Silver Spoons

Tiffany & Co.’s new range of gift objects and the shifting meaning of the ‘everyday’

It’s just another day on the internet. A luxury brand releases an intentionally outrageous product line. Online commentators flood the web, heaping derision on said brand. Media outlets leap into action. They point out that all the negative feedback plays right into the hands of the company, building notoriety and therefore sales. Brand leadership presumably delighted. News cycle ends. Next.

Even so, let’s pause to consider Tiffany & Co.’s ‘Everyday Objects’, released just in time for the holidays. The collection, according to the company, ‘elevates traditional office supplies and accessories into works of art’. Others in the Twitterverse described it differently: ‘The least relatable thing ever.’ ‘A middle finger to the non-rich.’ ‘Random overpriced shit.’ None of these descriptions is wrong, exactly, but they fail to capture the full interest and strangeness of these objects, which would be of negligible worth, were they not rendered in sterling silver. There’s a ball of yarn, a protractor, a paper plate, a crazy straw (with an enamel accent in the brand’s signature duck-egg blue), a Sharpie-style marker, a set of Lego-like building blocks and even a tin can. They retail from a few hundred dollars up to US$10,000.

60558779_gift_main_ss-ball-of-yarn.jpg

Tiffany and Co., Sterling Silver Ball of Yarn, 2017, from the ‘Everyday Objects’ collection. Courtesy: Tiffany and Co., New York

Tiffany and Co., Sterling Silver Ball of Yarn, 2017, from the ‘Everyday Objects’ collection. Courtesy: Tiffany and Co., New York

The spluttering indignity that greeted these tchotchkes is, on one level, completely irrational. It is no more elitist for Tiffany & Co. to sell its silver in the shape of a tin can than the shape of a decorative bowl or biomorphic money clip (both of which you can find under the ‘Price Is No Object’ filter on the company’s website). Tiffany’s whole raison d’être is to sell people things they don’t really need, for the purposes of old-fashioned class distinction. From this point of view, the ‘Everyday Objects’ are quite traditional, harkening back to the days when gilt asparagus tongs were hallmarks of good breeding.

On another level, though, the collection is extremely provocative. A tacit social contract stipulates that luxury goods should always be presented as special exceptions. In a world that is furiously at odds with itself over inequity, luxury firms cater unapologetically to the 1%, but they never, ever say this in public. They dwell upon special occasions, like weddings: luxury goods are for ordinary people at extraordinary moments. This is why Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, who yearned for a ‘real-life place’ that felt just like Tiffany’s but never bought a thing there, became such a powerful anchor for the brand. ‘Everyday Objects’ pierces this veil of decency, exposing the true nature of luxury goods for all to see.

60558558_gift_main_ss-wood-triangle-4in.jpg

Tiffany and Co., Sterling Silver Triangle, 2017, from the ‘Everyday Objects’ collection. Courtesy: Tiffany and Co., New York

Why would the company want to do this? To answer that question, we first need to understand the role of Reed Krakoff. Formerly a creative director at Tommy Hilfiger before joining Coach, and then head of his own fashion label, Krakoff joined Tiffany as Chief Artistic Officer in February 2017. ‘Everyday Objects’ is his first initiative for the company and clearly reflects his avant-garde interests. Krakoff is an art collector himself and, in 2013, published a book of his own photographs of powerful women in the arts, including Marianne Boesky, Dominique Lévy and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn.

Given Krakoff’s background, it is no surprise that his inaugural collection takes conceptual art as its genetic code. frieze readers will immediately spot the antecedents: Jasper Johns’s Ballantine ale cans, Vija Celmins’s painted bronze copies of found stones, Damien Hirst’s diamond skull and, above all, Jeff Koons’s transmutations of inflated plastic into stainless steel. That Krakoff would seek to intermingle art and luxury in this way is predictable. These days the two sectors are not so much close bedfellows as conjugal partners, with the rivalry between the Parisian magnates and mega-collectors Bernard Arnault (of LVMH) and François Pinault (of the luxury group Kering) just one conspicuous example.

60559139_gift_main_ss-vermeiltin-can.jpg

Tiffany and Co., Sterling Silver Tin Can, 2017, from the ‘Everyday Objects’ collection. Courtesy: Tiffany and Co., New York

What is unexpected, however, is Tiffany’s use of neo-Duchampian procedure without the involvement of an artist as justification. If one encountered ‘Everyday Objects’ in a Chelsea gallery, it would come across as a standard entry in the readymade tradition, complete with an allusion to the grand master himself: the ball of yarn could be seen as a reference to the caged string in Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise (1916). (The Tiffany tin can likewise conjures the Campbell’s soup of Andy Warhol: prophet of art as commodity.) But, of course, we aren’t encountering these artefacts in a gallery: it is the shift to upscale retail that prompts hostile reactions. The website Scary Mommy, for example, remarks that the ‘Everyday Objects’ collection ‘is here to confuse you and make you feel poor’. Well, yes – but the same could be said for a lot of contemporary art. In fact, by art market standards, the ‘Everyday Objects’ are actually quite affordable. In a way, this may be the most provocative thing about them.

From the collection’s title to its seemingly random iconography – the detritus of the desk drawer – ‘Everyday Objects’ engages with the domain mapped by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life (1980). De Certeau described mass culture as a hegemonic system, configured so as to foreclose the possibility of revolutionary social change. Against this array of ‘strategic’ forces, he advocated small-scale ‘tactical’ resistance.

60559074_60559058_60559023_gift_main_crazy-straw-comp.jpg

Tiffany and Co., Sterling Silver, Rose Gold Vermeil and Gold Vermeil Crazy Straws, 2017, from the ‘Everyday Objects’ collection. Courtesy: Tiffany and Co., New York

This was a consequential shift for Marxist theory, and one that has been influential among fine artists. Among other things, De Certeau pointed to the domain of consumption as a viable ground for individual expression. Rather than seeing consumers as passive dupes, he celebrated their potential as ‘unrecognized producers, poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality’. This logic has encouraged an acceptance of art as a commodity form that can function (even if only contingently) as an act of freedom. ‘Everyday Objects’ is pitched on this same battlefield, but to opposite effect. Tiffany has put scare quotes around the quotidian itself, claiming it as just one more shiny prize. 

Again, why do this? Well, the company is desperate not to slide into dowdy irrelevance (profits were up early this year, but in-store purchases, including their core wedding ring business, were down). They must continually find ways to attract attention from younger buyers. These days, that means millennials, who are outfitted with the most finely tuned bullshit detectors in history. How to reach them, without seeming like Old Aunt Tiffany trying to crash the prom? Just prior to Krakoff’s arrival at the brand, the company released a new jewellery line called ‘HardWear’, marketed as ‘fiercely feminine” and ‘designed for the modern rebel’, and introduced in Superbowl commercial starring Lady Gaga. Close but no cigar, according to Forbes contributor Pamela Danziger, who acidly noted the campaign’s condescending quality: ‘Millennials don’t need “permission” from a brand to buy.’

It’s within this dauntingly skeptical environment that ‘Everyday Objects’ is meant to function. Tiffany is effectively calling its own bluff, maybe even indulging in a degree of self-parody. In the process, they have done their little bit to edge us all closer to a state in which every private act, even the smallest and least consequential (like tweeting angrily about a silver ball of yarn), constitutes an opportunity for brand visibility. The objects may seem insultingly inconsequential, but in fact they are highly strategic – in De Certeau’s sense of the term – and perfectly calibrated to the attention economy that we inhabit today. Gaga may have replaced Hepburn as the face of the Tiffany brand but on the evidence of ‘Everyday Objects’, the company is still pushing Holly Golightly’s rule to live by: ‘I’ll never get used to anything. Anybody that does, they might as well be dead.’

Main image: Tiffany and Co., Sterling Silver Paper Cup, 2017, from the ‘Everyday Objects’ collection. Courtesy: Tiffany and Co., New York

Glenn Adamson is Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA. In 2011 he was co-curator, with Jane Pavitt, of the exhibition ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 to 1990’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK.

Most Read

In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018