Weird and wonderful: how to buy objects that bring joy to your home

One day in Évora, Portugal, my travelling companions and I walked across a square hammered with 40-degree heat. A little delirious, having just visited a chapel decorated with human bones and the hair of young brides, we entered the apparent calm of a shop selling household items. Except our day of the macabre was not over. One of these items was a hat-rack made of four sheep feet, their still-grubby hooves varnished, bent at their joints into L-shapes, and fixed none too elegantly to a moulded piece of wood.

I bought it. I held on to it even after it became infested, in the style of a Dalí painting, with ants. I brought it back home to Britain. Only with great reluctance, and under duress from members of my family who found this increasingly dilapidated object for some reason disgusting, did I throw it away. I still mourn it, as if it were a missing limb. Much as a sheep might feel, indeed, whose feet had been made into a hat stand.

But never mind. I can console myself with a bowl made of pine cones from the Taygetos mountains in Greece, a glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary from a religious shop in Brixton market in London and the Little Lovemaking Monk, an object of extreme bad taste from a joke shop in the Paragon Arcade in Hull. Also models of food of the kind that restaurants in Japan sometimes display in their windows and an ashtray and lighter in the shape of the “Bird’s Nest” stadium built for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. (Which, one imagines, was the last time it was deemed appropriate to sell memorabilia for this sporting festival that were also smokers’ requisites.)

Because I write about architecture, it might be thought that I surround myself only with the most refined objects. “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful,” as William Morris said, “or believe to be beautiful.” Such good advice. Except I don’t follow it: some of the things I live with are definitely useless and some might be considered by many to be ugly. You could call a lot of them kitsch, but that’s a derogatory word for artefacts which, one way or another and with the possible exception of that monk from Hull, deserve respect. What they have in common is their freedom from hierarchies of taste, their unconcern with whether they constitute Design with a capital “D”.

The attraction is partly sentimental. These objects can recall a time and place, this or that holiday or work trip, the people I was with, the heat in the air or the smell of the trees, the weight of food or the haze of alcohol, more effectively than a photograph.

They are antidotes to globalisation. At a time when similar arrays of brands inhabit the main streets of cities everywhere, it’s a pleasure to find an object that could only come from one place. Some have the power to convey disappeared worlds, such as the Soviet-era postcard books of mountain ranges, baroque palaces or Rubens paintings bought in Tallinn, Estonia.

I’m drawn to things that show a desire, a dream or a belief, where you can get a sense of connection with the maker. And with The Maker: most of the world religions are represented in my collection.

Many of the pieces are about death or love or hope. I have boxes of soap, made in Argentina and bought in Spain, that carry colourful images suggesting use of the product might encourage a saint to help with school exams and resolve marital strife.

I like the preposterous, for example a pop-up cardboard model of the colossal palace that the tyrannical President Ceaușescu built in Bucharest, an object that is made with more delicacy than the building itself. Also the absurd, as with a plastic ashtray carrying a reproduction of Goya’s La Maja desnuda. I admire that someone so fearlessly took the logic of tourist souvenirs – apply an iconic image to an everyday object – to its logical if jarring conclusion.

Brought together, these objects reveal the extents to which things are alike and different, the way that a fruit made of felt might chime with one carved from wood, or a metal Turkish clock with the plastic grotto that contains that luminous Virgin, for no other reason that they are the same blue-green colour. There are leaps of scale – a tiny castle, an oversized clock – and thwarted or faded technologies, such as lenticular postcards or clockwork or models of obsolete cars.

There’s a preponderance of skeuomorphs in my collection, that it is to say of things that look like something other than what they are. Not that it should really be called a collection, as that might imply more direction than is actually present. An accumulation would be a better word.

A sense of connection can come from the way something is made as well as anything it might try to represent. Tiny trees and kitchen units for architectural models, bought at the giant and phenomenal Tokyu Hands department store in Tokyo, bowl you over with their precision. Small enamel coffee cups, deep red from Barcelona and leaf green from Salvador but otherwise identical, have the appeal that comes with doing something simple well. That pine-cone bowl, bought from an old woman in a lonely stall on a mountain road, while not dishwasher-safe, is exquisite.

My favourite objects are those where image and making combine. These include the cardboard models of valuable goods that are sometimes burned at Chinese funerals so that, even if some of them become a bit dated, they can be enjoyed in the afterlife: Rolexes, a Walkman, an SLR camera. Both idea and execution are beautiful. I also treasure a swan, made from a plastic milk bottle by the artist Madelon Vriesendorp – who incidentally is a far more accomplished accumulationist than I am – that lights up from inside.

All human life, in short, is there. There are thrift, invention, fantasy and extravagance, skill and error, naivety and cleverness. The objects are prompts, distractions and inspirations in my daily life. They manifest intent in material, which is something I am always looking for, whether in a cathedral or a coffee cup.