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.