Monday, January 20, 2014


A contractor once told me an interesting story about a house he’d built for a man in Connecticut. Winter was already setting in when he’d gotten the place weather tight, so as soon as he finished the fireplace, he built a fire in it to keep the house warm. When the owner found out, he demanded that the contractor tear out the bricks inside the fireplace and replace them because they’d gotten sooty. He told the contractor that he was paying for a brand new fireplace, and he was damned well going to get one.

This brought me back to a paradox I’ve pondered from time to time. When some people build, they become obsessed with getting everything absolutely perfect. It’s not uncommon for owners to have brand new materials ripped out again because they’ve picked up a tiny scratch or a little ding somewhere along the line. This happens even with materials predestined to show age or wear from normal use--say, hardwood flooring, painted trim, or in the case of our unlucky contractor’s client, the inside of a fireplace. 

What’s odd about this obsession with newness and perfection is that the sort of buildings we seem to admire most--Europe’s storied old cottages, let’s say, or perhaps China’s ancient courtyard houses--are precisely the ones that are old and thoroughly beaten up, with a patina that bespeaks their many years of history. And “patina”, after all, is really just a nice word for the flaws that arise from age and use--if anything, it’s a sort of anti-perfection. And given that we covet the patina of age in old buildings, why do we place so much value on flawlessness in new ones?  

In architecture and construction, quality--soundness, durability, and fitness of purpose--is never negotiable. On the other hand, we’d lose very little in easing our compulsion for flawless surfaces. For one thing, time and Mother Nature never allow us the pretense of perfection for any length of time--something modernist architects have usually learned the hard way. Better to start with the assumption that our work will get a good thrashing over time, and design accordingly. 

One way to do this is to use materials that don’t demand a high degree of finish: Oiled wood, rough plaster, wrought iron, to name a few. Better yet are materials requiring no additional finish at all: Natural wood, stone, brick, textured concrete, clay tile, weathering steel, and tinted stucco, among others. Beside requiring negligible maintenance, all of these materials can absorb years of abuse, and in return just keep looking better and better. 

Take a look at much of today’s architecture, though, and instead of materials that improve with age, you’ll find mirror-polished surfaces, razor-sharp corners, and demanding and intricate finishes. Seeing these flawless designs in photographs, forever protected from the indignities of daily use, it’s no wonder so many of us have come to expect flawless results in our own projects. To this rarefied school of design, I suppose, a soot-blackened fireplace would indeed be seen as a thing that’s ruined and imperfect, instead of being testament to a human tale unfolding. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


In the days of laborious hand crafting, before the coming of the Industrial Revolution, ornament such as carving or engraving was a hallmark of extraordinary quality. Yet after the advent of mass production in the mid nineteenth century, automated machinery was able to replicate the most elaborate decoration at nominal cost, whether for a piece of furniture or a whole house. 

This literal cheapening of ornament set off a popular craze for mass produced items encrusted with decoration--not necessarily of high quality--and also began a trend of treating an object’s decoration as separate from its functional aspects. Hence, many late Victorian items, whether clocks, couches, or cast iron stoves, are positively wriggling with superfluous ornament, blithely gleaned from a jumble of periods and slathered on like so much wedding cake frosting. 

Likewise in architecture, the mania for mass-produced ornament yielded a series of increasingly ornate home styles, culminating in the frenetically decorated Queen Anne houses of the 1880s. Eventually, these bombastic designs overhwhelmed even the general public’s vast appetite for gewgaws, fomenting the backlash known as the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The instance of technology changing aesthetics isn’t confined to the Industrial Revolution, however. In fact, we’re in the midst of another such period today, and for many of the same reasons. Until a generation ago, objects with complex shapes--say, lots of intersecting compound curves--were relatively difficult and expensive to design, tool, and manufacture. 

Automobile bodies, to cite an extreme example, had to be hand modeled in clay at full scale and their measurements painstakingly transferred to permanent dies for mass production--one reason it used to take three years to bring a restyled car onto the market. Today practically all of this work is done on a computer; and the full-sized clay model, if it’s used at all, is more often created by a digitally-controlled milling machine than by human hands. 

The same digital methods used to design cars are used in practically all manufacturing industries today. And inevitably, the comparative ease of creating complex forms by computer affects the design of these products--just as the ease of churning out ornament during the Industrial Revolution encouraged its rampant use and eventual overuse. 

Alas, among today’s product designers, the unfettered power to create complexity seems to have brought on a corresponding fear of simple lines and clear-cut themes. Instead, objects ranging from copiers to computers to coffeemakers are loaded with gratuitous curves, bulges and distortions that contribute nothing but baffling visual chaos. On the other hand, ergonomics--design for ease of use--seems to be more neglected than ever, despite the vast computing power that could be brought to bear in its service. 

For these two reasons alone, the tortured Baroque shapes of today’s digitally-designed objects will probably mark another historic low point in aesthetics, just as the Victorian era’s overuse of its own technology eventually brought its products to the very pinnacle of aesthetic absurdity. Whether today’s supremely busy yet ergonomically bumbling designs will eventually rank with those of Victorian times, we’ll find out soon enough.