Over the last few years, the aesthetic zeitgeist has favored the sturdy and utilitarian over the fragile and fussy.
You know what I mean: all those waxed cotton bags (love mine from Barbour); the embrace of the distressed-but-still-noble-industrial style; the rise of “normcore”; the resurgence of heritage brands such as Carharrt, which specialize in durable workwear; the ongoing fetishization of selvedge denim; even the interest in Japanese mingei style and ethos. Quality seems to be synonymous with “lasts forever” and ruggedness – or to paraphrase an old Timex ad campaign, to “take a licking and keep on ticking”.
It’s an extension of our notion that to be modern is to embrace simple, streamlined design; that what is good is that which is pared down to the essentials. It’s also a backlash against the 1990/early 2000s notions of consumerism and mid-market luxury; of Sex and the City aesthetics (adored the girls, hated the spectacle); of excess in general. All in all, a pretty positive thing.
By embracing this look, we’re all saying: we believe in enduring values like honesty and integrity and value; we’re not about design fripperies: we’re about experience and function over “prettiness”. A pair of hand tooled but exquisitely durable workboots from Oak street cost as much as a pair of dress Ferragamo’s. It even says we care about the environment, because we’re not going to be buying throwaway things. This is good.
Also good is that this trend encourages engagement with the minute details of a thing. Now, things like maker, process, provenance, tiny design decisions like where an interior pocket is, or yes, the stitching used on that pair of jeans / what vintage machine is was sewn on, are important. So while there is an extraordinary amount of silliness to some of this, it is creating a segment of consumer land who is versed in these things, at least at a surface level. One can only hope that it actually seeps into Joe/Jane Consumer’s soul when the trend has passed.
And yet. I now find myself oddly entranced by fragility and the non-functional. I find that my eye craves (slightly) fussier embellishment these days. I love the idea of embroidery made modern, as it is by Carla Fernandez and her artisan collaborators in Mexico. I love a bit of marquetry and inlay. And I am actively searching for a refined porcelain cup to replace the durable stoneware mug I drink tea from every morning.
Fragile things make the heart ache a bit, seeing the care that people have put into them and knowing that a false move could shatter that bowl, rend that fabric. It’s like life that way, and engaging with fragile things (perhaps as I get older) is a reminder of the poignancy of each moment.
But to bring these things into my life requires that I care for them. Unlike my trusty waxed cotton bag my new porcelain cup will demand more of me. It will need to be hand washed, instead of being jammed into the dishwasher. Embroidery cannot be thrown into the washing machine. My handmade wooden spoons from Japan need to be oiled periodically (and also not thrown into the dishwasher). My linen duvet cover (an upcoming purchase) will need to be hung out to dry, rather than thrown in the dryer. And I will have to spend weeks tracking down how to mend an inlaid lacquer box I inherited.
That is not to say that I plan on fetishizing the care and feeding of my things: I’m pathologically incapable of that. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m the queen of not fussing over things beyond the initial design phase. I am allergic to overly plated dinners, for example, preferring the more casual “family” style presentation. I am notoriously hard on pretty much everything I own.
I’m sure the roots of this were in my constant battle with my Japanese mother during my childhood in Hong Kong, who’d strut and fret as I played among her tchotchkes in her preciously arranged living room (no family rooms in cities like Hong Kong.) This was in direct contrast to my friends’ parents who cheerfully gave over their rather more shambolic, disheveled “sitting rooms ” to galumphing dogs and children alike. Taking on the studied nonchalance of my friends’ (English) parents toward all things material, I developed an “ah well, never mind” attitude toward things that broke or chipped or frayed.
Perhaps my new-found attraction to certain fragile objects draws from both of these roots. But I’m enjoying this newfound sense that I’m in a relationship with that cup, bowl, scarf, table, book in a way that goes beyond utility and function. and that this relationship takes investment and nurturing. All those 50’s and 60’s notions of wash’n’wear fabrics, of the no-fuss lifestyle now feel supremely old fashioned to me, as they should. The future is not the Jetsons. And there is no app for hands-on caring.
I don’t think my fundamental attitude toward the care and feeding of things has gone out the window. It is, of course, like most of life, about balance. And as I look to find ways small and large to live well with more pleasure, I find that caring does increase my pleasure, rather than lessen it. And if fragile, fussy things increase that pleasure, then so be it.