Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Happiness, beauty, consumerism

If you can make it through the first 150-200 pages of this book, your presistence may finally start to pay off. Or at least a few ideas began to emerge in my mind. If I tried to sit down and write it all out I'd never finish this post. But here are a few of the concepts that struck me:

Talking about why our tastes change, and how our concepts of beauty swing between "the restrained and the exuberant; the rustic and the urban": "we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient. We respect a style wich can move us away from what we fear and towards what we crave: a style which carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues."

Then on page 260, just pages from the end of the book: "the Japanese sense of beauty has long sharply differed from it's Western counterpart: it has been dominated by a love of irregularity rather than symmetry, the impermanent rather than the eternal and the simple rather than the ornate. The reason owes nothing to climate or genetics...but is the result of the actions of writers, painters and theorists, who have actively shaped the sense of beauty of their nation." And later on that same page: "In medieval Japan, poets and Zen priests directed the Japanese towards aspects of the world to which Westerners have seldom publicly accorded more than negligible or casual attention: cherry blossoms, deformed pieces of pottery, raked gravel, moss, rain falling on leaves, autumn skies, roof tiles and unvarnished wood. A word emerged, wabi, of which no Western language, tellingly, has a direct equivalent, which identified beauty with unpretentious, simple, unfinished, transient things."

So all of this got me thinking about where I find beauty right now. Am I attracted to the simple, the unrefined, and the irregular merely because as a culture we're surrounded by an abundance of the opposite? Is it because I'm surrounded by the mass-produced, the over-processed, and by sheer quantities of inexpensive stuff? I suspect that's precisily the reason.

In any case, I find my self increasing drawn to the simple, as do many of us today. I want to pare everything down to the bare minimum. Maybe that's why so many of us are also knitting and sewing today: to simplify our lives and separate ourselves from the mass of stuff that is our society right now.

Anway, that's too big a topic for one day. But I can tell you that I love the sheer simplicy of these hand-made wooden tools from Live Wire Farm as well as the products of Muji. Which is all a bit ironic, since it's more stuff and more consumerism, isn't it? But wow, REALLY beautiful.


  1. Anonymous6:21 PM

    isn't that a wonderful book? i am anxious to read his book on travel, too.

  2. Anonymous6:39 PM

    I enjoy de Botton's books, I think he's got some eminently sensible things to say so I ignore the detractors who call it pop philosophy and pooh-pooh it. He's got it spot on as to why so many of us find beauty in simplicity and hand-made and deliberately retro styles, we're searching for a simpler time when people appreciated the work that went in to something. So much is mass-produced these days, without a thought to aesthetics or quality. So many people go along with it like a flock of sheep but I'd like to think that there are increasing numbers of people out there rebelling against that ethos and placing more value on the individual, the handmade, on things that have thought and time and emotion invested in them. Sure it's consumerism on one level, but whether I need it or not, my heart beats a little faster when I come across something well designed or beautiful, or even better - both!

  3. Interesting, what is said about the Japanese sense of beauty... I so much do love randomness and imperfection. Irregularity shows the uniqueness of things, symmetry is restricting, can't stand looking at it, feel the instant urge to tear it all down.
    I make things exactly for the reason you have pointed out, to step aside from mass products - even if there were made 3.000 Hourglass Sweaters before mine, it just feels better.

  4. I adore Alain de Boton's books. I've had Architecture of Happiness on my bedside table for a few months now and enjoy going back to it. The University of Virginia's Shoolf of Architecture (my alma mater) professor Maurice Cox has some lovely thoughts in similar topics of democracy and design too...

  5. Shoolf meaning, school, woah!

  6. Jane sent me the book last summer. It's one of those things you read and you go Yeah . . . yup . . . yep . . . totally . . . wow . . . yes. I agree.

  7. The article and your thoughts are really thought-provoking...thank you for the post.

  8. I love that statement. It says so much... and so true. I made a homemade gift bag for a baby shower gift the other day... it was a simple yet beautiful fabric sack; and for the tie, it was one long strip of fabric with raw edges. I thought it was genius and really pretty. People joked that it was very Aamish. Hmm... if constructing something that is 1) less expensive than buying a hallmark gift bag; 2) prettier than a hallmark gift bag; 3) reusable; 4) Not made in china; 5) doesn't cause trees to get chopped down for paper... you get where I'm going... then I guess call me Aamish!