Other lamps, other minds – some reflections on modern interior design

Lampa Arnolfinich

A recent visit to a dentist put me in a state of shock; not on account of the drilling, which was hardly a pin-prick, but on account of the waiting room. Entering it, I found myself in a hostile space, barren, barf-colored, lined with pseudo-carpet with intentionally woven holes and pseudo-wood painted a clearly artificial color, with square, extremely uncomfortable chairs with sinking seats and back supports which ended just in the place calculated to give no support yet jab the kidneys painfully. In the WC, I discovered a square toilet seat: thank God, I did not have to sit on it because I would not know how to without jabbing my knees. On the wall of the waiting room there was a (flat panel) TV which there was no way to turn off or down. In other words, the waiting room seemed designed on the McDonald’s principle — McDonald’s seats are famously uncomfortable so as not invite guests to linger — (secret motto: “shovel them in and shovel them out”). Except, I wondered, here it made no sense. The amount of time I spent in this waiting room did not depend on me in the least — but on how (in)efficiently the office booked me. To punish me for their delays and to try to drive me away while I waited seemed counterproductive (it would only lose them business).

To distract myself from the colors and surfaces, I picked up a glossy magazine. It happened to be Elle Decor – French edition – an the designs which I saw in it — all of them of a kind with the one in the midst of which I was sitting — opened my eyes. The designer of my waiting room did not consciously aim for discomfort, he just wanted to be with-it/modern/fashionable/trendy and in order to achieve this goal he followed the general principles of modern/with-it/trendy design, which are: 1) shock and surprise with unusual shapes and colors 2) pay no attention to comfort or ease of use or practicality of application 3) use the cheapest materials and cheapest manufacturing methods (inject it or stamp it is best) as long as they are “modern” 4) reject any natural materials 5) use as many sharp edges as possible (get it?  “edges” make you “edgy”). My discomfort was merely the price paid for the designer achieving his with-it-ness, it was a kind of… collateral damage. Prices of the items featured in the magazine illustrated the other price paid for the designer’s with-it-ness: money. An aluminum, black and white, zigzaggy lamp by designer X, the magazine informed me, cost EUR1,190.  I looked up and saw something equally cheap and ill-proportioned on the ceiling of my waiting room and was no more in doubt:  serious money was spent here in order to make me feel uncomfortable.

Only the day before I had bought two old bronze lamps for EUR400. One was late 19th century French, the other early 20th century Dutch. Both were shaped with a miraculously calming sense of proportion, a deeply satisfying fitness to their purpose (e.g. lighting), and executed to perfection by master craftsmen who’d spent years mastering their manual skills. Thus, in paying for my lamps I paid in part for good materials (bronze) and good workmanship (craft).  But what do buyers of Lamp X pay for? Not good materials, certainly, as plastic comes in only one grade; nor for good craftsmanship (it’s machine bent). Ergo, it would appear that they paid instead for… well, the designer’s lifestyle – to finance his fast cars and numerous girlfriends. Lamp X, like every single item in my dentist’s waiting room, has that economic structure: uselessness, cheapness of material and process + a high mark-up for the marketer.  Economically, these things made a lot less sense from the point of view of the buyer than my lamps – but a lot more sense from the point of view of the seller!  (The seller is in fact bilking the buyers).

Of course, in buying my lamps I also acquired something else:  pleasure.  For years to come, every time I wake up in the morning and look up I will experience the calming pleasure of looking at a beautifully proportioned object.  Does the modern buyer buying an edgy product – Lamp X, square toilet, uncomfortable, unstable chair – get pleasure out of it?

This is the crucial point of this post. 

I suppose there are three schools of thinking about it:

1) Yes, they like it.  It makes them feel comfortable to sit in odd positions, be jabbed in the kidneys, be jerked by ambient TV noise, and look at odd-shaped lamps made out of bent aluminum and plastic. 

2)  They don’t care either way.  They don’t notice the ugliness and discomfort.  They can work 16-hour days, sleep standing on the subway, and work undisturbed by the throbbing rhythm of techno.  They install in their bedrooms and living rooms whatever comes to hand, whatever is in the shop.

3)  Yes, they experience pleasure, but it is qualitatively different from mine: it is not the pleasure of interacting with a well-made, well-proportioned, purpose-fit object; but a pleasure of a different sort:  the pleasure of owning something edgy and with-it, perhaps?  Meaning, perhaps, of owning something famous and popular, owning something, in other words, because others know it?  It is a kind of pleasure by substitution, a vicarious pleasure:  enjoying oneself through the eyes of others?  (Yes, it is a Gucci bag, you did notice, did you not?)

Whether you accept the former or the latter theory,  you are in fact adopting the other mind theory which you have seen here before – that the modern consumer is a genetically different animal from me (us?), evolved over millenia in the nether reaches of the social structure where radically different life meant radically different selection pressures, and only recently come to the fore as a result of the economic revolution of the last 100 years or so. Not enough time for evolution to take place:  they bring with them to the affluent decision-making process genetic inclinations unsuited to the task.

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