Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Design For Living

I love old things. I’ll choose a Rembrandt over a Picasso every time. A thatched cottage over a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. An Agatha Christy over a contemporary mystery. History over Futurism. A vintage car over the latest super BMW. And I think I know why.

It isn’t just that those are old things. It is because they represent a world in which things were easier. I know, I know: people died younger, manual labor was what most people did, houses were colder and travel was between villages, not continents. I know all that. And I appreciate the opportunities that modern life provides; the better food (if you can afford it), the ease of movement from place to place (if you fan afford it), the warm-in-winter, cool-in-summer houses (if you can afford it). But still . . .

Life was simpler. That is good. There were fewer choices. That is good and not good. But what I really miss in this mass-produced, mass-marketed world is the sense that someone, a craftsman at whatever level, cared about what he or she produced, respected the future user, felt a responsibility for the user’s enjoyment and success when something was used that had a real hand applied to its creation.

I once had a saw, a simple, traditional cross-cut saw, that had belonged to my father. He was not a carpenter or craftsman, just a simple family man, a homeowner, a man who had occasion to cut a piece of wood, and this was the tool he used. I admired it because, aside from its sharp teeth and smooth cutting character, it had a handle that was decorated with artistic carving on the part where the blade attached. I always thought of that saw, certainly made by a machine (or machines) as something designed by and made by people who respected not just the work the tool could do, but the hands and eyes of the people who would use it. It spoke to me of people who could envision the users, who hoped to add their own art to whatever the project was that called for the saw. There is little to none of that today.

Look around. Sewing machines and typewriters once stood proudly on store shelves, bodies painted with rich black paint, enhanced by gold pinstripes and artful scroll work to make the point, I believe, that the tools were important and the makers proud. A far cry from plastic in assorted Picasso colors unable to even remotely suggest strength and durability evident in a Rembrandt painting.

I am a realist, though. I know we will not go back to a time when life was simpler and permitted more time for gracious and artful design or display. I know, too, that with every loss there is a gain, and I’m grateful for some of the gains, accept some of the losses, even celebrate some of both. Still, for me, the old ways, the old things are better.

Perhaps because I’m one of them.

1 comment:

  1. And Basquiat?

    The challenge, as I see it, is not to retreat into a misty idealization of the past but to try to understand the complex present as best we can and to preserve as much as we can of the good things we have for our children and grandchildren. I just finished reading the wonderful "Fools Crow" by James Welch (1986) about a band of Blackfeet Indians in 1869-70, as they barely clung to their traditional ways of life. As a devotee of tradition and a human-invested external world, you might really like this novel, if you haven't already read it. The evocation of their (respectfully animistic) worldview is genial.