Patina and Intimacy
“Each one of us has, somewhere in his heart, the dream to make a living world, a universe.”
One must encourage some level of enchantment to invite the supernatural. When nymphs dance, we picture them in idyllic settings, like forests and groves, or carousing in an orchard just before dawn. Perhaps the fruit from trees and vines that we find on the ground in the morning is their doing, after all.
We do not picture spirits dancing among brightly-lit supermarket aisles, no matter how bountiful the fruit is there. The fluorescent glow of warehouse lights and repetitive linoleum floors do not seem a good match. Whatever world the aisles do make, daydreams are different there.
It is worth thinking about these settings, not to criticize department stores, but in case their utilitarian influences have crept too far into the rest of our lives. Certain surroundings seem to dispel enchantment, and others encourage it. We take consolation in a good landscape. Architecture, good or bad, twists and turns our moods. Do our homes and public spaces resemble places of enchantment?
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There has been a centuries-long trend towards visually flat and formulaic environments. The modern kitchen, with its leagues of uniform cabinets and counters, resembles a laboratory more than a hearth. Appliances and pots are steel. Cooking instruments are plastic or silicone. Everywhere in the house, faucets and lights are coated with chrome. If wood is used, it is no longer oiled, but coated with polyurethane. More recently, fully-plastic lookalikes have replaced wood floors and siding completely.
What spawned these design decisions? We might be tempted to call it a kind of minimalism, though I think this is inaccurate. The design minimalist did not invent vinyl siding or chrome or sparsely decorated, uniform spaces—they merely continued the broader trend. If we search out its advantages, the trend is trying to make environments that could be called open, uncluttered, free of distraction, easy to clean, and low-maintenance. These are often benefits, but we should never lose sight of the tradeoffs made in their deference. And we should ask ourselves, very carefully, if they are really the tradeoffs we want to make.
Let’s quickly look at a modern kitchen. These pictures are from a real estate listing, but I trust you know what otherwise fills the counters of a kitchen today. This house recently sold for $1.25 million, almost triple the town’s median house price:
The first impression to strike me is one of storage. There are so many cabinets! It could double as a grain silo. The overbuilt and glossy nature gives the kitchen an air of professionalism, though it borders on industrial. Nothing is dented. Everything can be hidden in cabinets. Nothing can be hidden in sight, for the lighting, above any other consideration, was engineered to ensure every surface is lit. Nothing is allowed a shadow, even underneath the cabinets, there is no place to veil the smallest object. In these ways it willingly resembles the warehouse or supermarket.
There are the typical sleek appliances, although the faucet is a limp hose held in place by a metal spring. In a house that aspires to affluence, there is something almost comically careless about it’s utilitarian nature. Yet if we take this kitchen to be an industrial storage room with a sink, it fits right in. Our trend-ideals from before are all present: open (the floor plan is practically see-through), uncluttered, free of distraction, easy to clean, and low-maintenance. I think professional fits in with these. It’s somewhat reminiscent of an operating room, more than what a kitchen was for most of time. We could try to come up with a name for this. High modernism is how James Scott described the overarching desire for an ultra-legible world. Or we could call it gloss utilitarian, or something like that.
Here begins the tradeoff. Professional or utilitarian contrast deeply with personal or domestic. Aren’t those the words that ought to describe the home and kitchen instead? Professional-grade tools are good. But do we really want a professional feel to our homes? Do we need floodlights? Do we even want the gloss of polished floors and countertops and chrome, attempting to make sure every surface is never dulled?
Let us change directions, and sharpen our senses. Here is an old painting:
As a study of materials, the scene is quite interesting. The terra-cotta floor tiles are worn and cracked, a clay jug is broken, the plaster walls are pitted and fraying to reveal bricks. The copper and tin milk churn on the left, and pot on the bottom right show the dents of wear. Wood is gently splitting on the window and elsewhere. Even the wicker basket is frayed, with reeds missing from the back, poking out to the left. Like every great painter, Willem Laquy must have felt the world viscerally to attend himself to such details.
What is the primary feeling of this scene? Despite the material damage, the subjects are clearly not poor, nor are they bothered. There is domestic merriment. There is hint of affluence. The lady, sporting a fur-lined jacket, plucks a partridge, and inspects fish that the maid brought. The little girl plays with a (ridiculously groomed) dog. There are vegetables on the floor, perhaps the child knocked them over, perhaps the artist wanted to signify a carefree abundance, or perhaps he simply wanted to afford the viewer a better look. Unlike photography, nothing is ever in a painting by accident.
There are four potential sources of light in the room: The window, a lantern, a candle, and the hearth. It is a beautiful touch for Laquy to paint a lantern there, to show off the soft diffused light of its glass from the sun, letting us imagine what it might look like at night. So even the flames, currently absent, would offer us different shades of light and darkness.
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Finally, a few details from my own kitchen. The candles are wobbly, Simi dipped them. The wood implements I carved and oiled from mostly wild cherry—they naturally darken over time, you can tell which is the newest. Copper and brass are shunned today as high maintenance. But this is a mistake, they are not meant to be polished endlessly, to ape at a forever gloss. Instead, the patina is a testament to its use, an indication that the object is alive. It is nice to polish occasionally, but only to admire a temporary brilliance before watching the beauty of aging again. Raw brass darkens, copper takes on a full scene.
These images above cannot be literally compared, they are not of the same thing. But I hope you see how the differences contribute to the atmospheres. Handcrafted objects, textured colors, unpainted and unpolished surfaces (my walls show their raw plaster), natural materials, sunlight and shadow—all of these are signs of life. Life accepts the imperfect and the changing. The domestic need not be flamboyant—though sometimes it is magnificent to be so—after all my kitchen and Laquy’s are far from neon. But no kitchen or home should look lifeless. The design cues of the modern home are grasping at a kind of modernist perfectionism, and become flat because all life is removed in the process. Professional atmospheres (restaurant kitchens, warehouses, operating rooms) are antiseptic, often they need to be, so they simply banish life. The domestic result are spaces, like the richo kitchen above, that feel inert.
Spatially, the minimalist and glossy-modernist trends have the unfortunate habit of moving toward a void. Maximizing for space leads to a lack of spaces. We remove mystery and coziness in ever simpler and sparser designs. Open, uncluttered, free of distraction, easy to clean, low-maintenance, professional: The ethos needed to properly oppose these trends is intimacy.
Intimacy is not clutter, but the proper demarcation of space. To lure back enchantment, we must learn to create the nook, to appreciate the wilder garden, to consider the power of shadows and small spaces, to welcome living materials over insensate ones. There is no formula that can easily arrive at intimacy, only a sensitivity to context that can be cultivated. If we look beyond the economic and utilitarian world, we will find a secret one waiting for us.
More another time, about this intimacy,
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This is the first post of Everyday Aesthetics, a series tucked inside this newsletter. It will be about making beauty and learning how to see. To try and make something beautiful is a way to learn what is beautiful.
My notes on home design (originally on Medium) will also be expanded here, with a more detail about how we made our house, and how we are still making our gardens, and other building projects.
The first painting is Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, by John Signer Sargent, 1885
For Tamara Winter