Everyday companions. Meaning-making process through handbag design


The recent decade has witnessed significant growth in the handbag market due to the changing values and increasing needs of handbags globally. Fashionable and innovative materials and techniques have become available and inspired designers to push the boundaries of handbag design. However, the lack of a theoretical foundation in handbag design may hinder the practice of handbag designers that needs to keep up with the contemporary market. This thesis aims to illuminate how heritable knowledge can be gained from the history of handbags and applied to contemporary handbag design practice. It provides designers with a vision for creating handbags as communicative and meaningful products.

The doctoral thesis, entitled Everyday Companions. Meaning- Making Process Through Handbag Design, examines handbag design in Estonia from 1918 to 1940 and uses historical knowledge as input for contemporary handbag designing. The emphasis is on the cultural construction of the meanings of bags. Meaning-making in this thesis is restricted to the process of designing handbags that includes the making and testing of handbag prototypes with potential users or audience; the thesis excludes the meaning-making involved in product marketing. The study asks: How is it possible for a handbag to communicate meaning and how can the designer generate meanings in the handbag he/she designs? Vihma’s (1995) semiotic study of design products is taken as a basis for this thesis. The semiotic approach makes it possible to concentrate on meaning-making through handbag design. It provides explanations of the interaction between individuals and handbags and illuminates the perception of meanings through signifiers – the physical features of bags.

The thesis consists of three creative cases preceded by qualitative research on handbags represented in Estonian periodicals and conserved in museum collections. The historical period from 1918 to 1940 is chosen as the beginning of handbag fashion. Although handbags were also worn before these years, they became ordinary everyday necessities around the end of the First World War and their styles started to change in parallel with clothing fashion. This twenty-two-year period between the world wars was the first period of the independence of Estonia in which rapid developments in handbag design both locally and internationally were evident. Estonia was integrated into the European cultural context, and fashion trends from central Europe reached Estonia and were adopted and adjusted for the local market. Through the analysis of historical data, three themes reflecting novel, classic and local characteristics of bags emerge and lead the research inquiry.

The creative outcome of the cases includes three collections of bags whose design processes are informed by the most outstanding features from each thematic characteristic. The objective of the collections is to test the meaning-making potential of bags. The focus is on the perception of the physical characteristics of bags. I examine the creative collections of bags interpreting and representing novel, classic and local characteristics from the practitioner’s perspective through my reflections on the making of the bags and the audience’s perspective through qualitative analyses of their feedback.
The research contributes new insights into handbag history, as well as the designing and making of meaningful contemporary handbags informed by history. A suggested semiotic model enhances the understanding of the communicative potential and meanings of handbags through linkages between the physical characteristics of bags and their perception past and present. The findings of this research are expected to be beneficial for handbag designers and students alike in understanding the value and potential role of the handbag as a trustworthy everyday companion for many.


Jaana Päeva

Doctorate type


Year of completion


Case study type

Research through design

Institution details

Doctoral School