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No More Senseless Acts of Beauty!

November 19, 2009

I like that bumper sticker that says “practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty,” but it’s definitely not my philosophy. Why can’t beauty be engineered into our lives?

Cho Tansu

Japanese chyotansu. Office bureaus like this one, which is an antique, were used to hold writing materials and business papers. Often choytansu were made from expensive wood.

I often tell people that I am a “decorator” because I find that it helps many folks understand what services I provide. Although an elite cartel in my profession is busy trying to push the little guys out by restricting the use of the term “interior designer”, I suspect that the general public really doesn’t know what the title means.

The fact is, both terms fall short of what of describing what value a person like me brings to a remodeling or building project.

The notion of “decorating” usually involves embellishment – adding colors or patterns only for reasons of visual stimulation and pleasure – to something that is otherwise utilitarian and purposeful. The example that springs to mind is interior painting, adding color on top of walls, structures whose real purposes are to provide privacy, keep out the cold, and hold up the roof. In daily usage, “design” usually connotes something a bit more purposeful or calculating – hence the play on words in the title of the old TV show Designing Women – but neither term really gets at the oxymoron that makes that phrase “senseless acts of beauty” so amusing.

It hasn’t always been so. The languages of many Native American cultures didn’t contain words that could describe the difference between a beautiful, celebratory calabash and a bowl for everyday use. The tribes didn’t need those words. Their values held that each day of life was worth celebrating, and thus, a spirit of reverence should infuse everyday activities.

Antique Eskimo carving

By contrast, you and I can probably think of a dozen words that would describe the difference between a plastic lawn chair and a Barcelona chair. In our throw-away, get-it-done-quick culture, beauty usually is only skin deep. There’s an enormous gulf between products that are intended only to be cheap and convenient – a Chinette plate – and good things – real bone china – that are intended to convey meaning as well as serve a purpose. Why is it that we bring out the “good china” only on two or three major holidays, when we want to ritually celebrate our spiritual values? Don’t our relationships with loved ones deserve quality attention the other 362 days of the year?

Joe Yazzie, a Navajo artist with whom I exhibited years ago in Chicago, told me that he found this ideology incredibly foreign. Joe’s father was what we would call a “medicine man” and his calling was to cure the ills of body and spirit. The Navajo traditionally don’t divide body and spirit as we do, and correspondingly, there’s no gulf between the utilitarian and the celebratory. Like his ancestors before him,  Joe’s father endeavored to unify the realms of body and spirit by making things that were useful and beautiful, and Joe did the same. Joe told me that this practice was called “walking in beauty,” and it was a way of expressing one’s reverence for life.

The practice I’m talking about here has nothing to do with taste or visual style. Native American cultures had widely varying aesthetics. Ancient Eskimo artifacts tend toward the austere, and they can look quite modern to Euro-American eyes. Pacific Northwest tribes, by contrast, tended to fill every space with symbolically significant imagery, so much so that art historians use the term horror vacui – fear of open spaces – to describe their style.

“Build Thee More Stately Mansions, O My Soul”

Chilkat blanket

A traditional "Chilkat blanket" named for the Native American tribe that designed them; this one was woven by Tlingit artist. Full-surface decoration is characteristic of most Native American Art from the North Pacific region.

The notion of embodying beauty and usefulness in domestic objects isn’t unique to Native American cultures. It occurs around the world and throughout history,  often in spiritually-oriented communities. Examples from Japanese and American Shaker buildings come to mind.

It’s no accident that a Japanese house communicates a gracefully spare Zen sense of repose. Or that Japanese craftsmen constructed wood furniture so finely that you can find tansu chests, built completely without nails or glue, that are still serviceable despite the fact that they are hundreds of years old! Both are evidence of how Japanese carpenters translated the Zen practice of mindfulness into their work.

The Shakers, whose design sensibility inspired the pioneers of the Arts and Crafts movement, a precursor to modern design, shared a similar point of view. Members of this utopian religious community lived by a motto that described how and why the quality of their work and their religious beliefs were inextricably linked: “Hands to work, hearts to God.”

It seems sad to me that we’ve come to the point where beauty could be considered senseless or random.

Architect Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair.

What’s more, to my way of thinking, there’s nothing beautiful about the billions of baubles we bury in the product graves that we call landfills the moment the glitter wears off. (I recently completed a green building certification, and during my studies, I learned to my horror that as much as 50 percent of the junk in our American landfills is waste from constructing, deconstructing, and redecorating buildings!) Grandma got it right: “handsome is as handsome does.”

As the Shakers proved more than a century ago, quality, beauty, and usefulness can be communally joined. The simple Shaker table pictured here was designed to be functional, hence the handy drawer and a drop-leaf that economizes on space while also accommodating another diner. Even though the table is not made from rare or precious wood and does not contain inlaid marble or precious stones, it is prized for its lasting beauty — as attested by the fact that it is currently being sold by the John Keith Russell antiques firm, which has set an asking price of $28,000.

Back to the Future: Quality is Not Optional

Shaker drop leaf table

A drop-leaf table crafted around 1840 at either the New Lebanon, New York or Hancock, Massachusetts Shaker colony.

In 2007, the architectural firm of John G. Waite Associates put together a master plan for the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The 1,200-acre site holds 20 historic buildings and has served as an outdoor, living history museum for more than 50 years. Hancock is the site of the beautiful round stone barn that inspired film maker Ken Burns to make his documentary about the Shakers.

The architectural team drew from the Shaker heritage in creating their plans, and they found in the Shakers’ history some very contemporary lessons about community and sustainability. Here’s what Ellen Spear, president and chief executive officer of Hancock Village, told the magazine of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in May of 2007 about how the architectural team was looking to Shaker ideals for guidance:

Spear says she looks forward to bringing the Shaker story to address contemporary issues like peace (the Shakers were pacifists) and building community and sustainability, noting the ways they sited buildings and reused materials, approached construction, and looked at things in a sustainable way. “I don’t think they necessarily knew or named it that, but that’s certainly the approach,” Spear says. “The same with organic gardening and the methods they used. They had tremendous technical innovation that we see within the building and building construction, including a water-power system in the early 1800s. All of those things can address issues that are important to us today.”

Handsome is as Handsome Does

The simple fact is that quality workmanship lasts.

While it costs more at the outset, it costs less over the long run. For example, I could buy cheap vinyl flooring for a 10 x 10-foot kitchen for about $100, while a good quality linoleum will cost around $250. (Many people think that both vinyl and linoleum flooring are the same thing. They are not: vinyl is made from petroleum while linoleum is made mostly from natural oils and sawdust.)  It will cost me at least $300 to get someone to install either floor, so why would I want to spend $550 for a floor that looks pretty much the same as a $400 floor?

The answer lies in the ugly truth about what will happen over the next ten years. That linoleum floor will still look good and be wearing well in 30 years; many elementary schools contain 50-year old linoleum floors that have stood up to generations of rambunctious feet. But that vinyl floor will start to look shabby in about 3 years, and most people replace vinyl flooring after about five years. So the true cost comparison is $550 for the linoleum floor and $800 for the two vinyl floors that I will have to install in the same time period.

The shell of the chambered nautilus.

Then there are off-the-balance sheet costs that go along with that throw-away floor. That cast off vinyl flooring is going to wind up in a landfill where it’s going to do some pretty nasty things, but not before it’s had time to release a lot of toxic chemicals into someone’s home! (I’m pretty sure that vinyl flooring helped trigger the asthma that appeared in my middle years, and studies have also found puzzling links between vinyl flooring and autism.)

To my way of thinking, our homes should be beautiful in the same way that a chambered nautilus shell is beautiful. The nautilus, a squid that lives in a shell, expands its home as it grows. The new chambers not only accommodate the creature’s growth, they also function as floats. The squid can fill the empty compartments with gas that cause the shell to rise or sink in the ocean. The nautilus gets bigger quarters as it grows, adding a new chamber each year. It builds to accommodate its changing needs, following a simple but elegant master plan, and building rooms that accommodate the animal at different ages and stages of life.

Human beings think that they invented universal design, the notion that homes and products should be easy and comfortable to use through our life spans, whatever our state of ability or disability. But the chambered nautilus clan has been putting that idea into practice, with stunningly beautiful results, for millenia!

I plan to occupy my earthly shell for quite a few years to come, and while I do, I will endeavor to practice sensible and deliberate acts of beauty. My ideal is to create living chambers that are as luminously beautiful as those of the nautilus.

Because the chambered nautilus so nicely symbolizes my design philosophy, I plan to incorporate it in the redesign of my logo and my Comfort and Joy Interior Design website at the end of this year. My new logo will be an abstracted version of a chambered nautilus shell.

Resource Links

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The Chambered Nautilus

A spiral staircase at the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn;
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

- Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94)

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One comment

  1. There’s still a working diva link on the second comment of your “Small Spaces” blog.

    Love the real blog.



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