Tuesday, June 12, 2012

To be or not to be – critical, that is

An interest in history has served me well in my musings about interior design and decorators. What has also served me well – though this, perhaps, is self-delusion – is my desire not to hurt feelings by being negative about my fellows or their work. The feeling that it is inappropriate to be critical is a form of self-censorship - a quality I do not, necessarily, adhere to in my private life. The idea that to criticize publicized work is to attack the maker is a demonstrable fallacy.

It may not be surprising that there is no formal structure for critique of interior design. What is surprising, however, is how little criticism there is – and, believe me, I've looked. Even in the dry-as-old-arseholes textbooks that are supposedly improving students all over the country, there's none. Oh, there are countless expressions of awe bespattering the blogosphere at the offerings in designer monographs and show houses and even on the part of editors about what is shown between the pages of their magazines, but wide-eyed reaction is neither critique nor an educated response by an observer. If a lobotomized "OMFG" (offensive on a number of levels) is as far as it goes, then we're in trouble.

Critique and criticism are closely related, but I want to use critique in the sense of impartial analysis and criticism with the meaning of personal judgement. Having said that, I am aware that the two at times can overlap.

For example, this chair could be critiqued against established criteria of proportion, line, function, suitability and historical accuracy. It could be criticized using a more personal set of standards where a conclusion about its looks and comfort is quickly reached – "love it" or "hate it." Both approaches are valid, but what complicates matters is the fact that it is part of a well-known and, it must be said, superb decorator's furniture collection. Some might say, therefore, that one should suspend judgement and simply accept her taste as being correct.

If branding trumps all, then the battle between opinion and analysis is lost before it is joined. The sole criterion is that of sales and marketing: was this chair a good seller for this decorator and has it advanced her brand value? Given the decorator's pedigree and industry status, it matters not that the chair legs might be considered stubbily ill-proportioned, the seat height unhappily low, the relationship between oval and rectangle in the back unfortunate.  Nor does its lightly implied Italian regal provenance add any weight on the plus side.

However, if one were to fly in the face of history, snap one's fingers at brand marketing, and attempt a formal structure of critique, what form might it take? One possible answer is something that every good designer already uses - a working knowledge of the elements and principles of design. At their simplest, these elements and principles are scale, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis and harmony. Concept could be included in the list – perhaps the most misunderstood of all, concept is frequently and erroneously interpreted as theme. There are other elements of design, of course, smell, light and color, sound, and ornament. An overriding principle and less tangible for discussion because it depends on individual requirements is suitability – not for magazine publication, which has become a norm, rather appropriateness for the client's life and (heaven forfend!) social aspirations.

Today, "the market" is de facto the sole criterion by which anything is judged. The best-seller lists rank books by their sales, rather than their literary merit. The value of a work of art is measured by what it brings at auction. Engineers calculate the likelihood of this or that catastrophic failure and decide whether or not a particular safety feature cost is "worth" the lives that it might save. More people watch Fox News than CNN, so the former is the "better" "news" channel. The value of a college degree is expressed in how much more money the graduate will make in a lifetime. Everything has its ROI.

But there are other criteria by which value can be judged (I don't mean Keats' Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know) the GRH for example. The Kingdom of Bhutan is the first country to measure not just GDP but also Gross National Happiness. Interesting concept, don't you think?


So, you may ask, what has all this to do with Geoffrey Bennison? Well, the answer to that is now yours alone.  My answer is simply that for me, in decoration, (and, yes, I recognize this is a clear case of what is called brand-identification) Bennison could do no wrong. That, being my personal opinion, is my criticism of his work, short and simple though it is.

To critique his work, on the other hand, we must consider those criteria mentioned earlier – scale, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis and harmony, along with concept and suitability. If you agree with my criteria for critique perhaps you would like to consider how well this room by Geoffrey Bennison meets them and let me know what you think.


In subsequent posts, I shall return to the principles and elements of design as I consider the state of modern-day interior design.


Photographs of Sir Alfred Munnings's erstwhile studio by Ken Kirkwood from English Style, Suzanne Slesin and Stafford Cliff, Thames and Hudson, 1984.

24 comments:

  1. Architecture School is built on the practice of critiques - or mine was. But design criticism, or I should say analysis, is not appreciated these days. Evidence of this is seen all too often, for example, when a Blogger asks readers to comment on a current design predicament but ignores all advice and proceeds with the original intent (inevitably horrible). I think we could all learn from the conversation, but the moderator has to be open to comments.

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    1. JT, thank you. This moderator is open to comments and fully prepared to discuss and, if necessary, concede the argument.

      As to asking advice about my personal decorating dilemmas, I don't think I could. I know it is done, as you say, but I like to keep my mistakes and successes to myself.

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  2. Yes everything is tiresomely fabulous. The profession is all about discrimination, the elite do it better, and all make mistakes. Yet the only criticism I hear is snickering over-the-shoulder whispers during open houses and tours.

    I'm not the least bit qualified. That's why I read reviews of movies, theater, music, "big" architecture, literature, et al. There should be a way to get this done for design. Calling Blue!

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    1. Terry, thank you. We've all heard those demeaning, snickering over the shoulder whispers which are frequently loud enough for the docent or decorator to hear them. I ignore them.

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  3. A valid point. The first photo of Bennison's room lacks harmony, overworked as it is by the very busy carpet(s). But my critique, (using your criteria) is also subject to my personal criticism, because I don't like busy and overworked schemes.

    As you say, the fact that it's Bennison, and Bunny Williams in the case of the chair shouldn't matter a jot. I am not swayed by knowing who designed or made a scheme or object, but I might be very surprised when I discover the name of the designer, (and perhaps rather disappointed).

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    1. columnist, thank you. I can accept busy and overworked schemes in the right hands though, I too, prefer a less complicated result. The problem is, in the wrong, usually untrained hands, the result is a disaster. I wonder if it matters? The camera, the stylist, and photoshop can make any dog's dinner palatable.

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  4. To columnist, I ask you to look at photo two showing more of the room, take out the carpet and put in a sisal one. Also change a few of the upholstery fabrics to plain textured linens, and would you like the room? Personal choice! ...as to criticing, the design elements, at least to me, are all included!

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    1. Judith, thank you. You've touched on the principles of balance and scale.

      To my eye, the many patterns of varying sizes are balanced in tone, color and scale and I feel if sisal were laid and plain textured linens replaced some of the upholstery then the balance would be completely off. We are not used nowadays to seeing such a layered aesthetic which, in the wrong hands, would be disastrous.

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  5. Bunny NO! What an abomination. No wonder it's discontinued.

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    1. Jeff, thank you. It surprised me too.

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  6. Starting with Bennison's room ... It's hard to make a final judgement from the pictures, as they are all taken from odd angles. I would want to stand in the room and see it as it was meant to be. But I love the composition of colors and patterns, as well as the differing textures he's chosen. I even like the rug -- because I think there's nothing wrong with excess in the right hands. (Isn't that the founding principle of Le Goût Rothschild?) I wonder a bit about the picture placement, but that may be the fault of the photos. The seating arrangements seem a little odd, but for all I know it suited the way the room was used. And the skylight, and perhaps that balcony, came with the job, so we can scarcely blame Bennison for that. Compared to his other work, it may lack something of the subtlety and sophistication he so often displayed. But that has to be attributed largely to the space, and perhaps to the budget within he worked.(I realize you and columnist seem to prefer a more edited environment. I'm a throwback -- or perhaps simply out of date.)

    As for everything else... I have a running conversation with one of our mutual cyber-friends about what design and architecture blogs should be about. Should they exist for the development of taste and judgement? Should they aspire to help their readers be more discerning? Should they teach, however indirectly, that dread word "discrimination"? (Guess where we come out.)

    Eric Clapton said a few years ago that 95% of new music was cr*p. But that was no reason to despair, he said, or long for some lost golden age -- it's always been that way. The same thing can be said about interior design and architecture. And it does no one any good at all for people who are knowledgeable to bite their tongues -- unless, of course, it's for reasons of business.

    (Nutshell: Grade on a steep curve, feel free to flunk as many as you like, and keep the kindly professor for the classroom.)

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    1. The Ancient, thank you. As I wrote, Bennison, for me can do no wrong. I agree with you about the composition of the room - the patterns, the colors, the differing textures and the rug is glorious and works perfectly in "grounding" (such a cliche!) the room. The perfect room for an English wet winter and like you, I would like to have seen the room.

      The owner, Roberto Shorto, is described in the text as a "dealer" but whether of pictures or furniture is not clear. That may explain the arrangement of pictures in that some may be have nee temporarily on display. I'm not sure I like the large painting above the cabinet topped by a garniture of china but it does draw the eye up. Did you notice the Lucian Freud "Portrait of a man" on the chimney piece?

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    2. P.S.

      Should blogs exist for the development of taste and judgement? Should they aspire to help their readers be more discerning? Should they teach, however indirectly, that dread word "discrimination"?

      Absolutely and resoundingly, yes.

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  7. First of all, the BeeLine chair was inspired by an antique that was absolutely fabulous. As is sometimes the case, I suppose something got lost in translation.

    As for the Bennison room, this was an interesting choice on your part, Blue. As interesting as the space is from the point of view as a volume, it is difficult to furnish. Although there appears to be a conventional window behind heavy curtains at one end of the room, those garret studio windows would be a nightmare in terms of controlling the light. (Although I presume this is a mews house and any bit of natural light is welcome). The choice of wall color was undoubtedly well-considered as well; light-absorbing during the day, but rich at night.

    A floor plan would have been helpful, but it appears that the 'bowling alley' effect has been conteracted by the grouping of furniture, allowing passage but avoiding everything being against the walls. Folding screens are cleverly employed to break up the long wall. A chimneypiece of handsome but simple details with a tall (gilt frame?) mirror is used to great advantage as well. The furniture is of a relatively large scale, appropriate for the volume of the room to my eye.

    I had considered not reading the previous comments, and perhaps I should not have. But my first thought in reading through the post was what a good idea the choice of patterned wall-to-wall carpet was to tie the room together. The coloring could have been more subtle, perhaps if that is one's preference, but the large scale pattern was critical in my opinion. And adding another patterned rug at the primary seating group, which some may think as entirely too much, is another essential factor in pulling it all together.

    The abundance of large blue & white porcelain, piles of books, 19th century shawls used as throws, antique needlepoint pillows (not 'cushions' as some have chided me to say), and lots of art casually arranged and clearly of a personal significance (as opposed to just purchased for decoration. But knowing Mr. Bennison's talent for acquisition, I could be mistaken).

    As much as I like natural linen, etc., I must say that the current neutral trend in decoration has become really boring in all but the most talented hands. So I find this scheme refreshing although I could understand that it would be 'too much' for many. To each his own.

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    1. The Devoted Classicist, thank you.

      Other than to ask you if you can point me in the direction of the original chair I'm going to let your excellent comment - an essay, really, about design - stand without further comment from me. I could add nothing to it and I'm grateful to you for it.

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  8. Well, this is going to be fun Professor Blue. I am a rank amateur. Emphasis on rank I'm afraid. But I am endless fascinated about the choices we make in our lives and our homes. I prefer rooms with soul, personality and history. I have a high tolerance for pattern and color. I could not think in an all white or gray room.

    I remember a high school English teacher telling me I had writing talent, but dreadful mechanics. "You need to know the rules so you break them out of intention and not ignorance," she said shaking her finger in my face. She, of course, was right. And her advice applies to the decoration of our homes (and graphic design as we both know).

    As for the elements that form the backdrop of design, I have to say if I needlepointed, I'd have a pillow reading, "Scale is a bitch."

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    1. home before dark, thank you.

      Scale is indeed a bitch and, as such, so frequently wrong. I've said that my aesthetic is for a more pared-down look but what perhaps I've never said is that compromise between two extreme tastes is the ruling factor.

      The Celt is quite baroque in dress and even when dressing down (it that were even possible) is neat, tidy and well put together - whereas I'm more of a jeans and cashmere sweater kind of bloke that appreciates an hour or two in a tuxedo. What that might tell you is that also in decorating we are polar opposites - he prefers the spare and clutter-free and I, on the other hand, lean more towards Geoffrey Bennison in my tastes. Our compromise is somewhere in between and its only taken 34 years to duke it out.

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  9. One last thing. Up above, you write: Engineers calculate the likelihood of this or that catastrophic failure and decide whether or not a particular safety feature cost is "worth" the lives that it might save.

    I wouldn't have it any other way, because then we would have no bridges at all.

    Until the 1970s, building codes were a major impediment to historic preservation, as most standard codes required that if more than a certain (relatively low) percentage of the building's value was spent on renovation, the entire building had to be brought up to code standard for new construction. In practice, this meant gutting all or parts of old buildings, or simply tearing them down. Fortunately, beginning in Massachusetts, the states put together a codicil of sorts for the standard code that made special allowances for many older buildings. As a result, historic preservation has flourished as never before -- even though this codicil invariably implies that lives are being traded off.

    That's what building and engineering codes do -- they trade-off lives. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

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    1. The Ancient, you make a very valid point - that example was poorly chosen and made the process sound more cynical than is fair. Point taken!

      As ever, thank you for reading and responding.

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  10. Please continue to critique and criticize. Your words are unfailingly wise. The Bennison room is provocative, forcing us to consider the rhythms of his aesthetic. It isn't my taste, but it's brilliant. The scale is perfect. The color reads beautifully in the artificial light. It's a glamourous room. Would have loved to see it by daylight.

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    1. anne taylor, thank you.

      The secret to that room's atmosphere lies, I think, in the color which is neither solid nor textured (walls and furniture) and none of it is 20th-century in origin or effect. The walls are glazed and layered, I suspect, forming a perfect background to the build-up of antique abraded layer upon abraded layer.

      I think by daylight it would have been equally as perfect as by night - and that is not an easy feat to pull off.

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  11. Hi Blue. I read this fascinating post yesterday, when I was in a hurry (actually code for: was supposed to be working on drawings, and was getting deliciously side-tracked in your ponderings.) So I withdrew, decided to think about it overnight, and have returned. (Of course, I have more drawings today that I am about to go back to, but just have to put in my penny's worth of observation first.)

    As far as critique goes...when I worked for one of the largest architectural practices here in Australia, the company valued critique extremely highly, but believed that if critique were applied by those closest to us, it lost its value, as we tend to lose perspective. The solution, was that we would regularly be sent to offices in other parts of the country, and we would have to present a scheme which we were working on, as if our colleagues were the clients. The critique was allowed, expected even, to be ruthless! I adored it, as terrifying as it was, for it was like going back to university days of analysis. And no matter how senior, we always learnt something.

    Now I love this game, when one finds a space which just "works" then pulls it apart to analyse exactly how it does so. Do I have 1 hour of your time? I could spend it easily distilling why I think this room "works" so well. And even if it isn't one's own taste, it would be hard to say it doesn't work successfully. To me, a living room should be resoundingly about mood - and plenty of it. The spaces to which people gravitate are nearly always those with a lot of personality and atmosphere. (Although this is in real life, I mean, not in photographic representations, which is another kettle of fish entirely.) The mood is steeped heavily in this room, from the rich colours, clever use of pools of light and areas of dark, the layering of patterns, unexpected placement of windows, and the quirky nature of the objects. It is exactly the sort of room I should like to poke about in, exploring all the interesting objects. Wherever the eye falls, there is interest enough to arrest the eye - which to me, is the simplified mantra of a well designed space. I can imagine spending happy hours in this room, it has that wonderful library-ish atmosphere.

    I suspect the lack of critique which is somewhat abundant is possibly a reflection of a more represented age, through magazines and blogs, where it is hard to imagine the atmosphere of a space. And so instead, one tends to look for items which are familiar - trendy things. In the same way, I think architectural and design awards are possibly a bad thing for our industry. For they judge buildings on their photography aspects, rather than how it feels to be in the space.

    Have I rattled on too much? Such a wonderful topic. You and I could discuss this for hours! Especially with a glass of good red wine, ensconced in that fabulous room!

    Oh, and do pop in to glamour drops to see the moonstone post today - I thought of your comment as I was writing it.

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    1. Glamour Drops, thank you.

      As with the comment from The Devoted Classicist I'm going to let your essay about design stand without comment from me - I can add nothing that wouldn't be irrelevant.

      A discussion with you over more than one glass of wine - as shiraz, if I get my way - would be a great pleasure (whether in that room or not.)

      I commented this morning on your post about moonstones and have decided that I shall ask for one for my birthday later this month. My comment explains.

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  12. Forgive me writing so late in the day, but I was doing some research for my own personal memoir, when yesterday, I came across your blog, and with special reference to a friend of mine. I had to get up from my computer and take a few deep breaths and come back to read further. I was speechless, to put it mildly. You brought back such glorious memories for me. One of the most tresured friends I have had, and my most erstwhile experience of life, was with Rory (Roderick)Cameron of La Fiorentina. I am so elated to know about you and your blogger friends writings.

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