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.


Posted on February 23, 2015

Secrets. They’re not supposed to exist, are they? We’re supposed to tell it all, share it all, let it all hang out, preferably online. Mental health types talk about the corrosive effects of secrets.  We barely tolerate the notion that some state secrets should remain that way.  And TMZ’s created a $100 million empire on spilling celebrity secrets that readers lap up then lean back to savor, purse their lips, feeling smug that no secret should be safe from the public.

Secret room, via Houzz by Bashford and Dale

Secret room, via Houzz by Bashford and Dale

As goes the broader culture goes the material, consuming world. “Authenticism” is the thing where every live edge table or industrial makes clear its material roots. Function is form and form is function (and nothing else.) Radical transparency is the by-word of companies like Everlane. And we’ve come to expect to know exactly where the vegetables we’re eating are from and one day soon we’ll no doubt know who picked them.  And on and on.

It’s all a bit boring.

There’s something about having a secret that can be a rush. You feel more alive, more vital, more powerful and because of that, more seductive. And oddly, you might even feel more you. There’s the constant whiff of discovery which adds that edge of danger we each crave in small doses. The irony is that the more we want to be seen, the more we also want to preserve something of our selves that we can choose to share. Or not.

Well, in the search for a little more of that feeling in life, perhaps it’s time for the pendulum to swing back in favor of more secrets, perhaps not fully, but at least a little more in that direction.

This desire for secrets and mysteries explains the continuing allure of spaces and things that contain secrets. Who wouldn’t want, in their home, a secret passageway or closet, that swiveling door in your library that reveals a hidden bathroom, bar, or matryoshka doll collection? Who doesn’t thrill to a desk, which, if you were to push just so, just there, you’d find a secret compartment for secret missives, keepsakes, collections, your forged passport, and just that book of stamps?

Or perhaps more subtly, it’s the tattoo on the lower back (in Jane Austen’s days, it was the locket with the lock of your intended’s hair), or the T shirt made of a luxurious material. Denim (particularly Japanese denim) is one of these areas where secret flourishes charm the denim fetishist or secret hunter alike: the jeans with the extra internal pocket, hidden rivets, the orange stitching only on the inside under a flap, or the denim itself created with the beige-dyed weft and the rope-dyed indigo. Or it could be the bag with the secret message engraved within (thank you Anya Hindmarch). It could even be the high street jacket or bag with the secret pockets and features you don’t discover for weeks after you buy it (North Face is genius at this, as is Tumi).

It’s not just the subtlety that’s alluring, it’s this insider knowledge that is your little secret – yours (and your fellow denim fetishist’s) alone. It’s also your little secret that the person designing or making the piece thought about putting that in, perhaps even considering your delight in finding it. It’s that sense of connection over time and space that can be intoxicating … again, a special little relationship that you can reveal if and when you want.

These kinds of secret objects hint at what we all say about ourselves: that we are more than what we appear, that our lives have a hidden, and of course, deeper dimension.

Designers and makers should take heed: while being authentic and transparent is lovely, creating a little mystery, seduction for your customers is no bad thing.

And unless you’re already living on the edge with some real, big, dangerous secrets (you’re a Russian spy, have a lover on the side, have a thing for The Real Housewives franchise), getting some thing with a secret might be a little way of giving you a way to smile mysteriously and feel that jolt of pleasure you just may need. Just try not to tell anyone about it.



The art and the craft of service, part two

Posted on February 16, 2015

The Amangani

It happens like this doesn’t it? Just when you’re decrying the lack of something – in my case, the lack of good service in the world these days – you find it. I am delighted to have been made wrong.

Best yet, while I experienced a new high in service at what is an unabashedly luxury establishment, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to find that kind of service at price points way south of what most people consider “luxury”. Because, of course, luxury isn’t about price. It’s about mindset.

The Amangani in Jackson Hole, WY was the venue for a rare blow-out holiday. First spied in a design or travel magazine ages ago. the image of this austere-looking retreat in the snow had lingered with me for years, the very epitome of luxurious serenity. It was only after we’d booked that we learned that the Aman resorts are noted for their incredible service, but nowadays, the tendency is to dismiss that as the product of a good PR machine.

But for once, the hype was right on the mark. The Aman experience is unlike any other hotel, luxury or not. Its essence: a quality of service that was utterly modern: not a whiff of Downton Abbey.

First off: it’s the people (what a surprise.) The service is friendly and cool, not servile and simpering. Staff are dressed casually in keeping with the locale, not like those dreadful marionettes or flight attendants you see elsewhere.  People introduce themselves to you, casually – almost as peers – at a party, not as “Hi, I’m Bob, and I’m your server today.” They have personalities that shine through, unobstructed (so it seems) by corporate “behavioral branding” programs. They joke with you. They make you feel great about being who you are. This immediately gets you thinking of them differently, as professionals, and it shifts the perspective: you get the feeling that you are getting a higher level of service.

You don’t get the sense that this is this is all a matter of policy. What you do get a sense of is that Aman hires extremely well. These folks come off as just kind, caring, thoughtful individuals whose interest is your happiness, not the enforcement of corporate policy and rules. Come back to the hotel a little snow-encrusted? They’ll bring you (unbidden) towels and offer you a drink. Have an extra couple of hours to kill between check in and your flight? They’ll offer to let you keep your room till then (un-asked, un-charged.) Need a car? They’ll get one for you, and not just from the usual suspects (from which other hotels would probably get kickbacks) and drive you a bargain  to boot.

There’s also the Aman practice of having multiple people serving the same roles: in the restaurant, there seemed to be no delineation between servers, bartenders, sommeliers, and bussers. This lack of hierarchy can be a touch confusing at first, but then you do start to wonder: why does there have to be such specialization (OK I make allowances for the kitchen team, where a little experience is a good thing.)

Does this all cost more? Yes, only to the extent you’re hiring the right people with the right attitude of caring, kindness, and commitment to getting your experience right.

Then there are the policies that encourage good service. Like the one where you could have a meal anywhere on the property, no clear delineation between room and restaurant. Like they’ll get you anything you like, whether it’s on the menu or not. Like they’d open the sundries shop for you at any time. The policy seems to be “why not” rather than “why’, and it seems the staff is trusted and encouraged to think on their feet. As a result, they’re confident, open-minded, and generous. What a revelation. How many organizations of any size allow that? Again, how much does this cost?

There’s also their policy of placing a service fee on top of the room fee (which they make quite clear at the outset.) At first, this felt a little annoying: why not include it in the room fee, or better yet, allow us to make the choice? But once you experience it, it makes sense. You never sign a bill while you’re there (unless you want to.) This has the benefit of not turning every service interaction a transaction. Plus, since the staff are all assured of income, it feels like there’s a lot less pressure all around. And, it helps with the sense of camaraderie and teamwork. As one of the spa team said, when she revealed she’d been at Amangani for over 10 years, “I like it because there’s just no drama.” Serene people, serene stay.

Extraordinary service that felt right, not icky; that felt genuine, not manufactured; that felt easy, not forced; contemporary, not old-fashioned. Yes, some of these things cost, but they are not the sole province of the swanky resort. And what it takes is great hiring and allowing that staff to be creative and nimble; imagination in upending convention; and a focus on the bottom line: the customer.

Lovely. Just lovely. And inspiring.



The long lost accoutrements of smoking

Further musings on the culture of smoking

Posted on February 7, 2015

It’s no doubt a good thing that smoking is no longer as popular a pastime as it once was. It’s better to live in a world where one can experience the joy of walking into a bar without reeling at the thickness of cigarette smoke. It’s better to not have to wash cigarette smoke out of your hair (let alone deal with the dry cleaning consequences) after sitting in a smoky conference room for hours.  (Yes, boys and girls, back in the day, people were allowed to smoke indoors, let alone within 10 feet of a building. Moreover, there really were smoke-filled rooms in which deals were done.) And obviously there are those nagging little issues of death and disease.

But the world is missing something now that many of the culture and rituals associated with smoking are also dying out. The rituals are rich and pleasurable, a boon to the quality of life, and something we need to find a way to reinvent. Without the side effects, of course.

What culture of smoking?

The long lost accoutrements of smoking

The long lost accoutrements of smoking

Well, there were the accoutrements, all absolutely perfect outlets for the work of fine artisans. Ashtrays as little sculptures out of clay or metal. Cigarette cases out of fine leathers that became impregnated over time with the smell of tobacco. Boxes for cigarettes (in case a guest didn’t have their own) that called into play the work of fine woodworkers, techniques such as marquetry and intarsia, or lacquer.  Lighters and portable ashtrays out of fine metals, perhaps with some etching, chasing, engraving or gilding. Cigarette holders out of jade or bakelite.

And the cigarette crowd has nothing on the cigar crowd with its delicious polished wood humidors; pipes; guillotine-style and scissor-style cigar cutters; ashtrays made specially for pipes. I’m sure I’m missing something.

What little objet do we have today for the artisan to show off their skills, or for the connoisseur to keep on their persons as small talismen and personal signifiers? Not many, really. We don’t really use pens anymore; wallets are another endangered species in the age of ApplePay. And iPhone holders don’t cut it for me: artisanship doesn’t appear to be in great evidence around those, since most are pretty simple leather affairs with a bit of stitching. It’s unlikely to be that thing you thrust into your pocket to feel, to worry, to calm yourself with during the course of the day.  That iPhone holder is never going to be that object that’s indelibly associated with you. It’s quite a loss.

Now there is hope on the accoutrement side. I’ve been noticing a little resurgence in objects influenced by the culture of smoking: the cigarette box as card holder; the elegant and intricately (though not by hand) engraved iPhone case that also brings that cigarette case aesthetic to the party; seeing more vintage ashtrays in hipster shops; product designer friends of mine talking about it. There’s something in the air. Obviously, there’s a nod to MadMen, all wrapped in its haze of bourbon and cigarettes and valium: a kinship with the (also) MadMen-fueled faux sophisticate cocktail culture that swelled and manages to linger; the morph of the hipster vibe into the beatnik one (you can’t keep a good one down); and a certain return to opulence (norm core backlash).

But it’s not just about the objects: there’s the social angle in ciggy culture. Back in the day, all sorts of connections could start out with the bumming of a cigarette. It was a communal kind of thing, a way to engage … but not too deeply. What do we have these days? What small things can you share? Not much, really. Buying a drink for someone in a bar brings a great deal more baggage with it. Share food? Out of the question, with all those food obsessions and allergies (real or imagined) about.

But more than anything it’s the cigarette break that I think is the real loss. Once upon a time, even before laws forced smokers outdoors, people took these little time outs from the day to go and have a smoke. Smokers had license to go and commune with themselves (or with a few others), smoking, thinking, reflecting, just being. Whether occasioned by addiction, habit, or just the understandable wish to free themselves from the shackles of the office or meeting they were in, they had a chance to reconnect with themselves, to process or to zone out, let feelings and thoughts wash over them, to integrate, to savor the moment.

No doubt there are long economic treatises on how much money employers lost from these little breaks, but on the other side of the ledger, there’s no end of evidence showing that taking small breaks during the day are good for the soul and the body not to mention productivity.

There’s also the cigarette break as a way to get away from people all together, whether in the course of a day, a party, or extended periods of torture like enforced family gatherings. For introverts and people with difficult families (of course that’s not you), this kind of break is really an imperative. It’s probably saved no end of marriages.

Smoking was a convenient excuse for all kinds of things. But not any more.

Stand outside, leaning against the wall, have a think, and watch the people look at you sideways: you clearly are up to no good. Head out for coffee or a snack but there’s a limit to how many of those you can have in a day. Tell a co-worker that you’re going to take a walk and they’ll wonder why you’re so stressed out and upset. How ironic: people seem to be forgiving of addictions … but not to the addiction of just doing nothing for a little while. Our puritanism strikes again.

Of course our bodies are healthier, but what’s saddest about the loss of cigarette culture is that it’s another way in which we’re losing the opportunity to maintain a sense of the self. It’s another way we’re losing the opportunity to contemplate and process and savor. In a time when so much seems to be about the social, the electronically connected, the loss of personal space and personal objects is chipping away at who we are.

The answer is obvious: carve out that time (perhaps get addicted to it), ignore the looks, find a talisman you can use as a personal signifier or pick up some fabulous worry beads. Or perhaps we could create a new set of socially acceptable rituals to make it easier on us all.

In the meantime, I broke down and bought the ever so slightly naff cigarette case-like iPhone bumper. Will it encourage me to not engage with it as a tether but as a talisman? Hope springs eternal.

The art and the craft of service

Posted on January 25, 2015

Service is one of those funny things. It’s such a huge thing in our lives: unless you’re a hermit, it touches pretty much every area of your life: the things we buy and do; the utilities; even the web. And pretty much, whatever you do – even if you’re a maker or artist – a big part of what you deliver to others is about service.

On the getting side of things, we expect “good” service but we’re not really sure what that is. We mostly suspect that service can be better.

And fundamentally, we have a love-hate relationship with it.

It’s probably deeply ingrained. Since ancient times, service is something that’s never been top dog in the societal pecking order. Being an artist, teaching, and, of course, ruling the whole thing gets you a higher notch than shopkeeper, craftsman, doctor, lawyer or refuse collector. (Obviously this has nothing to do with money, just status and in some sense, respect.) It doesn’t seem to come naturally to most people, and outside of corporations that spend tens of millions of training in it (utterly wasted money) precious few of us seem to improve ourselves in the area of service. And for those of us in societies in which we like to think that status and rank don’t matter, we feel squeamish about receiving service.

It’s this ambivalence about service that’s part of the problem. We need to start respecting service more. We need to start treating it as a real craft, and while we’re at it, we need to start expecting more.

More than anything else, the iconic image of service comes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

It’s that scene that takes place in Tiffany’s flagship. Our cash-poor hero and heroine go hunting for something to buy at Tiffany’s, with a paltry (even in 1961) $10 in hand. A bemused salesman played by George McGiver with a most lovely Mid Atlantic accent, first suggests a $6.75 (including tax) sterling silver telephone dialer, but that lacks in romance. Then, George Peppard’s character produces a ring from a Cracker Jack box for engraving. The salesman agrees. Never a note of talking down, never a sense of derision. He even elevates their cause: “Do they still really have prizes in Cracker Jack boxes? Nice to know. Gives one a feeling of solidarity, a continuity with the past.” Lovely, just lovely.

That interaction has shaped my sense of what great service actually is: something practiced with honor, sensitivity, individuality, intelligence, kindness.
Of course, this is a film. Of course, it’s from the Stone Age of 1961. Of course, it’s probably not possible in this world of corporatized service and slavishly intensive focus on the bottom line. But it encapsulates the essence of exquisitely crafted service, and an intensely pleasurable, almost magical moment. It encapsulates what we all deep down think it can be.
But when did you experience service like that? When did you give that to others? And when did you last receive service with grace and appreciation and awe, the kind you give to someone who’s made you an exquisite meal or crafted a perfect pot?
Then, there’s the craft of being served. For every person who’s terrible at service, there’s someone who’s equally bad at being served. You know: the silent type, the oblivious, the grunter, the abuser, the entitled, the ungracious, the ungrateful. While these bad customers deserve basic respect, there is a little of sowing what they reap. Service is a dance. Audrey and George probably made our Tiffany salesman’s day, too. Connection, kindness, and humanity go both ways.
Given how much time we all spend getting and giving service, it’s high time we became better connoisseurs of great service.  We need to get more discriminating about what constitutes good service, being appreciative of it, investing time in those that seem to have a handle on the craft of it, and avoiding the rest like the plague. Like anything, it’s about practice and commitment and discipline, but it’s also about learning to live life really well.
Giving what matters

The pleasures of giving

Posted on December 26, 2014

The holiday “giving” season is finally, blissfully, playing itself out. The moment brings with it a sense of relief, smugness, and finally, some time to reflect – over a festive negroni, please – on how to improve it. Because [spoiler alert] the gifting season isn’t just a season.

Think back. Ever give anyone a gift because you just had found them something that meant something to the two of you, something personal, something that acknowledged that you’d heard them or knew them? Remember how it felt? Remember how your givee smiled and laughed and maybe even had a tear in their eye? That’s what giving should feel like. So why doesn’t it?

Now you might be one of those people (you know who you are) for whom holiday “gifting” involves going to one of the mass luxury stores, picking out a bunch of tchotchkes, getting them wrapped (making sure the logo on the box is clear) and passing them out. Or you might be like my ex-husband who used to go from random store to random store on whatever street he’s on at 3 pm on Christmas eve, buy stuff, then ask me to wrap it. If you are in either of these categories, stop reading now. This post is not for you.

But if somewhere, in the far recesses of your brain, there rattles the notion that giving should be a lot more pleasurable for both you and your recipient alike, put your feet up and read on.

The problem with gifting is that it feels forced and like most things in life, that’s a pleasure killer. Stand in even the most wonderful store in December, and you can just feel the anxiety rise: what to get, how much to spend, and are you too late to get it all there in time. Then your partner’s there in the corner, tapping his toes, somewhere a toddler begins to scream, and you see the parking enforcement sharks circle.  (The experience is the same online, but the parking enforcement types are work emails or FB notifications.) You grab some lowest common denominator object, get in line, whip out that card and mark something off the list: the high point of the experience. Sad.

Then you go home. You wrap the gift in whatever’s handy, you go to the party, hand over the gift, and feel relief. Then, you look at what you received, smile, give thanks, and wonder what they were thinking. Going home, it hits you … perhaps they’re thinking the same way? Sadder yet.

It’s time for a rethink. Giving well is giving pleasure with pleasure. Life’s too short otherwise.

I do come by this kind of insight through years of giving badly. I had my:

Phase 1. DIY demon / Martha Stewart maven. Fine if you have talent, or the temperament/time to develop that talent. I have neither.

Phase 2. Give ’em choice.  I went through a phase where I gave gift certificates to cool online stores or for courses, or the promise of time (play dates, promises to help with laundry more, a special dinner at home, etc.) Makes perfect sense:  it allows people to make their own choices, is more eco, blah blah. what I’ve found about these is that they actually put too much pressure on the recipient to change their routines (even for free massages), find time, find what they want, or improve themselves, etc. They end up not using them then but then come across them again in June, curse you, curse themselves, then feel guilty. Not the point, obviously.

Phase 3. Give ’em choice 2. Then there was the gift card phase, which was fine, but just so unsatisfying. Again, it appeals to the practical, but it doesn’t give that surge of joy and pleasure we’re going for.  Maybe if it’s for  a place where people always shop or have wanted to shop (I do remember a rather sumptuous Sur la Table gift certificate that kept on giving over the course of a year.) But really, this is a step up from giving cash, which isn’t really all that bad, but doesn’t really feel pleasurable, to me at least.

Phase 4. Give ’em a clear conscience. I also went through a period where I gave gifts to charity. (Non profit marketers have figured this one out. A couple of years ago, I received an email encouraging me to give Chemo for Christmas to some deserving person in Africa. Oh boy. )Yes, I felt smug and virtuous. And while it tickled the intellect, it didn’t really satisfy. And you would sit across from someone who said, “How cool” rather cooly.

So, some ideas on giving really well.

Cull the herd (apologies for the additional reference from animal husbandry. Completely unintended). Only give to those you really want to give to. The definition of giving is to “present voluntarily”, after all.  But yes, there are obligations (clients, teachers, random people whose parties you’re invited to) and it’s a bit churlish not to provide a little something. So I buy a case of good wine or two of wine for the holidays, and hand out the bottles out as required. Bonus: you can drink the wine if you don’t give it all out. Not a drinker? Then candles, not the scented type (unless you’re really sure about the scent) but a set of beautiful white handmade tapers, all tied up beautifully.

Graze for gifts. You can’t give well if you only start in November, or God Forbid, on December 24.  You have to take time for this: in fact, it’s a year long process.

Avoid gift guides. Here is how those gift guides come to be.  Round about August, companies submit what they most want to flog.  Then underpaid editors who would rather be on summer vacation choose grudgingly, or something from some company their publisher has told them to feature. Or, even more likely, it’s about whatever the photo editor thinks looks good in that corner of that page that has a blue (or orange or pink) theme. Or it’s based on what products the completely unpaid photo intern can get high enough resolution images of in order to meet the deadline. True originality is not going to come of this.

Go for quality and rarity. As if I have to say this, but it bears saying: something beautifully made by hand trumps anything mass produced and shoddy. And if you think this is casting pearls before swine, perhaps it’s time to stop hanging out with swine.

If you have to choose, go for beauty and meaning over function. In general, I’d go for something beautiful or meaningful over functional any day, though all three is obviously the best. (Of all the gifts I’ve given my partner, I think his favorite is still the rather space age fuzzy logic induction rice cooker I gave him years ago.) It may have been just an appliance but it was beautiful, functional, and created lovely comfort food for him.

Think in terms of story. At some point in life, gifts aren’t about what you need or about the bright shiny object you covet, but about something deeper, more creative. They need to spark the imagination. What makes you think of them? What makes them laugh out loud? (Think shared stories, experiences, dreams and fetishes. Or go for their personal fantasies, interests and aesthetics (the more unique or eccentric the better). This year, I received a bottle of scotch and some delectable cured sausage from a co-worker who had heard me say that one of my favorite single girl meals centered on that unlikely combination. (Like I said, the more eccentric the better. ) That was brilliant and it points to why this kind of thing takes more than just the holiday season to get right.)

Tell that story. I once received a gift of a little Sung Dynasty bowl from a distant friend, a collector of Chinese art. Truth be told, it was not a terribly beautiful object, but I knew it was ancient, and probably remarkable. But I never got the story along with the gift, and over time, I felt more and more embarrassed about asking for the story. So it sits in its lovely box, holding up a bowl by a humble Japanese country potter whose story I do know. I intellectually recognize its value but don’t feel the pleasure.

So, since in most cases, it’s the story we are running in our heads about something that gives us the real pleasure, you need to tell the story, connect the dots. And add a little about the object too. (This is why the handmade is so compelling: there’s always a good back story.)

Wrap it up baby. I used to think of wrapping as a complete waste of time, paper and in particular, money, so for years, I was part of the “paper bag with tissue paper/kraft paper+red twine look” brigade. But then, perhaps reverting to my roots or listening to what I always talked about in branding, I embraced the notion that the wrapping was an integral part of the gift. Inspired in particular by my friend Megumi Inouye, who is a professional wrapper (yes, they exist,) I began to pay a bit more attention to wrapping. Wrapping is a sign of respect for both the recipient and the thing you’re giving. Crap wrapping says so much, none of it good.

Megumi, for example, has elevated the art of wrapping to another level, using cloth, recycled materials, and found objects to create wrapping that’s as much a part of the gift as whatever is being wrapped. As she says, thoughtful, graceful wrapping elevates the every day, and in her hands, three simple meyer lemons become something really special. Taking the time to learn how to wrap (not a skill many of us have) is a meditative and creative, something I for one can use at this time of the year, especially if you combine it with your own ceremony, and glass or two of wine.

Now that the official season of giving is over, it’s time to let the real giving begin.

Megumi Inouyes wrapped lemons

Megumi Inouye’s wrapped lemons


Featured image courtesy of Mandy Aftel. Final image courtesy of Megumi Inouye.

Ancient scents at Mandy Aftel's

Lessons on pleasure from Mandy Aftel

Posted on December 7, 2014

I recently had a chance to interview one of my favorite people, Mandy Aftel (the artisan fragrance genius), about her book, Fragrant, one of the best books of the year, perhaps the decade. (Read more here, then make sure you pick up her book.)

As our conversation often does, it meandered around to the topic of luxury and pleasure. It’s easy to think that someone in the field of fragrance – and in particular the fragrance industrial complex with its preponderance of glitzy ads, celebrity scents, and its ties to the the 20th century’s notions of luxury and sensuality – might be sucked into the norms of the industry. But she’s honed her own sensibility, values and ethos along the way and precisely because of the prevailing norms, has come to think more carefully about it all.  Herewith, a random walk through those thoughts. All very alt luxe, and all words to live by.

What is pleasure, anyway? It’s the experience of quality and sensuality and being ready to receive. You can feel certain things of substance, but some things are more submerged and hidden. It’s an internal experience that enriches you. I know when I’m having it. I couldn’t say what it would be for anyone else.

Bottles for pleasure

Bottles for pleasure

On how to live more pleasurably: Living more pleasurably has to do with sensulity, and being present in the experience. It’s not about having it partially but really having the experience.  It has nothing to do with status, it’s not about money per se. It’s personal: it needs to connect with you to fire those neurons of pleasure.

It’s also about being alive to what you love. There’s so much I love and am curious about and I choose to spend my life focused on those things. It’s not as though there’s judgment, I just want to spend my time in a way that’s just great. I’m a creature of pleasure … I’ve always been that way.

Mandy Aftel research

The search for knowledge


How do you cultivate pleasure? I experience pleasure from something I find beautiful. I find beauty very restorative. Some of what’s beautiful can be simple, I like things that look like they could have been there forever. Certain kinds of grapes the leaves are many colors…it was like a was timeless, the proportions were beautiful, the colors were beautiful. When I see it falling apart more, and a glimpse of things, the beautiful of certain things hits me.

What has fragrance taught you about pleasure? Everything starts with the oils….the finished product is very special and artistic enterprise for me…the oils themselves…I think of them as my friends. They’re different. They’re so alive, layered, beautiful, funky strange smells. They’re like another language or universe. They fill me with wonder make me happy, they have this complex beauty, make me feel more alive in the world.

Mandy Aftel at her Organ

Mandy Aftel at her Organ


What is the role of beauty? It’s a necessity, not a luxury. Beauty is something I really do believe in.

What is the way of beauty? I believe a great deal in the principles of wabi sabi. There’s a piece in my book about how beauty often thrives in austerity. In the rugged west of Ireland, cottages were built with small windows, which focused and framed the view, never allowing you to be overwhelmed by it. That’s such an important thing to keep in mind.

And what do you think of luxury? The wrong aspect of experience gets focused on. Not luxury, but consumption. I feel like this other experience….It doesn’t get focused on, it’s about shopping. But we need to think less about shopping and more about what is precious. Buy less, but buy better.

Buying what matters

Buying what’s precious

 All images courtesy of Mandy Aftel.