Permanence as a Criterion
To achieve an evolution of this complexity will require designers to attune themselves to the decay and ultimate impermanence of objects; and more fundamentally, a reconsideration of their role relative to the final object.
The decay, patina, and ultimate impermanence of designed objects is a recurring source of internal conflict in the culture of designed objects. Beginning with the legacy of preservation and curation in material artifacts and its effect on the design object in museum collections, the historical contingencies that imbued “patina” aesthetic and social significance resulted in a conflicted opposition between design for permanence and the perception of a natural order, between class perceptions and habits of consumption. This cultural atmosphere was only further complicated by the mid-century production of limited-use products in apparently indestructible plastic.
Historians largely trace the Western appreciation of patina to the 14th- and 15th-century fascination with Greek and Roman ruins, which culminated in Romantic reveries such as Wordsworth’s “The Ruined Cottage” and the etchings of Giovanni Piranesi. But a parallel attitude of cultivated decrepitude can be found as early as the 16th century, when mannerist architects would build deliberately ruined-looking houses on the estates of aristocrats. Examples of deliberately induced patina in forgeries are countless—by 1761 the popular artist William Hogarth had already satirized the practice in the mass-produced print Time Smoking A Picture—and parallel in the Romantic efforts to achieve the picturesque ruin were sentiments that the appearance of ageing was not fakeable. Anthony Trollope describes the estate in Barchester Towers:
It is the colour of Ullathorne that is so remarkable. It is of that delicious tawny hue which no stone can give, unless it has on it the vegetable richness of centuries. Strike the wall with your hand, and you will think that the stone has on it no covering, but rub it carefully, and you will find that the colour comes off upon your finger. No colourist that ever yet worked from a palette has been able to come up to this rich colouring of years crowding themselves on years.
As beautiful as the observation is, Trollope’s appreciation of patina is closely attached to an impression of authenticity that is comparable to the “authenticity” of family lineages. It reflects a particular political force intrinsic to the aesthetic: an elevated fineness in the Western aesthete’s conception of decay, for whom the patina is supposed to admit rarefied pleasures (and, it follows, only those members of the leisure class for whom such pleasures are made available by their “superior culture”). In 1990, Grant McCracken, a sociologist studying class in the 18th century, targeted the symbolic structure of patina:
Patina, as both a physical and a symbolic property of consumer goods, was one of the most important ways that high-standing individuals distinguished themselves from low-standing ones, and social mobility was policed and constrained … Patina has an important symbolic burden, that of suggesting that existing status claims are legitimate. Its function is not to claim status but to authenticate it.
This system of authentication, along with the relatively fixed system of aristocracy that made use of it, began to collapse in the late 18th century, when the increase of range in the available consumer goods drove the English to (in McCraken’s words) “conspicuous consumption on a modern scale … a new kind and tempo of fashion change.” But this conception also shows the limitations of McCracken’s symbolic structure for patina, in which it is circumscribed by the class structure by which he attempts to define it. When he argues that the fashion for attractive wear is “eclipsed,” he is also limiting the range of his assessment of that fashion to precisely the class-system with which he attempted to characterize it. In other words, what if patina had not been eclipsed, but only this particular incarnation of its social-aesthetic function? Though Trollope’s account deliberately emphasizes the social distinction of patina, the metaphorical quality of the passage speaks to an attitude that does not prove especially easy to shoehorn into a sociological system. Despite the intervening centuries, his description seems to have less to do with policing a social order and more to do with an interior, private pleasure that seems to have always attached itself to material decay.
A contemporary contrast can be found on the internet forum MyNudies, where users upload photographs documenting the lifespan of their Nudie brand blue jeans, made out of special “unsanforized denim.” Over time, the material develops characteristics specific to how its indigo dye wears off: these are described as “whiskers” along the hips, “honeycombs” on the back of the knees and horizontal stripes of varying dimension that “stack” like sedimentary deposits at piled hems. The dedication to this task by some members of these forums may seem alien to disinterested observers—the Nudie Jeans Company’s official recommendation suggests wearing the jeans for six months before washing them, and then submitting them to a detailed cleaning process: turned inside-out and folded into a dilution of mild soap and water, kept at precisely 60 degrees and then air-dried.
Clothing seems uniquely positioned to bring consumers in contact with the visible lifespan of materials—due to its ubiquity and sort of reusability, to say nothing of its physical proximity. Corporations like Nudies use intimate imagery to stress the sort of meaningful relationship it seeks to cultivate in its market: “Jeans is all about passion [sic]—the more you wear and treat your jeans, the more beautiful they get. Your everyday life gives the denim its unique character, formed by you into a second skin—personal and naked.” But this kind of hyperbole isn’t limited to marketing or fanatical teenagers. A critic ordinarily as sober and measured as James Agee was driven to ecstasies by the worn denim of Southern field workers:
The texture and color change in union by sweat, sun, laundering, between the steady pressures of its use and age: both, at length, into realms of fine softness and marvel of draping and velvet plays of light which chamois and silk can only suggest, not touch (the textures of old paper money); and into a region and scale of blues, subtle, delicious, and deft beyond what I have ever seen elsewhere approached except in rare skies, the smoke light some days are filmed with, and some of the blues of Cézanne: one could watch and touch even one garment, study it, with the eyes, the fingers, and the subtlest lips, and illimitably long, and never fully learn it.
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Functionality and exterior form continue to be the springboards for most design methods and processes, whereas a conscious attention to the condition of things through their lifespan remains rare. Or, at the most, it’s considered simply in terms of choosing material “for the long run,” rather than making decisions to adapt to changing contingencies. But there are indications that the attitudes of designers and critics are showing signs of shifting toward a conception of the design object as something that exists through time. It might be an uncomfortable realization, since such a conception will necessarily cede meaning-making to every stage of an object’s manufacture and ownership (and finally disposal). But if such a conception is realized, then the materiality of the object through time—its decay—needs to become a central concern.
In architecture’s more theoretical precincts, some thinkers have started to stress this imperative, and investigate its possibilities. In the 2010 essay collection Design Ecologies, design theorist Peter Hasdell outlines a contrasting suggestion for the integration of architecture into landscape that goes considerably beyond the traditional notion of urban context:
Choreography may be an apt metaphorical condition for a number of shifts in architectural theory over the past several decades. The question of type has been radically reevaluated under this new understanding. Formally a central question in the establishment of ideal formal relationships and patterns, the concept has recently undergone a shift, which places emphasis on mutability and transience and resists notions of stasis and fixed identity. Type exists, but only as a contingent and mutable reality subject to the changes of contexts and fields. The fixed state of any organism—and, by extension, design object—is not a permanent condition, but a momentary example of homeostasis and equilibrium, the result of certain contextual balances in forces affecting any organism.
Hasdell’s focus in the essay is on how this “soft and weedy” architecture reorients its underlying values not around stylistic or compositional integration but rather around an interpretation of architectural context that conditions itself to change through time. (His connection of this with “choreography” or performance probably indicates a degree to which these concepts have been drawn in part from the suggestive, semi-architectural “Land” or “Earthworks” artists that came to prominence in the United States in the early 1970s.)
Many of the critics writing about decay and preservation made a comparison between signs of decay and evidence of living objects. Perhaps in the near future, design may be able to show us there is more to this comparison than metaphorical resonance or mere memento mori. It may be able to demonstrate that the metaphor for life, represented by change in general and decay in specific, might be a model for process or an inspiration for formal development. In Hasdell’s reimagining of architectural context the similarity has prescriptive potential:
Contemporary designers consider the ecological context in which an organism (the design itself) is formed; they consider how it evolves out of the forces embedded in a contextual field. Designers have thus become more interested in the possibility of producing what amounts to customized organisms. The very strategy of design presumes a system for continued evolution and responsive intelligence in any developed solution. Design is now understood as a process of unfolding possibilities within an ecological or contextual system; it is a kind of performance in which the designed organisms furnish responses to the dynamic field conditions of their environment.
But to achieve a kind of evolution of this complexity will require for designers to attune themselves to the decay and ultimate impermanence of objects; and, more fundamentally still, a reconsideration of their role relative to the final object. To embrace this conception of the object requires a reorientation away from the idea of an ideal, finished object. Apart even from the ecological benefits that can be achieved through a more fastidious stewardship of the built environment, this approach suggests manifold aesthetic possibilities and a more complex and nuanced relationship between designers, manufacturers, products and consumers in which meaning does not come from a single origin. Designers will need to begin thinking of themselves more like parents—conditioning the development of their creations over time—rather than prime movers, setting things in motion and then walking away.