Collected stories

Posted on October 11, 2015

It seems to be that if you like the finer things in life, and are far enough along to have a lot of the basics taken care of, at some point you will confront the “c” word.  As in collecting. As in being a collector. As in having a collection.

Paul Braga's Snuff Bottle Collection. Via Bonhams.

Paul Braga’s Snuff Bottle Collection. Via Bonhams.

I think the first time I was aware of the idea of a collector was when I was living in Hong Kong. I visited the home of a lovely man named Paul Braga, a member of one of the oldest Portuguese families there.

My 7 year old self was awed by a collection of snuff bottles. I had no idea of what they were. What on earth was snuff? I was told. (Yuck, said I, the 7 year old. Why would someone want to stick something up their noses to induce sneezing, I wondered.) And why these fiddly little bottles with their intricate carvings? But I was fascinated, and whenever I could, went back to visit, listening to Mr. Braga’s stories. (He’d forgiven me the “yuck” comment.)

The word “collector” conjures up for me a certain seriousness; of studying and becoming knowledgeable in a subject; of being an adult; of investing, rather than spending; of building a legacy. Sometimes these collectors collect out of true love or a deep intellectual interest or belief in folk art or those snuff bottles…Others start out collecting for love but end up collecting because they’re relentlessly competitive and just must have that piece in their collection (what I call the ‘trading card mentality’); others collect for the financial upside.

Still others are just love with the idea of a collection, of being surrounded with a massing of things that gave them an identity, whether it’s records or Buddhas or Shaker furniture.

Some people are accidental collectors. They fall in love with roosters; with copper pans; with shoe forms; with spools; with vintage tools; with esoteric textiles from ancient hill tribes around the world. The don’t search for them but just seem to find them here and there, or they start getting them for birthdays and Christmas, or just because someone thought they had the perfect person for that obscure thing they came across on holiday. It’s not about scholarship or connoisseurship per se: it’s just something that happened and is now part of them.

And for yet others, collections are about creating a little bit of immortality: you create a collection and it goes on beyond you, will always be associated with you as you become part of its provenance, it’s history, its lore. If you collect enough, you can call what you have a collection. If it’s fine enough, it’s an “important” collection. And if your “important” collection gets big enough, you create a museum and name it after yourself.

Well as far as I’m concerned, the collections that are important are the ones born of love and connection, not ego, a hole in the soul, or competition.

And for some, like Paul Braga, their collections are both born of passion and sufficiently cohesive, beautiful and refined as to be important that it can be auctioned at places like Bonhams. Paul Braga’s snuff bottles fit that category, going on to be auctioned at Bonhams Hong Kong in 2012.

According to the auction catalogue, “The Paul Braga Collection provides a window into old Hong Kong, a bygone age when snuff bottles were displayed in baskets in antique shops and could be bought for several dollars each. Paul Braga was a true connoisseur in an era when little of substance was published on the subject….Using his own eye and experience, he built up his collection and popularized the subject.”

“The Braga family had their roots in Macau, tracing back to 1708, when an ancestor was posted from Lisbon as Chief Justice. The twentieth century was a tumultuous period for them, with fortunes lost and regained. After the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, he escaped with his young family on an epic trek through southern China, eventually hitching a ride from Kunming to India with the ‘Flying Tigers’, the American Volunteer Group who established an air route for supplies to assist the Chinese resistance after the fall of the Burma Road.”

Love. Interest. Connection. Yes, Paul Braga’s collection ticks all boxes.

Most people think that I must be a collector of something.  It’s not surprising: I’m a person who does like the finer things, and spend a fair amount of time in the world of craft, art, and design. Plus, I have rather vigorous opinions on what works in a design, or what is beautiful or isn’t.

But it seems to be that there are two types of people: those who are collectors, and those who aren’t. And maybe a third type: a person who wishes they were a collector, but just isn’t. And I am that third person.

I really wish I were a Collector – someone with expert knowledge that goes deep not wide, someone who could muster many decades worth of interest in a single topic, someone who could find something to study, and to be so passionate about as to collect it. I think in particular it’s this piece that I regret. I wish I could muster that passion for something specific, but I can’t. Nothing has spoken to me that way. Nothing beckons. Nothing tugs at my heart or at my soul. There’s nothing I’ve come across that I feel deeply, truly connected to.

I did try, once, most likely in a fit of trying to craft my identity. Years ago, I collected saltcellars: i bought them, friends gave them to me. Then one day I looked at it all and thought, “Dust catchers.” I put them in a box that I carried around from house to house, staring balefully at the cardboard box to which they’d been relegated. And then one day, I just gave most of them away.

There was also that time I found myself in London and actually went into one of the antiques dealers on Cork Street that specialized in snuff bottles. I came close to buying something – anything – so I could say there was something I collected. But I didn’t, thank goodness. These intricate, beautifully carved things were too precious to ever risk being thought of as dust catchers. That snuff bottle needed to be in the hands of someone who’d truly love it, forever.

But I do gather wonderful things that I do care about and love, a good bit of which I’ve inherited. Vintage black and white photography. Silver. Japanese pottery. Maybe vintage cameras? That all feels connected. But love of the category?  I don’t have the urge to go deep, to investigate, to expand the inklings of a collection. I define these things but they don’t define me.

Who knows, maybe one day, I will decide to go deep on one of those things: photography feels the most “right” when I think about it. But for now, I’ll focus on living with beautiful, finely crafted things I use everyday, which stir my soul, and which touch me deeply. That’s the only kind of collecting that truly matters.

The thing about things

Posted on September 7, 2015

At long last, I’m weighing in on the unlikely book that blew the minds of publishers everywhere: a book from a little known (in the West, at least) Japanese home organization consultant. I’m of course talking about Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

But I’m not that surprised. Because the book taps into a very deep craving for the values she’s espousing. The values of pleasure and joy and ruthlessness and clarity. The book is not just another self-help book (though there are some embarrassingly awesome ideas on how to organize your underwear drawer): it’s a philosophy for living and even consuming.

For those who’ve been otherwise occupied, the book is nominally about de-cluttering. But it’s not it’s not the usual one about throwing things out and putting everything that remains in lovely little containers. (In fact, Kondo counsels against the buying of containers to house things believing that all those containers are just a crutch for clutter, and become clutter. Container Store, beware the Kondo effect.)

What I appreciate about the book is that it starts with a deep reverence of and appreciation for the power of things at an almost animistic levelWhile the book superficially has at its heart the notion that less is more – that minimalism is better – I think that the Kondo philosophy can be applied just as easily to maximalists, too. Not that more is better, but that more of the right thing is … the right thing.

Matt Dick's atelier at Small Trade Company

Matt Dick’s atelier at Small Trade Company

Things are not the enemy: its our feeling about them that is.

What sparks joy?

What sparks joy?

The most powerful edict in the book: keep only those things that bring you joy: not meaning, not function, not fear of doing without. This notion seems to be working its way into the zeitgeist: it’s something that I hear more and more from my friends, and even at work. This is the kind of meme I can get behind, and of course, it’s applicable to pretty much every area of my life, whether it’s what I eat, what I buy, who I spend time with, or even what attitudes to espouse.

And I like that it’s the word joy: a mix of rationality and sensuality, of pleasure both intellectual and physical. Joy is a high bar, but then why not?

Another powerful perspective: that your body often knows what your mind does not.  I love her counsel that in many cases you will only know what brings you joy by touching it (animism at work). Your body doesn’t have a sense of “I should just keep/do/buy this because…” Yes. Your body knows. Your sense of touch knows what you want, what you need.

I love that one of her insights is that there are patterns in our ownership of things (see page 210) – patterns I’ve definitely seen in myself and others. To paraphrase Kondo, those patterns fall into one of three categories: attachment to the past; fears for the future; or a combination of both. “It’s important to understand your ownership pattern because it is an expression of the values that guide your life. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

Why do you have what you have?

Why do you have what you have?

In other words, it’s about giving up past, about giving up should’s, about giving up fears, about letting yourself feels what it’s like to be now, what you want in the now. Get rid of what you don’t need. Don’t settle for half measures. Don’t fill your life with things that are almost right. They will only remind you of those half measures.

And like an addict who surrounds himself with alcohol or drugs that only keep him mired in that life he’s trying to get out of, surrounding yourself with these semi-steps toward what gives you pleasure, are just daily reminders of your want and your failure.

The way to stop: listen to your body, listen to your deepest pleasure, listen to your joy, now, today, every day.


In the atelier at Matt Dick’s at the Small Trade Company

Flowers at the Ace Hotel

Embroidery by Natalie Chanin

End of empire stuff

Posted on August 2, 2015

Despite the fact that the world is full of strife on one end and bad taste on the other,  I’m not one to let these things get me too terribly down. But there was one thing that really got me depressed and truth be told, disgusted.

Entitled “Instagram: Retail’s Holy Grail” (behind the FT paywall) the piece reported that  “millennial females’ anxieties about appearing too many times in the same outfit in their internet photographs is driving fundamental changes in the way they shop.” Selfie culture is driving Millennialistas to buy cheaper, more often. Says Jamie Merman, an analyst for Sanford Bernstein, “Faster is absolutely better because part of the selfie phenomenon is that women want changing trends, and current trends, quicker.”

So wrong. Vile, in fact.

They sell or exchange their clothes, not because they feel guilty but so they can buy more but by then, all is lost: this behavior drives consumption of low quality, cheaper clothes (and the social and environmental consequences). And it isn’t just about looking fabulous, or looking like you can afford to score the big name brand. No it’s just that you look like you’re wearing something different. Everyday. Forever.

This kind of decadence feels a little bit like Rome, just before the empire crumbled.

I was always put off by the whole selfie phenom but figured it would pass. (For godssakes, a selfie stick showed up in the pages of Vogue recently so I figure the trend must be done). But I’m wondering whether this trend will have longer-lasting implications.

What becomes of these Millenialistas when the selfie phenom ends? Is this like heroin, crack cocaine or meth, where once you’ve had your first high you can’t go back? Will the “habit” they’ve gotten into of buying cheap-fast-often become a life-long addiction? Will it take more and more to fulfill the hedonic thrill? Or will they all snap out of it, feeling guilty, hungover, in-debt,but wiser? Will they learn to be thoughtful? Will they learn to seek out quality? Will they learn to seek out things that don’t just look good, but move well because someone’s put some effort and even love into construction? Will they learn to care for what they buy, keep it and nurture it for years?

I know I sound very old-lady and hand-wringy about this, but this has me wondering. And worrying. And sad.


The immense irony is that I came across this little piece the same week that I got to spend a lot of time with Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin. The made-to-order Alabama Chanin clothes are surprisingly beautiful, look fabulous on all types of bodies, are utterly handmade (hand grown organic cotton, hand picked, hand spun, hand sewn), ingeniously and intricately constructed, beautifully crafted, and yes utterly expensive. Even her less expensive line, A. Chanin, has careful, thoughtful construction, organic cotton and intensive hand/machine work. The clothing has true, intrinsic value. It’s not just a prop.

The women I saw wearing her work looked fabulous and intensely comfortable. And they looked like they were getting a great deal of pleasure from wearing the clothing, and better yet/because of that were feeling really good about who they were in it. The clothing celebrated them, rather than the other way around. They were relaxed, happy, not anxious (cf: the image-obsessed Millenista.)

Alabama Chanin’s clothing is not for everyone, financially or aesthetically. But it is the definition of what great clothing – or any object for that matter – should be: made with love and generosity, beautiful, responsible, elevating, an absolute pleasure to wear, and not made to be disposed of.

A tip to the Millenialistas: why do you think fashion designers wear uniforms? I’m thinking of the men here, who are generally smarter about clothing than women: Armani’s black t shirts and jeans; Lagerfeld’s black suits; Michael Kors’ head-to-toe black; Alexander Wang’s black and white. Because they know that true style is always fresh, never dates. It’s about you, baby, not what you’re wearing.

Don’t settle. When ethics are not enough.

Posted on July 9, 2015

Don’t get me wrong. I do love bunnies. I do love artisans. I do love the earth. I do love people (for the most part). But the Ethical Marketing Machine? Not so much.

I used to be a big fan. I used to believe that by consuming sustainable/ethically sourced products, we could change the earth. After a good 40 years of this (it all started, slowly, in the ’60s) there may be some evidence that it’s moved the needle slightly, more in food than in any other category; maybe in packaging; and possibly – slowly – in clothing, though I’m not so sure that 10 years out from Rana Plaza there won’t be another sweatshop fire in Myanmar or Mongolia or East LA, or wherever cheap production has moved to by then.

But at the end of the day, the Ethical Marketing Machine (and I exclude food from this category for lots of reasons), is only slightly better than the Commercial Marketing Machine that flogs electronic gadgets, McDonalds and Pepsi. They’re still just selling stuff, stoking the kind of consumption that’s really at the root of the lack of many of our ills.

Because what they’re selling is often (not always, mind) a feel-better / d0-better version of stuff you may not really want. And even more often, it’s stuff you don’t need. In may ways, it’s worse than the Commercial Marketing Machine or the Stuff Industrial Complex: it takes advantage of our human desire to do good, and that’s truly cynical.

That doesn’t mean that we should stop consuming at all. In fact, it really is our duty (shocking).

Where we can without getting us into debt, we actually have a responsibility to consume: it creates jobs and livelihoods. It creates economic enrichment to our communities. It connects people, countries. It can even prevent wars (or at least that’s the theory behind that slightly shaky construct called the European Union.)

And it serves a functional need. It can be (though not as often as it should be) fun (and even better) a real joy, stimulating the senses, the imagination, the intellect. It can give us pleasure.

Adidas made from ocean waste. Via AdWeek.

Adidas made from ocean waste. Via AdWeek.

But we need to consume well. And being an ethical consumer doesn’t mean buying the table/cushion/candle/sweater/rug/pair of earrings  you don’t really love. (Thinking something is “interesting”, or “cool” or “cute” or  “useful” doesn’t count. Only love counts.

Love does not mean feeling sorry for the people who are making the item. Love doesn’t mean buying into the story. It doesn’t mean buying stuff by artisans if you don’t need the sweater or dress. It doesn’t come only from knowing what factory it was created in or that the cost structure is “transparent”. It doesn’t mean buying another pair of Nike or Adidas sneaks because it’s made from ocean waste if I don’t really need another pair of sneaks (it was actually this article that set me off on this tangent).

Love means feeling that seizing of your gut, that tingling in your loins, that sense of wonder, that sense of  connectedness at a spiritual level. That first instinct, that first connection, is an emotional thing, not an intellectual thing. Settle for nothing less.

Desirable design meets ethics. Stella McCartney

Desirable design meets ethics. Stella McCartney. Image via Marie Claire.

Of course consuming well is about buying and living in a way that harms people and the environment as little as possible.

But being an ethical consumer is also about being utterly ruthless. It’s about buying only what we will keep, care for, mend, invest in over time, and most importantly, absolutely love. If it’s clothing, we need to love it. And (if this is what you want) it needs to make you look hot. The thing you’re buying for your house needs to bring it to life, to make it sizzle, make you smile everytime you walk into your space. It’s about what gives us true pleasure.  That is living well. That is living ethically.

What would your home, your closet, your home, your LIFE look like if you surrounded yourself with only things that you truly loved, whatever the story? What would the world be like if we all did the same?

Spacious. Beautiful. Good. And quintessentially you.


In praise of fragility

Posted on June 22, 2015

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.

Image courtesy of Tanya La Mantia, via Handful of Salt.

Telling stories

Posted on June 9, 2015

At the Long Now Foundation

At the Long Now Foundation

Over the last few years, the collective wisdom of marketers and pretty much everyone else focuses on storytelling. Want to sell something, the wisdom goes: you gotta tell its story.

Story is part of humanity: we are hard-wired to want to take in things this way. In the context of marketing, it connects me – the consumer – emotionally to whatever is being sold. And that kind of connection, we all know, is the way to a sale.

In recent years, storytelling has become an alternative to the brand. Don’t have the money to build a brand? Oh never mind, just have a good story. A good enough story and you’ll triumph over the big boy brands.

And with that storytelling became marketing, the new packaging, a form of advertising. And I, the long time lover of stories, the storyteller, am over it, even for the little guys.

Brands were first created as shorthand a way for consumers to make fast decisions in a noisy marketplace. Heard of the brand? Buy the product. You don’t need to be engaged in really making a decision. Just choose by brand. Or today, just choose by story, the more exotic, the more high concept the better.

I know marketing is what made America great, but I propose that we should get back to working just a little harder at choosing what we buy and that instead of the story, it becomes about the product again. Let it be about intrinsic quality for a change.

Give me something wonderful. Give me something that makes my jaw drop. Give me something I haven’t seen before. Then, once I’m blown away, give me the details: where it comes from; who the maker is (particularly how long they’ve been at it, where they learned); what went into it because that helps me understand quality and longevity and whether it’s going to do something harmful to this world.

But beware: even if the product is going to save the world, if it isn’t great, you shouldn’t be buying it. Don’t even buy for the “world changing” value, if it doesn’t rock your world on its own. It’s wasteful and disrespectful to whomever has made the product. If you’re buying a product on philanthropic grounds, then consider writing a check. Not cool. Very retro. But more straightforward, I think.

Knowing the story can help give you derive greater pleasure from the product, and can help you ascribe greater value to it, but it has to start with the product.

Look carefully and then FORGET the stories. Is the product great? Is it made well? Is its design spectacular? Do you  know what is great? Do you even know what quality is? Study up. Research. Become a connoisseur. Care. It’ll slow you down, make you think, make you dig, make you develop a point of view. And in doing so, you’ll be doing yourself, and not to mention, the world, a whole lot of good.

It’s time to raise our standards and not be seduced by the story.

Modern patronage

Posted on May 23, 2015

A word popped up in my consciousness as I was reading a review of the recent exhibit called What is Luxury? at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


What would Degas say?

What would Degas say?

It’s a word I hadn’t heard in a long while. Hopelessly old fashioned, it smacks of elitism, class, and (in political circles) cronyism, “favors” and general corruption. And the “p” word was even applied to the “relationship” between dancers and their “patrons”.)

In the realm of art and culture, it conjures up images of that rich cigar-puffer, badgered into (often by a wife) agreeing to fund the work of some obscure, flat-out-broke artist / watchmaker / musician, in return for which they got bragging rights if the artist’s star rose, and first pick of the output whatever happened.

Fast forward to places like New York today, the same thing goes on, where wealthy patrons (now women) support the work of arts institutions.

But such is the whiff of elitism to the word that the most powerful patrons of the day – corporations – now refer to their support as sponsorships, corporate “giving” or even “collaborations”.


Despite – or perhaps because – of all the heavy freight the “p” word carries with it, “Patronage” has a certain resonance for me. Patrons patronize (ah the terrible connotations there) for not just the pure exchange of value but as a measure of material and emotional / spiritual support. We are being patrons when we buy something from a maker, designer or brand. We are patrons when we go to a store or restaurants on a more or less consistent basis.

As the fat cat patrons of yore did for their artists, and as their pilates’d, barre’d, yoga’d equivalents do for their museums today, we do put our money, sense of identity, and our hopes on the line when we do choose to patronize some one, some place, or some thing. It’s not just a monetary transaction: it means something. It’s less an arms-length relationship, and more about having a stake in the work/product, in success, in the future.

Yet do I bring that perspective to the things I do, the places I go, the things I buy? I think not, even though I like to think I’m a conscious shopper, that I choose where to spend my money wisely, that I know that I vote with my wallet.

So what would it change? Would I be more careful if I started being a patron, rather than just a consumer? Would I waste less time on looking around endlessly for new, stimulating things but focus on patronizing people I believe in? Would I learn more about where I am choosing to spend my money? Would I, at the same time, trust more, take more risks, and relinquish control, trusting that whomever I’m patronizing is good at what they do?

It’s an interesting way to rethink the way we consume. I think I’ll try it.