By Regina Connell.
I was wandering around San Francisco’s Pacific Heights the other day. Cold and rainy, it was actually the perfect shopping day, tailor-made for lingering in stores, rather than wandering in between.
As I lingered long in a little cluster of stores on Sacramento Street: March, The Future Perfect, Elu, and the newly opened Jessie Black – all wonderful examples of AltLuxe, I had an epiphany … that what I’m really looking for from luxury – new or old – is one simple feeling: awe.
I felt it as I picked up an intricately detailed, sumptuously seductive leather jacket from Elu, with metal brads joining the seam down the back. I felt it as I picked up a sake cup at March: unglazed on the outside, metallic on the inside. I felt it as a brass bowl by Alma Allen was placed in my hands at The Future Perfect: unexpectedly heavy, smooth but subtly tactile, bearing the hallmarks of the hand that made it.
I feel it when I bite into that perfect parmesan with its perfect balance of salt, texture and unctuousness.
It’s a feeling I get when I’m in a quiet, darkened museum gallery, communing with a great piece of art. It’s what I feel when I’m in pretty much any ancient cathedral, with its soaring volumes, the darkness, the quiet. For others, it’s felt in nature. Or in a darkened hall watching a dance performance. Or eating a transcendent meal served by an exquisitely thoughtful and charming host. Or reading a powerful, simple sentence.
I also feel it when I pull my iPhone out of my pocket, and feel its perfect corners, weight, and the smoothness of the glass as I swipe and take a picture. It’s not just the artisanal and soulful that can move me to awe.
Awe. It may start in the mind, but awe, for me it’s an intensely visceral, physical and spiritual reaction. It’s that feeling in my body where it starts as both a tightening and tingling expansion in my solar plexus and rushes up, filling my chest, shoulders and head as it goes. I breathe in, and the breath comes out as a sigh. The world expands in that moment; I feel both infinite and infinitesimal.
Now what causes this? It’s sensual: the smooth, rounded edges of the iPhone, the rough, molten glaze of the sake cup. It’s intellectual: how did they do that? Sometimes, it’s history, and a appreciation of how long this objects been produced, or what it’s been used for. Always, it’s design: the way the linen lining on the leather jacket stuck artfully out from the end of the sleeve to soften the harder edge of the jacket, the little touches that make you realize how much care went into the design of something … and how complicated it makes the making. In many ways, awe comes from some innate appreciation of difficulty and struggle, of how hard it is to get things so right.
Now the definition of the word “awe” has elements of dread and fear to it, and dread is not what I feel in these moments. (There are far too many occasions for that other, Rumsfeldian kind of awe.) But the synonyms for awe feel wimpy: wonder, admiration, reverence, respect. Perhaps it’s because these words don’t quite capture the feeling of the divine – however you want to define your divine – in the moment, in the object … because the feeling of the divine, of something bigger than ourselves is what gives the feeling of bigness, of infinity.
Which is another thing: as humans we want awe in our lives, I think we were built that way. Without it, life is lesser.
I own some of those objects that instilled that awe in me to begin with (glasses by Ritsue Mishima, my perfect teacup by Christa Assad, my exquisite Cali-weight overcoat from Diana Slavin, and even my trusty, utilitarian Barbour). Over time, that awe dissipates a bit, but it never really goes away. Every time I pick up those objects, I feel the awe, and it gives me pleasure.
And yes, folks, I admit it. My iPhone still makes me feel a connection to that sense of awe, and it reminds me that this longing for awe is truly universal, not dependent on what we usually think of “luxury”. It’s ironic and amazing that a product from Big Tech can do that, but it does. And it’s made Apple the world’s most valuable brand.
Find the awe in your life wherever you can. And recognize it, welcome it when it stirs in your belly, your core. Because it’s that awareness that makes it all the sweeter, better, transcendent.