Saturday, June 2, 2012

The most cunning inventions

If there's one book I would recommend to any present-day interior design student, it would be Nikolaus Pevsner's Pioneers of Modern Design. During my first degree, it was recommended reading - compulsory, thus – and though I remember not being totally fascinated by it at the beginning, I came to value it so much that the updated version published by Yale, which I also own, for all its colored photographs and glossy layout, remains on the shelf, while the old yellow-paged Pelican paperback, with its beautifully designed royal blue cover dating from 1964 ($1.45), is my preferred read. A product of mid-century industry, this little book has a feel that someone was in control of a grid-based visual language when its cover was designed – and it was designed, rather than assembled by someone whose concept of design was not, indeed could not have been, confounded by Microsoft templates and clip art.

The visit last weekend to The Cult of Beauty exhibition sent me looking for the book again the day we got back from San Francisco. All the way through the rooms filled with Aesthetic Movement furniture and art I was trying to remember what Pesvner wrote about the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations  – the Crystal Palace Exhibition, as it is commonly known – the first international trade show of the world's raw materials and manufactures, held in London in 1851.

You may wonder why was I preoccupied with the Great Exhibition, and if you read my post Taste you'll know I'm concerned with the lack of quality, as I see it, in today's residential interior design. That I do not feel the same way about contemporary contract design is a discussion yet to be held and while there isn't a place for it here, that time will come.

It was a similar disquiet on the part of people such as Henry Cole and Prince Albert over the lack of quality of design of what was on show at the Great Exhibition that led to discussions about improving the quality of manufactures – in fact, a realization that, in relying on machine production, previously held high standards had been squandered. There was no rage against the machine as yet; that was to come with John Ruskin, the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Aesthetic Movement.

This quotation from chapter two of Pioneers of Modern Design explains it far better than I can. (Any parallels you may draw with today's society, political or social, are entirely up to you.)

"A stodgy and complacent optimism was the frame of mind prevailing in England about 1850. Here was England, thanks to the enterprise of manufacturers and merchants, wealthier than ever, the workshop of the world and the paradise of a successful bourgeoisie, governed by a bourgeois queen and an efficient prince consort. Charity, churchgoing, and demonstrative morality might serve to settle your accounts with Heaven and your conscience – on the whole you were lucky to live in the most progressive and practical age.

" 'Nobody who has paid any attention to the particular features of the present era', said Albert in one of the preparatory addresses, 'will doubt for a moment that we are living in a period of most wonderful transition, which tends rapidly to the accomplishment of that great end to which indeed all history points, the realization of the unity of mankind.' In that same speech he extolled 'the great principle of division of labour, which may be called the moving power of civilization', and the introduction to the Official Catalogue of the Exhibition asserts that 'an event like this exhibition could not have taken place at any other period, and perhaps not among any other peoples than ourselves'. Indeed not; those who wrote these lines knew the reasons and spoke quiet frankly about them: 'the perfect security for property' and 'commercial freedom'. The thousands of visitors who thronged the Exhibition probably felt the same. The attendance as well as the size of the buildings and the quantity of products shown was colossal. The aesthetic quality of the products was abominable. Sensible visitors realized that, and soon discussions started in England and other countries as the the reasons for such an evident failure. It is easy for us, today, to enumerate various such reasons; but it was hard indeed for a generation that had grown up amid unprecedented discoveries in science and technique. There were the new railways and power-looms, there were the most cunning inventions to facilitate the production of almost any object, formerly made so laboriously by craftsmen – why should these wonderful improvements not help to improve art as well?" [My italics]

Yesterday, looking for another book, I came across an item I bought in 1977, and which to a degree illustrates what Pevsner discusses above. "Sensible visitor" I was not, thirty-four years ago when, in a flush of Silver Jubilee enthusiasm, I bought one of the more charming conceits associated with those celebrations – a teacup on legs kneeling, as it were, to Her Majesty. What irritated me then, Modernist that I was in those days (and I remember it well) was the illicit frisson I felt in buying such a "tasteless" mass-produced object and the way the coat of arms was slapped, cynically, it seems to me still, on the front of the cup. The cup has a whimsy and charm that has survived the years, and guilt about my aesthetic missteps long been shrugged off with the epiphany that – much as I might rail against the machine or the dedicated followers of fashion who worship at their keyboards, there's little I can do about either - except, perhaps, remain the curmudgeon that I was, according to some, born to be.

I stood, all those years ago, on the terraces of the National Theatre, overlooking the Thames, watching the fireworks celebrating the Queen's Silver Jubilee. Prior to that year, perhaps typically of my generation, I had not been not a monarchist, particularly. But I realized at that moment how proud I was to be British - though those days I probably thought of myself as an Englishman rather than a Briton. Now, at the time of Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee, I stand here as both an American and a Briton, and thankful for all that both lands have given me. My unswerving admiration, in adulthood, of the Queen, coupled with that mysterious connection we Britons have with our monarch – much the same that we Americans have with our flag – leads me to say but one thing:

Thank you, Ma'am.


  1. I long for the days when souvenirs were like the Grand Tour souvenirs of the 18th and 19th century. They don't have to be replicas of ancient artifacts -- though I would prefer that to the usual junk produced today. The public wants to buy something and if there is only trash, then the trash will be bought. Are there any Jubilee souvenirs being produced by the Conrans, etc., of today?

    1. John J. Tackett, thank you. I totally agree with you about the junk produced today. We have a piece of junk produced yesteryear – according to the Amsterdam dealer who sold it to us, it is an early 19th century terra-cotta miniature of the Wounded Gaul. Nothing special but charming in its tackiness. I looked at the Conran Shop London's site and found only this - something I could not imagine owning!

  2. "..dedicated followers of fashion who worship at their keyboards." Oh my, but that is rich! I salute your taste, style and curmudgeonhood.

    Something of an Anglophile, I did a purchase a souvenir for the Queen's Jubilee in the form of a hand blocked tea towel from Ben Pentreath LTD.

    1. Daniel James Shigo, thank you. I had looked at that tea towel and am still tempted. The problem is, tea towels should be used and not kept in a drawer - I use them for everything including windows and mirrors.

    2. I agree. I purchased two and use them for drying dishing and - of course - tea things. I am turning into my grandmother.

    3. DJS --

      Thank you! You have (provisionally) made my centenarian aunt, who is now nearly blind, immensely happy.

  3. Oh,... Even as I type this, my favorite mug is sitting about a foot from my face.

    My father gave it to me about ten years ago. I should emphasize that our entire family is (and has been for some 200 years) as born&bred Tennessee as can be.

    That said? The mug is white, with the royal crest emblazoned under a large "E II R"....and, under that, the inscription "H.M. Prison"..."Birmingham".

    I think of that as just so quintessentially British. Presumably, there would have been (might still be, for all I know)an entire set of tea-mugs (I'd give anything to have a similar teapot)to raise the tone and lift the morale in the staff-room at Her Majesty's Birmingham Prison.

    My father refuses to tell me how/where he GOT the mug. I have two friends who've bluntly told me "I just love that...someday, I'm going to steal it from you...."


    David Terry

  4. Thank you for expressing your sentiments about HRM Queen Elizabeth. I'm a Canadian (living in USA) and share the same.

    Sat glued to BBC America during the entire celebration, much like I did at her coronation!