Choose Simplicity over Fussiness

I came across the following quote on the blog Esme and the Laneway

If in doubt, choose simplicity over fussiness

Esme writes mostly about vintage fashion, and in this post she’s interviewing Nicole Jenkins of Circa Vintage in Melbourne, about a book she had written. When I read it I thought how much it reflected my views on what looks good; what I think counts as good design and visually satisfying art. In fact I think it’s a great maxim for many other things beyond the visual; think about how much we like the devices we use to be intuitive and simple without loads of knobs, buttons and dials. We don’t like to have to fight our way through technology to use our devices and I don’t think we like to fight our way through needless fussiness in our visual environment. So how am I interpreting ‘fussiness’ here? It’s not ornamentation per se, it’s ‘ornamentation for the sake of it’, ‘ornamentation to no point’, ‘ornamentation which doesn’t know when to stop’, ‘ornamentation just `because you can‘.

I’m going to say here that I think this viewpoint isn’t new, however much it seems very late 20th century onwards. We think of the victorian living room chock a block with ornaments and patterns, or the over the top and over-wrought craziness of victorian gothic and, let’s get it out there, the Albert Memorial. But at the same time you have the whole arts and crafts thing going on which produced some very clean design. “Now hang on!! (I hear you crying) William Morris Wallpaper!!”. Well, to be honest, I think Morris is right out there on the edge of pointless ornamentation, the same way his buddies the PRB are in painting. Not arguing there. But it was about so much more than Morris; take a look at arts and crafts furniture and much of it is very clean and non-fussy. I’m not going to take a trip through the art and design history of the last couple of hundred years, apart from saying that Art Nouveau is going to be my exception in that a lot of it is very fussy but I really like it…in moderation.

So what is is about simplicity which is so satisfying? I think it’s because you can have a lot of it without it clashing. Patterns are much easier to over-do. Fair Isle cardigan + muted dress = looks great. Plain cardigan + floral patterned dress = looks great. Fair Isle cardigan + floral dress…you get what I’m driving at here. When you start introducing ornamentation you are putting limits on what you can do, how much of it you can have without it looking like a mess. When I was a kid in the 60s and early 70s we had wallpaper, patterned wallpaper, every room different…and patterned upholstry on our living room suite…and patterned curtains. Takes a lot of skill to pull that off; looking back at old photographs it was skill my parents didn’t have. The only saving grace is that my parents weren’t picture people because it would have been bloody hard to hang pictures on it. What do we do now when we decorate? We paint rooms in ‘white, not quite’ shades (I remember when those first came in) and quite often use the same colour throughout the house. It’s so much more forgiving than the wallpaper of my youth, you can pick rugs for the floor, or hang pictures on it, or cushions for the chairs with much greater ease and change them around without having to redecorate because the walls aren’t going to fight with anything. In fact, hopping back to Art Nouveau, you could get a wonderfully fussy Mucha print and hang it on those plain walls and it would be fine, becuase it wouldn’t be fighting with other patterns and colours.

One final clothing analogy…why is the classic evening wear for women the LBD? No points for getting this one right

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