The Ultimate 20th Century Home Collection

What drives Jean-Bernard Hebey to accumulate thousands of vintage toasters, vacuum cleaners and other icons from the 20th Century?

    Jean-Bernard Hebey must be the world’s ultimate hoarder. In his warehouse in the suburbs of Paris he has a collection of more than 9,000 household objects dating from the 1920s to 1990s. Shelf upon shelf is lined with these everyday objects; there are more than 200 television sets, 50 blenders, 200 telephones, 500 cooking utensils, 200 toasters, 100 sets of scales, and more coffee machines than he can count.

    It may be a nightmare for the minimalists, but for sentimentalists it’s like stepping back in time to your grandfather’s garage, an Aladdin’s cave of beeping, ticking and whirring treasures. For Hebey, a well-known French radio and television host, these are cherished pieces of industrial art that hold a key to the cultural identity of his generation.

    “I am an archeologist of modernity. These domestic objects might have been familiar and conventional, but are the cultural signifiers of our lives,” he says over the telephone from Paris.

    Hebey was 16 when he fell in love with vintage household objects. It was his first trip to the US; he rode a Greyhound bus all the way from New York to Los Angeles. It was the golden age of US consumerism and a wealthier middle class was giving rise to demand for a new consumer goods sector. Suddenly, there was a host of must-buy things advertised to improve your life: from Hollywood coloured radios to sticky notes, vacuum cleaners to vinyl-roofed Mustangs. While the rest of the world was languishing in black and white, the post-war US was blazing ahead in glorious consumer technicolour. “Going to the US felt like stepping into the future,” recalls Hebey. “Back in France if I had wanted orange juice we used a manual glass juicer. Here they had cast iron and aluminium machines to do it. I thought, these people can't be bad!”

    His first stop was to plunder LA’s famous flea markets as “it was the thing to do”, to pick up some “pieces of Americana”. Over the years he acquired more. And more and more. A turning point was when the former president of Apple gave him one of the first Macintosh computers in 1984, and Hebey was able to begin archiving his collection. When the Internet arrived in the 1990s, to his delight he could research and categorise his pieces, and slowly his collection expanded into a compendium. Now it’s the largest private collection of its kind, recording the age of consumerism, propelled by a new distribution system of highways and supermarkets, and promoted by new medias such as radio and television, engineered by the development of democracy in Europe and the US and, of course, acquired by the ‘baby-boomer’ generation. “The second part of the 20th century was the era of consumerism and industry that created factories, distribution centres, a lot of jobs. A whole system was built with objects, which is what makes it so fascinating,” he explains.

      Hebey comes from a family of collectors, so you could say hoarding runs in his blood. Because his collection spans the 1920s to the 1990s, it has a Madeleine de Proust effect on people of all ages. “The power of emotional nostalgia when you see these objects is incredible; people of any age can relate. If you’re 25, you see a CD player or a Walkman and you remember how you craved that object when you were a child. If you’re 75, you feel the same way about a transistor radio. It reawakens people’s deepest desires.”

      Now, at age 72, his intention is to sell his entire collection to a museum. “These objects are so rare and full of memories for everybody, they should be shown and exposed, not sat in crates in a warehouse,” he explains. “I am looking for a smart man, a museum or institution that is interested in the history of the second part of the 20th century. That museum will tell the story of anybody aged between 10 and 70 through objects, trends, technology and inventions,” he says.

      No museum in the world has such a diverse and rich collection of these type of objects, he points out. And Hebey has already successfully led 10 exhibitions of his collection and published two books on the subject. The collection is complemented by the library of 2,000 books and magazines, as well as around 9,000 photos and newspaper clippings about the objects.

      He believes that the objects created in the industrial design era — although much updated — are still relevant today. “We’re now in the digital era of artificial intelligence, robots and drones. But we still need household objects such as a blender, a vacuum cleaner, and a hair dryer. It will be a long time before those items can be replaced in people’s homes.”

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