Friday, May 18, 2007

Help the aged

There is quite an enormous amount of material I now have backlogged with regard to Recommended Reading, but I so far haven't gotten around to posting it. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps next week. Perhaps never. Alas....

In the meantime, I would like to recommend something dealing with a topic I've not referred to in a while: design.

More specifically, the aesthetic of 'old', 'used', 'authentic', 'second-hand', 'resale', 'antique' stuff.

The sort of stuff that, I think, maybe, I'm coming to appreciate more and more. But I'm also, as it were, coming to appreciate the complexities of my appreciation.

In his post 'Secondhand best: the point of not designing at all', Momus takes a look at some old stools and along the way makes some intriguing comments about 'the patina aesthetic', class, ethnicity and contradictions.

A sample:

At a barbecue in Gorlitzer Park last weekend I got talking to an Israeli girl about generation gaps which are also class gaps. Our parents think they're higher class than we are because they have newer furniture, clothes and so on. What they don't realize is that we think we're higher class than them because we've moved past consumerism as the be-all and end-all of life. We wear our secondhand clothes -- and present our retro furniture -- as a badge of honour, a cache of cultural capital. You don't spend your way to a better future when spending is precisely what's going to cancel the future!

In Berlin, at least, the style of the progressive bourgeois class is totally defined by patina. Most cafes for these people have mix-and-match retro chairs, shabby and comfy. People's houses have 50s, 60s and 70s furniture, often communist ostalgie pieces, each one with a tale to tell. The less you paid, the cleverer you are.

In Berlin, at least, this is essential class signalling. What distinguishes a cool cafe from McDonald's, or a cool house from a house furnished by Ikea, is patina. Busy working people often admire your handpicked thrift clothes apologetically: "I'd love to wear that kind of stuff, but I just don't have the time to hunt it down, so I just buy new." New has become second-best, secondhand best. It may be hard to explain to your parents, but to your peers it's second nature.


Of course it all gets very complex and contradictory. The creative class in Neukolln are slumming Slow Lifers, whereas the immigrants are on the up-and-up, enterprising, hard-working, stressed. One group is pre-materialist (in other words, aspirational and ambitious), the other post-materialist (so over Rolexes and bling). They pass each other midway without so much as a nod.

There's also a fascinating paradox in the attitude to work -- the dignity of labour -- that emerges in the patina aesthetic. Sure, old stuff is cool because you can see how it's been worked and reworked. You enjoy -- and fetishize -- labour in the piece. Other people's labour. People you never met, people far away in space and in time. Dead craftsmen, previous owners. Yet you opt out of consumerism, and buy pre-owned stuff, as part of opting out of precisely the kind of productive culture that created this stuff in the first place. You admire, from your Slow Life, the "fast life" of someone overworked, back in 1920, or over in China.
Do read the rest. It's better in context.

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