Material Honesty

There’s nothing worse in design (or in personalities for that matter) than dishonesty. Material honesty is a trusim of modernist design, in that a design should reflect the materials that it is made of. This is why the designs of, for the most obvious examples, Mies Van Der Rohe and Philip Johnson (at least his early work) seems so skeletal and minimal. The structure is expressed rather than hidden away. This philosophy is also a link between the early modernists and a designer like William Morris (though there are many differences as well, of course).

In a home, one of the most desirable attributes, beyond location, location, and location, is for the home to have “good bones”. Good bones reflect material honesty. Good bones means the home has stood and will stand the test of time. Good bones means one can place furniture from any time period and it will be fine, so long as the furniture, also, was designed with material honesty. Material honesty is one of the reasons the so-called machine age and early industrialism is so in style right now. Every now and then there comes a desire for something real, something lasting. When contemporary design is cribbed by IKEA (and I love certain things from IKEA), a desire for something else emerges. Of course, this is cyclical; the low end adopts what had previously been exclusive (and I hate that word, exclusive) to the high-end, and designers go elsewhere. In recent years, the market became saturated with the midcentury modern aesthetic, and a desire for something else has emerged.

There will always be a tendency to dig for the obscure and overlooked as well. While certain midcentury designers are well-represented in the design world, others are more obscure, and still have the trace, the aura, of authenticity, and, more important for the market, exclusivity. Danish modernists are better represented in stores like DWR than they had been in the recent past, but DWR is also reaching for others like Serge Mouille and Sori Yanagi for a different avenue into the midcentury look, one that is not as ubiquitous and, despite the age of the designs, has, viewed positively, a sense of newness and, viewed less positively, a sense of obscurity and exclusivity for those seeking differentiation and snob appeal.

These new-old designs appear especially fresh and authentic when paired in places with a sense of material honesty. Browsing through a DWR catalog recently, I noticed the locations were mostly older homes and buildings. There was a certain amount of age and decay on display, and like Mies’s designs, the bones were clearly visible. There were things that Mies would not design, of course, because these places, like the industrial age artifacts so in style, these places predate modernism. But the honesty of their age is visible. There are details like crown molding, carved fireplaces, the patina of age. These are details that were lost in many places unfortunately updated in the decades after World War 2 in attempts to make them seem more contemporary. Now those details, if removed, are being replaced in many cases, and if they hadn’t been removed, are showcased and if needed refurbished or restored. But as in Mies’s designs, those details that reflect their age are on full display. But we can’t deny the age we live in. Those details are showcased in a way that they wouldn’t have been at the time they were actually built. One way is through a general decluttering of the busyness and tschotskes of the pre-modernist era. We can’t deny that our vision has been changed by the forces of modernism and minimalism. Rather than the abundance of pattern and art, the details of the building and the details of well-chosen (or should I say curated?) art and furniture are foregrounded. The crown molding, the intricate carving on a marble fireplace, takes on a different role than the one it had as a beautiful but  backgrounded detail that it held during the era it was actually built. Beyond the decluttering and cleansing of the overall design, the details, the bones, the materials of the building are also showcased through contrast with designs from other eras. Everything is honest about what it is and where it came from. (There is a new guard of designers and artists who purposely push a more cluttered, lived-in aesthetic, but I feel it’s a reaction to the look seen in DWR and other places, and really, more power to them, so long as it too is honest).

If it’s a new building or a new design it should look like it. If it’s an old building it should look like it. I live in an early 20th-century building, and while certain details are still present, like the Victorian doorknobs and door frames, certain things have been updated. The ceilings were replaced at come point with cheap drywall and there are no crown moldings. The intersection of wall and ceiling seems to be missing something. Looking at that point, it looks like a cheap building from the 1960s or 1970s, but it isn’t. Some of the bones, some of the details that made the building what it is were removed, and along with it, part of its soul.

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