Senses of Living® Décor

July 2005
© 2005 by Bret S. Beall


My home is adorned with widely diverse works of art that I've picked up during my various travels, and from other sources. Some of the items are gifts from friends. Elsewhere I have created vignettes by grouping smaller items that aren't particularly striking alone, but which have a great effect when grouped.

This décor scheme is continuing (and expanding on) a childhood desire to have "art" in my home. Growing up, my concept of "art" was different from my current interpretation. In part, as a member of a lower middle class family, I saw "art" as something someone else had, a status symbol. At the same time, being artistic myself, I saw it as something I could create. My perception of art began to shift as different influences acted upon me.

One of those influences was a high school art teacher, one of my all-time favorites, who drew a distinction between "art" and "craft." The idea was that "art" was good, and "craft," while not bad, was not necessarily good; this seemed a bit elitist to me. I never confronted him about this dichotomy, but my continuing interaction with him suggested that, to him, "art" was characterized by thought processes behind the work, while "craft" wasn't so intellectually inspired. I was somewhat confused by this, as I KNEW various items assigned to the "craft" category, like furniture, ceramics, table ware, most ethnic pieces … those items with day-to-day functionality rather than being purely decorative … required great thought to conceive and implement well.

The key word was "well." Anything worth doing is worth doing well. Given this, and knowing what a good guy that high school art teacher was, I think he might have actually been trying to distinguish between "art," "craft," and "crap." There's a lot of crap out there being peddled in the name of craft, and I'm not talking about that stuff. I'm talking about utilitarian, functional pieces that are simultaneously useful and esthetic. I would also argue that some intellectual process is involved in the creation of these crafts. Mostly, I'm talking about the skill of execution, the workmanship, the "craftsmanship." It is skill that separates the craft (and the art) from the crap.

I think my own artistic background is what gave me an appreciation for skill as I started to collect my own art. Collecting art to adorn my home had been a childhood dream, but I didn't have the financial means (or so I thought). I've written elsewhere (http://www.god-dess.com/services_sensesMay04.html) about searching unconventional venues for decorative items (including art and, in this context, crafts). Wherever I have lived, and during my various travels, I've made a point to visit thrift stores, resale shops and art fairs. It's amazing what amazing pieces one can find when one develops an eye for quality, based on how well a piece is executed or constructed.

I have no doubt that my own artistic experience helped me identify quality, but so did education. I studied art on my own, and I took classes in art history as an undergraduate. By some quirk, I found myself drawn to items outside the mainstream of collecting. These items suited my sense of esthetics, so I was able to find beautiful, skillfully executed pieces at low cost. My collecting emphasized uniqueness and originality of the work, rather than anything mass-produced. I soon realized that EVERYONE could collect art, as long as they expanded their definition of art beyond French Masters or Impressionists or Cubists or Surrealists.

As I began the work to create Global Organic Designs, I started analyzing everything that I did, including the arts and crafts that I used to decorate my home. Was there any unifying factor to the décor side of what I did? What styles was I drawn to, and why? My taste has always been called eclectic (that's one of the nicer terms), but no one would deny that my home is both beautiful and comforting. What factors had come together to allow me to accomplish that?

Part of the research I did on the décor aspects of Global Organic Designs was to acquaint myself with a variety of artistic and decorative movements through the ages, and the motivations behind them. If you haven't studied art history, either formally or on your own, I would encourage you. Learning about the goals of the artists, their purposes, their inspirations and their reasons for doing what they did the WAY they did it is fascinating.

When I started to look at the various pieces I had collected, I did notice a pattern. Each piece was unique, it was one-of-a-kind, it was handcrafted with great skill. In most cases, it was a utilitarian object, outside the mainstream of "traditional" art, but with intrinsic beauty and esthetic appeal. Most were characteristic of a certain culture or ethnicity. Most were made with natural (ie, not synthetic) materials, and that provided a cohesiveness of design, a unity of design.

I have long been attracted to products of the Arts and Crafts Movement. This particular movement embodied a great diversity of styles, and to be honest, I was never sure of the underlying cohesion of these styles so that they would actually be considered a movement. This was clarified for me recently when I visited "The Arts & Crafts Movement in Europe and America, 1880-1920: Design for the Modern World," at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The exhibition taught me that the overall motivations behind the Arts and Crafts Movement was 1) a joy in labor, 2) an appreciation of the simple life, 3) a truth of, or respect for, materials, and 4) a unity of design. What does this mean? "Joy in labor" is about using the skill that one has to produce work. "Appreciation of the simple life" refers to the creation of functional items for everyday use. "Truth of/respect for materials" relates to understanding the capabilities of each medium, and using it to full advantage and inherent beauty. Finally, "unity of design" is the encouragement to have cohesion of design, dare I say it, "matching" features, or at least, features that "go together" by any measure.

Other characteristics typify the Arts and Crafts Movement, such as 1) the products being responses to increased mechanization, 2) design reflecting national identity, and 3) having Art and Life integrated. While the adherents of the movement did not eschew mechanization completely, they did appreciate handcrafting and unique, skillful construction. They respected ethnic differences, and accepted original contributions from all nations. They also desired to bring quality esthetic décor to everyone, and in pursuing that goal, insisted on equating art and craft, better referred to as craftsmanship. To this end, perhaps the Germans summarized it best with their term Gesamtkunstwerk, literally "synthesis of art works," or more commonly, "total design," which suggests that whole design is great than the sum of the parts. Every component contributes to the total design, and therefore every detail must be considered to provide harmony throughout.

One of my design heroes, Russel Wright, wanted accessible art for everyone. He believed that everyone deserved beautiful surroundings. He designed some of the most amazing housewares to ever grace a table, as well as other aspects of home decor. Simple, elegant and organic, Russel Wright's designs are spectacular. I think his philosophy about accessibility is even more spectacular.

Wright's contemporary, Eva Zeisel, had a similar outlook on accessibility. Some of her designs have recently been reissued by Crate & Barrel (at rather exorbitant prices, I might add, IMHO). In her own way, she too created diverse designs that were simple, elegant and organic.

So, clearly you can see why someone like me, who believes in simplicity, in organic design, in recognizing skill, and in good living for everyone, would embrace the Arts and Crafts Movement's philosophy. And THAT is what this column is ultimately about. It's about understanding the "why" of décor, the "why" of collecting, the "why" of everything. It's not about embracing a particular philosophy, but it is about being mindful and aware of what you are doing to your immediate environment and beyond. It's about the intentional appreciation of arts and crafts, recognized because of their quality and requisite skill to execute, and it's about taking the Arts and Crafts Movement as a model of explicitly understanding the goals, purposes and motivations of an artistic movement.

Please, enjoy arts and crafts, and be sure to avoid crap. Go for skillfully created pieces. And learn about the pieces of arts and crafts that you acquire. If you can, speak or communicate with the artist. Read about the artist. Talk to others about the artist. Don't just acquire things; when you can, acquire the background, the back story. Knowledge just enhances appreciation of any piece of art or craft in your home. In the "high art" world, a work's history is known as its "provenance," so seek to identify the provenance of all of your collectibles.

Let me know if I can help you with this appreciation. It isn't your typical décor and decorating advice, but then nothing about Global Organic Designs Lifestyle Services is typical. As the tagline reads, "Live Better! Live More! Be More!" Being mindful and aware of your immediate environment will help you achieve that goal, and I'm here to assist you if you need it. You can always reach me at 773.508.9208 or email me. I look forward to hearing from you (and maybe hearing a few back stories of your décor items)!