SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

136 W 21st St, 2nd Floor

New York, NY 10011

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[email protected]

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(212) 592-2228

Exhibiting Absence: Communicating Grief through Dress, Decor, and the Digital. – SVA MA Design Research

Heba Malaeb

Exhibiting Absence: Communicating Grief through Dress, Decor, and the Digital.

“Memory Candle—Life so Beautifully Lived” by The Comfort Company.

The ritual of selection of the right frame, or the right candle holder, the right ceramic angel to hang on the wall with a message of remembrance inscribed in it, becomes an extended part of the mourning process. Different from the ultimately pragmatic value of storing the ashes of a loved one in an urn, the selection of these superfluous items is an active choice on the part of the bereaved, a choice made purely with emotion in mind. The use of a physical object to symbolize the loss keeps the mourning in the present tense, representing a state of constancy: the loss may have passed, but the object is a lasting monument to the loss, and to the memory of the loved one who died.

In her work, grief researcher Margaret Gibson compares personal mourning objects, what she calls “melancholy objects,” to what child psychologist Donald W. Winnicott termed “transitional objects.” According to Winnicott, a transitional object is an object in a child’s early development stages that stands in for the child’s relationship with their mother, to assuage the child’s anxiety when she is away. Gibson’s concept of a “melancholy object” is analogous to this; it represents the relationship between the bereaved individual and the person they have lost. Similarly, objects expressly brought into one’s possession for the sole purpose of representing or commemorating a loss can also behave as melancholy objects, whereby they, too, come to represent not only the loss but the mourning period as well.

Something to note is that almost half of the Amazon reviewers for the picture frame bought it as a gift. All of them wanted to bring comfort to their grieving friends, teachers, family members. That the frame (and other products of its kind) serves as an avenue for the expression of sympathy reveals the usefulness of having a tool through which to address the insurmountable topic of grief. This kind of product then eases a discomfort caused by a taboo—in this case the looming spectre of grief and mortality, and helplessness in the face of it—by recontextualizing in a way that renders it non–threatening and digestible for people not experiencing it firsthand; in fact, it makes it graspable, and from that, giftable.


Key References:

Gibson, Margaret, “Melancholy Objects”, Mortality 9, no.4 (2004): 285-299.

Winnicott, D. W. “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena”. In Playing and Reality. Routledge, 2005.