This is a column about an ugly, brown bottle bird.
You read that right. A bottle bird. He was a pheasant, and his head screwed off.
Wait, I should say he is a pheasant and his head screws off, because he is still alive, as much as a bottle bird can be, sitting on a shelf in my parents’ home in London, England.
Bottle bird was a present my younger brother gave to our father on Father’s Day in 1971 or thereabouts. He loved it, and I could never figure out why. He is not a tchotchke kind of man. I have no recollection of him ever wearing sweats or, for that matter, ever listening to any music other than classical – okay, also Herb Alpert in the 1970s. In fact, for years, it confounded me, that bird, which I would see sitting on top of my father’s dresser in my parents’ bedroom, whenever I ventured in, mocking me.
He just perched there, and the noble expression on his little beaky face, which gave no indication that he knew he was a bottle, said it plain and simple: “I am the best present ever.”
In his belly was bad aftershave. Cost: maybe a buck. It was purchased at a church sale.
My younger brother was about 7 at the time, an odd sort of boy who was reading Pierre Berton’s The Last Spike at that age, kept a few white mice in a cage in his room and had fingers that were long but sort of square at the tips. I like to remind him of that particular stage in his life: He was a nerd, even though he is now Britishy and smooth and successful.
Still, buying The World’s Best Father’s Day Present For Eternity was a fluke.
Clearly, he had not yet lost his design innocence. There is such a thing, a time in our lives when we’re blissfully unaware that the world has a silent code of aesthetic judgment. We do not know that we should abide by that code if we want to be thought of favourably, accepted and included. Once, years ago, I remember overhearing a beautifully dressed woman, who was looking at work in a gallery with her interior designer or art consultant, asking him, “Should I have one of those?” It can be so hard to know how to be tastefully rich.
And because tastes change, how well one keeps up with them can be a test of one’s engagement with the world and one’s financial means to participate in the design conversation. Of course, in that world in which aesthetic understanding is so important, bad taste has a place as well.
“Beauty is a sedative, predictable and soothing, rather than challenging,” Stephen Bayley, a design critic and author of the book Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, wrote in a recent piece for The Architectural Review. “And who is to say being sedated and soothed is better than being stimulated? The strange truth is: Too much beauty would be intolerable ... Heaven needs Hell.”
But a fondness for something of questionable taste is often a tacit acknowledgment of the beauty it doesn’t have. The object is just a subversive way of displaying an awareness of aesthetics. It’s a visual burp.
You know you shouldn’t do it. It’s not the way you’ve been schooled in the art of living. But you do it anyway, just for the hell of it, to shock.
And then there are things that are so bad they’re fantastic. Like bottle bird. He is a remarkable display of design incompetence.
Still, the meaning of that particular present was in the fact that my brother thought it was great and my father knew it was ugly. He loved it for the innocence of the choice and perhaps for the knowledge that, however close parents are to their children, they are never truly known to them, not completely, and that it’s in the act of a child thinking he knows the parent and choosing something he believes will be happily received that love is expressed.
I, too, have one of those sort of presents, given to me one Mother’s Day when my three boys were young. They went off to a drugstore and bought a little plastic bowl with smooth stones in it and a battery-operated pump that would circulate water over them. A votive candle sat on a small mirror stand on top of the stones. It was a little plastic Zen garden, and it’s right up there with bottle bird.
To this day, it sits on a shelf in my office. It’s so bad, it’s good.