Mini Object Lesson: The Art of Fridge Magnets

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Refrigerator magnets are small, cheap, durable, colorful and come in a limitless variety of shapes and sizes. All these qualities make them incredibly easy to horde. Thanks to our incredibly large refrigerators, Americans have ample space to display even the biggest collections.

Art museums drove me into the ranks of refrigerator magnet hoarders. I used to buy postcards of paintings that I liked, but most of them sat in a desk drawer. Because magnets are smaller than postcards I can now fit more art onto the fridge and there’s still room for a magnetic message board!

You can tell from this approach that I pay more attention to refrigerator magnets than to whatever they happen to be holding up. The kinds of magnets you get at art museums are so striking that it seems a shame to relegate them to the corners of anything else that you might want to display. The Andy Warhol magnet currently supporting a recipe for roasted red pepper spread on the side of my refrigerator is much prettier than the paper upon which that recipe is printed.

What refrigerator magnets do best is to make a boring, mass-produced appliance seem more individualized than it otherwise would be. They give us a chance to fill the largest blank space in our houses other than our walls with whatever we decide defines us at any particular moment. And should we ever find better magnets to fill that space, we don’t have to deal with tape marks or holes in the wall in order to update our status.

(Jonathan Rees’s Object Lessons book Refrigerator was just published by Bloomsbury.)