This column was published in CRAFT:03.
A few days ago I received a beautifully wrapped gift from Japan. It was from our Osakan friends York and Sophy, who had sent my partner and me an ema and an omamori. Ema are small wooden plaques on which Shinto worshipers write their wishes or prayers. The omamori is an amulet that is believed to bring good luck to the bearer on particular occasions, tasks or ordeals. We got an Anzan, a special omamori to secure a safe delivery for our child.
In Oceanic tribal cultures, objects such as the omamori are said to have mana, an impersonal force or life energy that can change a person’s luck. Mana can travel in artifacts that are passed from one person to another; objects that have passed through multiple generations have special potency. The power of these artifacts is in the stories and meanings people give to them. It’s like they have a heart and spirit – kokoro in Japanese.
Crafted objects are particularly potent with mana because they carry personal stories. For instance, my dearest piece of apparel is the dress my mother made for her wedding. Other objects play a part in public stories, and public recognition raises their value. A Real Madrid jersey worn by David Beckham sells for $19,000 on eBay. A presidential document signed by John F. Kennedy starts at $23,000. The mana of these objects lies in the belief that the positive energy of a successful moment or the stature of a legendary person resides in an artifact, and that the artifact transmits part of its energy to its new owner.
Mana creates linkages between people. When the young master violinist Roberto Diaz, currently the director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, plays a three-hundred-year old Amati violin that once belonged to the great Scottish performer William Primrose, one cocks one’s ear to hear how the spirit of the deceased master comes to life.
The rarer the object is, the more mana it has, and the more valuable it is deemed to be. Antique and art retailers are in the business of selling mana. We learn about the Agra diamond that originally belonged to the first Mogul emperor; we speculate about the authenticity of the stolen Munch painting Scream after it was found. It’s as if buying a rare artifact equals with owning a part of cultural history, and most importantly, becoming the custodian of the magical power of that history. Owning meaningful objects makes us meaningful too.
There are signs of a new kind of business emerging. Like antiques, it is a business centered around the exchange of mana, but unlike antiques, it involves new objects. Manufacturers have started to differentiate their products from the competition by embedding them with information about their heritage. When the design furniture maker Artek created a new line of special edition Aalto stools designed by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, they embedded the stools with tags that contain links to stories about the architect Alvar Aalto, the original designer of the classic 1960s stool.
The design and marketing of such objects will require new kinds of mana-making experts: social content managers, historical relations managers, and usage trajectory illustrators. These experts will serve the new consumer generation of the 21st century, who gain social acceptance by pointing their social network to products that their friends could not have found in any other way. A good many of these products will be made by so far unknown or just emerging designers and underground artists – and innovative crafters.