John Berger, a well-known professor, art historian and philosopher who wrote the book based on the excellent BBC-TV series “Ways of Seeing,” put forth the idea that the heart of much of contemporary aesthetics, consumerism and advertising is driven by envy. People are taught to covet material things not so much for their intrinsic value, but to create envy among their peers—to create an impression of having “arrived.”
Arguably, the culture of envy can be blamed for the recent meltdown in the American economy. Envy, and its sister emotion greed, drove the relentless acquisition of wealth by Wall Street, unscrupulous bankers who approved high-risk mortgages for short-term profits, and the overwhelming increase in consumer debt. Envy underlies the “need” for fancy cars, the latest electronics and, yes, status design—the state-of-the-art kitchen, starchitect public buildings that don’t suit the institutions they house, and homes that are crammed to the crown mouldings with expensive furniture, fabrics and accessories, but say nothing about the people who live there.
The relentless pressure of commerce, in design as in other consumables, is geared to creating a hole in people’s lives that makes them feel inadequate; that without these visible manifestations of your success, you are somehow not good enough. Envy may be the fuel that drives the consumer economy, but it’s not the best way to approach your life, and it’s certainly not the best way to approach design.
The film “Mildred Pierce” provides a parable on the fallacy of dress-to-impress design. Mildred, having achieved her hard-won success, dresses her living room in tasteless, excessive décor. Nobody wants to spend time in that room, and there is nothing of her life in its heavy upholstery and swagged draperies. Instead, it is the much humbler library, with its displays of family photos and comfortable, worn seating, that her wealthy, sophisticated lover gravitates to. And in the end, she returns to her less well-to-do husband; familiarity and substance triumph over style and striving.
Some of my best client relationships are not necessarily with those who have deep pockets and are willing to give me a free hand in designing their homes; I feel myself blessed when I come across clients who know who they are, and at least in a general sense, know what they like. Once my work is done, they will be living with the results for years to come, and it should reflect their lives and tastes, not mine, and not some elusive (and constantly shifting) idea of “status.” Otherwise, it’s not a home; it’s just a showcase.
Be aware of this fallacy when you’re decorating, or working with a designer. An expensively appointed room that has nothing of you in it will never be a place you love, no matter how sumptuous its decor. True, good-quality goods cost more than cheap ones, but good design is not necessarily synonymous with a high price tag. In design as in other worldly goods, what matters is how beautiful or useful it is to you, not how much it impresses the people who pass in and out of your life.