She had the lips (puffy). The hair (blond). And the bag (Hermès). And someone was trying to sell her the sink ($5,000).
It wasn’t just a sink, of course. It was a blue LED sink made of concrete. The salesman – or “product demonstrator” – turned on the water, and the woman, together with her partner, watched it go down the drain. The couple sipped wine from their glasses, occasionally cocking their heads to contemplate the sink-art installation that would never make any woman – or man – feel put-upon for having to stand in front of it, peeling carrots. It was an altar to wishful domestic happiness.
Design these days is like religion. It invites you to think that everything will be so much better, calmer and happier if you just had great taps. As I strolled around the Interior Design Show in Toronto last month, I was seduced by the beauty of everything. Such a bright, shiny world! And I don’t blame any of the companies for trying to sell us their vision for easy living. They know they have an eager, Apple-inculcated congregation.
I watched as people perused the offerings. A man stood near an $11,999 tub called Impeccable Harmony, looking at it with a wistful, sidelong glance, as though it were a car or a sexy woman. The eye is such a gullible organ. Give it a few flowing lines, an organic shape, a colour or a smooth finish to contemplate and, before you know it, the owner of that eye might very well use his hand to pull out his wallet. Magic, really.
But wait – before we move on, let us contemplate that product name: Impeccable Harmony. I get it that, nowadays, bathtubs aren’t things to assume such déclassé labels as SoakMaster or the like. They require a name that heightens your level of expectation. Bathtubs, after all, are the new cars. They can certainly cost as much. The IDS could have been marketed as The Bathtub Show for all the different shapes and sizes on display. And they do transport you to some pretty lovely places, where you’re able to forget that lousy meeting you endured at work or what your husband failed to do in the kitchen (despite the LED sink) or what your child just spilled on the new, prefinished European hardwood flooring. That’s why there are tubs with names that sound like a great anti-anxiety drug: Serenity, Tranquillity, Harmony. But Impeccable Harmony?
It seems to me that there’s a direct relationship between how frenetic and worrisome the outside world has become and how escapist, how perfect, the interior-design one strives to be.
Which brings me to the Temple of Miele. At the IDS, it was a large space divided into sections, all of which you had to file through as in a maze to view the company’s line of stoves, dishwashers and fridges. Beautiful women in sleeveless black dresses stood at various points, smiling, ushering people through. “Welcome to Miele,” they intoned like a mantra. Along a wall near the entrance, there was a collection of small boxes with little, rounded stainless-steel pins that you could push your fingers or hands against, leaving a temporary impression. “It’s to demonstrate the touch of our products,” one of the Miele handmaidens explained a little nervously. Further along there was a glass cabinet with coloured pins in the bottom. A sign invited you to put a set of earphones on to hear the sound of a proverbial pin dropping, because, yes, their dishwashers are so quiet you would be able to. I could go on, but do I need to?
This past fall, I got an interesting lesson in interior design from the most unlikely source. I was in Edinburgh, Scotland to interview Alexander Mc– Call Smith, the international best-selling author of numerous series, including The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and 44 Scotland Street. The prolific author lives – along with his wife, Elizabeth, and a cat named Augustus Basil – in a large Victorian sandstone house filled with an assortment of interesting treasures, from art and books to various memorabilia. At the top of the staircase on the second floor near his office, there is, for example, a carved wood newel in the shape of a pig. The former professor of medical ethics at the University of Edinburgh has a thing about pigs, you see. His home, in other words, does not adhere to someone else’s idea of a sublime sanctuary that shuts out, denies even, the complexity of ideas, character, passions – of the world.
And it turns out that McCall Smith thinks about the influence of constructed environment on the human being. From his bookshelf, he pulled out the first volume in a series of four I have since purchased. The series, called The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and The Nature of the Universe, is by Christopher Alexander. “These books are a summary of what I have understood about the world in the 63rd year of my life,” Alexander, an architect and fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science, writes in the dedication. As you might surmise, these books, which have been called a “groundbreaking masterwork,” are not easy, shelter-magazine reading. But they speak of something you have probably felt but never have had articulated.
In the first book, The Phenomenon of Life, for example, Alexander compares pictures of ordinary things – two houses, two bedrooms, two downtown streets, two parking lots – and writes why one has more “life” than the other and how that gives us pleasure. Comparing a photograph of an old fence versus a new fence, he writes: “Here, the more broken-down example has more life, not less. The older fence definitely seems to have more life. It is weathered, leaning over, adapted to the wind, land, water. We get a glimpse here of the fact that life is dependent in some way on time and that subtle differentiation, adaptation, is a part of what we feel as life.”
That observation, to me at least, is a perfect guide to how to approach the composition of one’s domestic interiors: Invite life in with all its little imperfections. Sure, have your Miele dishwasher and your granite countertops and your princess slipper of a tub, but let’s not let design negate the messiness that is the joy of life.
Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites.