Elusion, Delusion and Illusion: Grasping for Timelessness in Art and Design

What do we mean when something – an object, a work of art, a house, a piece of furniture or clothing – is timeless? The timeless is a design that, as the saying goes, has passed the test of time, has avoided becoming dated and stodgy. When we see it we wonder how those in the past came up with something that still has meaning and resonance today.

One reason to seek the timeless is to not waste resources, present or future, on something that will need replacing. Of course, this reason ignores the reality that the need for replacement is rarely an actual need, but is most often an urge for material renewal or an escape from boredom. To get something new. But seeking the timeless is, in a sense, grasping for a taste of immortality, a way out of the suffering that comes with age and decline. We project onto the future our present desires and preferences, those embedded into that which we consume today. We wish for tomorrow to be the same as today. To look the same, to sound the same, to be the same.

But the timeless comes and goes just like anything else. We see something that seems so “now” as well as “then” and think “timeless.” But we don’t think of the time between then and now, when that very thing was out of date, out of fashion, out of style. We think “thus has it always been so,” ignoring that it hasn’t always, in fact, been so. In the designs of Charles and Ray Eames we see timelessness while ignoring the decades that one was as likely to find Eames furniture in a Salvation Army store or a grade school cafeteria as at a boutique.

There will always be those who are simultaneously conservative and forward-thinking enough to recognize good and durable design who can bridge that gap between the initial shock of the new and its revival years later; most likely a student or ardent enthusiast of design. For most, though, even the timeless design fades and is replaced by something new or by yet another revived discovery from the vaults.

A rediscovery and subsequent revival could be sparked by irony or camp, followed by appreciation and historical interest, then it’s onto the radar of tastemakers and from there dispersed into the ether. At that point it will seem as if it has always been there. The Danish Modern chair that a professional purchased in the 1950s as a break from the past becomes the relic at a grandparent’s estate sale or a donation to Goodwill in the 1970s. It might make its way into the part-ironic, part-retro bachelor pad in 1988, and by 2010 or so is sold at a premium on 1st Dibs and the design is reissued as authentic and licensed by Knoll or Herman Miller.

The closest we can get to timeless is to categorize and embalm creativity in a vessel most often called “classic” or “classical” and hope the embalming fluids do their work. In philosophy or religion this atrophy takes the form of dogma; the values or ideas of a given time are frozen in place and defended by those who see their own moment as that of perfection, the end of a need for growth or evolution. This is most likely to the detriment of the original spirit and genius of the given idea or movement, which no longer carries the life it once did.

Again, this is not to say that work of quality or durability cannot, in some sense, do well on, if not pass, a test of time. Work of depth, perhaps even that with a compelling narrative or backstory, will always be appreciated by those in whom such specific attributes and stories resonate.

One quality a – let’s say “durable” rather than “timeless” – design needs is the ability to adapt to the current situation and surroundings. It needs to be recontextualized. The photo below shows an Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen in a 1960s home and in a contemporary setting. Certain aspects of the 1958 design lend themselves well to the pared down aesthetic of contemporary design. Likewise, music from the past is remastered for mp3 to make a better sonic fit on computer playlists, and movies are digitally enhanced for Blu-Ray and streaming. In these instances, as the way furniture, music and movies are used changes, subtle changes must be made in the creations themselves in order to fit the new context.

Ironically, those works that age the best are those by artists and designers who take the most advantage of their time and place and don’t crook their heads looking too far behind. We remember the Beatles, but what of the British trad jazz movement of the early 1960s? Not so much. We remember that which knows the past but lives for change, building on the past or remixing it, rather than holding on tight. That which lets the good parts evolve and drops irrelevant, vestigal aspects that no longer speak to us.

To say something, almost anything, is timeless, is to ignore the fact that that which was once new will not always be so. Grasping for timelessness is grasping at the delusion of stasis and denying the inevitability of change and the passing of both time and of ourselves. You can love that which you think is timeless, but understand that such a thought is a delusion. Go with it, enjoy it, just understand that it’s not forever, not truly timeless.

And don’t worry too much about it. As the 17th century Buddhist monk Tai N’eng wrote, “(d)elusion is the root of enlightenment . . . The lotus doesn’t grow in high places. It only blooms in muddy water. Delusion doesn’t injure the enlightened mind.” Love what you love, even if you think it’s because it’s timeless. Just know deep down it’s not. And then move on when it is time to do so.

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