing a broken chair, mending a leaky pipe. But in the celebration of this craftsmanlike activity are we in danger of ignoring the everyday economy of repair and the social understanding that repair should be invisible? Repair in an everyday context is often less self-conscious, it desires to be hidden. The everyday repairman would opt for the best available domestic super glue, rather than the beautiful Rietveld Schröder house colours of the Sugru fixing agent. 

To resuscitate a former tale of my own (soon not to be) invisible labour of repair takes me back to an i-Pod that I broke during a party. Two factors – my status as an MA student, and the expense of this technology at this time – compelled me to engage with the economy of repair. I did not have the £150 or so to spare. I knew that the damage was only surface level as the headphones still worked when plugged in to the unit. It was only the screen that needed fixing as it did not display the track being played and instead showed the swirly, purple pattern of a broken LCD. 

On eBay I bought an iPod repair kit. A week later it arrived. It comprised of a screen with two small leads that led to a tiny microchip panel and a plastic tool, about four inches long with a wedge on the end. This tool was specifically designed to go along the outer casing of the i-Pod and prize apart the smooth plastic casing from the chassis.

iPod ‘Opening’ tool

The process was incredibly thorough and I followed the instructions that were written online precisely, step-by-step. The instructions alerted me to moments when it was absolutely necessary to take extra care. With the elements of the kit, the comprehensive online instructions, and the plastic tool, I was able to return the i-Pod back to its owner, as good as new.

I learnt a lot about the materiality of the i-Pod’s insides, but the success of this repair was contingent on the invisibility of my labour. I did not want to expose the production process at all. I wanted no sloppiness, no haphazard finish. Like most acts of repair I wanted the unit to return to its previous state, or seem even newer than it did before.

This promise of a return to a previous, better, state is essential to the everyday sociology of repair. It is the premise on which the marketing for various brands of superglue, Polyfilla and Mr Muscle is based.

There are of course some things that are more suitable for repair than others and the everyday repairman has to make a decision whether to conceal or reveal a repair. Visual signs of the repair of a computer, washing machine or toilet are rarely appreciated, whereas it is not such an issue if the glue between the cracks of a broken souvenir shows up – this might add to the character of the object in the eyes of the beholder, in much the same way as it does in de Vries’s work above. For a piece of furniture, signs of age and patina are often positively encouraged. Here we enter the contested realm of what level of disrepair is acceptable for any given object. Age, use and wear on the surface, is appreciated in some objects, but not in others.

For the decorator it is all about “making good”, making sure that to the naked eye interiors look well-made, clean, and ready for use. But there has to be a structure behind this surface treatment -otherwise, if the builder just works to please the eye, the same process (let’s say damp) that initially caused a need for the repair could cause the damage again. Repairs are only good if they last the test of time.

Economies of fixing also depend on how things break. Just think of dropping a mug. Splintered into a thousand pieces, I think I would sweep it up and put it into the bin (even if it was a precious thing). With a few “clean” cuts I might get the araldite out, and I would only do it, if it could once again do the things that it formerly did. By comparison the conspicuous repair of the trained artist-designer seems less like a practical solution and more like a doorway into making audiences aware of the life of objects, expose our readymade culture and encourage thinking about an object’s innards.

This fragmented collection of thoughts is itself probably in need of much repair: a judicious re-edit, a clarification of its argument. I close merely with a call to think about the economies of repair, the different contexts that determine how this activity is undertaken, and how repair is object-specific. It is clearly a skill to be able to fix things, to turn a hand to something and renewed attention among designers and artists to this issue is welcome. However, in this celebration of fixing we should not forget that countless incredible repair projects are going on as we speak, many of which are completely invisible.


Further reading

Elizabeth Shove, Hand, Ingram and Watson, The design of everyday life (Berg, 2007)

Glenn Adamson and Victoria Kelley (eds) Surface Tensions: surface finish and the meaning of objects, Manchester University Press, forthcoming (2013)


Stephen Knott is the Founder Fellow in Modern Craft at the Crafts Study Centre, Farnham and is currently a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art and Buckingham University. 

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