The 15 Objects That Defined 2020

From sweatpants to rubber bullets, a year in culture told through the artifacts we’ll never forget

Rob Walker
Published in
12 min readDec 16, 2020


A collection of various illustrations: skull, Fred Perry shirts, toilet paper, Peloton, mason jar, heat lamp, face masks, etc
Illustrations: Simone Noronha

This is the year that’s felt like a decade. Maybe that’s because 2020 so often seemed like a never-ending series of tests: for individuals, for businesses, for society. You can tell the story of a year in the culture through a list of books or songs or prestige TV shows. But my tradition is to tell it through objects — commercial stuff, material things, designed goods, products and artifacts large and small.

What follows is not a set of endorsements: Some of these objects are troubling, a few are ridiculous, many are ambiguous (though some, to be sure, are delightful). These are the objects that caused us to see the world in a new way this year — or the objects that this singular year forced us to consider anew. From heat lamps to Zoom book shelves, these objects will be the souvenirs seared into our collective memory.

An illustration of face masks

Face Masks

Future historians will surely study the evolving presence of face masks in visual imagery of 2020 — its rapid appearance, its stunning variety, even…