New, used, wabi-sabi: Meditation on a fork.

Yesterday brought me to the workshop of Nada Debs, a furniture designer who has brought a Japanese minimalist aesthetic, an American appreciation of functionality and a British respect for tradition to the world of traditional Levantine craft. As I walked around picking up pieces of coloured melamine cut outs, traditional Syrian inlay pressed into the surface of concrete and acid etched metal plates, I mentioned to her how difficult I found watching the transition of something new into something “imperfect”.

I recently bought stainless steel cutlery. The implements were beautifully designed and made. I chose these particular items because the shapes are organic, natural and don’t call attention to themselves. The heft of each piece was perfect: not light and cheap feeling, not self-consciously heavy. An effortless, functional minimalism. The polish or brushing of stainless steel , when it’s done right, can bring out a glow, a warm glow from the cold, indifferent basic material. My salad fork imbued in me a deep sense of perfection.

Of course I started to use the fork eat with it, stab with it, clean it with a sponge, let it dance against other things in the dishwasher, and soon enough little scratches and nicks began to appear. While the shape and functionality were unchanged, the warm glow was losing its ability to charm me. What had been a lustre with depth, complexity of colour and hint of leaden grey to soften the brilliance of the steel, was changing into a more prosaic ‘scratched’ stainless look. I began to wonder whether I could have them rebuffed. I began to wonder whether I should keep these for everyday and buy a second set for special occasions. Of course that would mean that family meals, good food shared with my children would have to be consciously designated as ‘not special’ when I opened the drawer and chose the fork.

I asked Nada about the ageing process in what she makes. I asked her about how she could know and test whether her items would remain perfect or degrade. Whether in degrading they would reach that patina stage that in many ways we love more than new. She handed me a book on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.

Have you ever wondered why the weathered stone walls of a centuries old church or the pitted and damaged Victorian brick houses of London make us feel good. Why do they look just right. Why do people undertaking multi-million pound refurbishment jobs never try to correct the outer weathered surfaces? Me too. Why does a new replica-Victorian house look ‘fake’. It is not just that the techniques or materials might be slightly different. Even a house made of reclaimed materials (in London it is often required by the planning board that the outer surfaces of new walls be faced with reclaimed stone) and using traditional techniques (from what I can tell, basic bricklaying hasn’t really evolved much) looks somehow incorrect.

It is because Patina, authentic wear and tear, is not achievable by human intervention or short cut. One of the really cool things about the world is that despite the inherently random nature of the universe (as described mathematically in quantum physics and as observed by us all in many contexts) it is actually extremely difficult to generate random events. A computer, for example, can only simulate randomness using algorithms, but can not express true randomness without observing some external random phenomenon. So it would be extremely complicated to create the look of natural wear on a leather jacket artificially. One part of the problem is that we are not necessarily even aware of all the different random movements and effects that create patina. (For an example of the difficulty of authentically ageing clothing, walk down any major shopping street and look at peoples’ jeans. There are many pairs that have been artificially aged in a way that is transparently fake.)

So wabi-sabi, which is a hard thing to explain but you know it when you see it, is the ageing that occurs through natural processes. We see it in the wrinkles of our grandparents faces that somehow encapsulate the history of their experience (unless they are botoxed, a big time anti-wabi-sabi action). We see it in the greying of exposed stone, the blacking of the alpine pine they build chalets from in the alps, the decay of a leaf on the ground, the warm depth that century old wood floors start to exude. It is there in everything to remind us that life is ephemeral, nothing is permanent, all will eventually decay and disappear.

But there is still that period where something “perfect” in the modern, manufactured sense, is damaged and becomes used. To me this is the first time that something happens to the object that would make it fail quality control in the place it was made. I think the descent from the manufactured near perfection to used is an emotional blow of great intensity. There is an economic aspect to this. Think of a new car being driven off the lot. It loses a big chunk of its value in that moment of transition. But it is not, ultimately economic. I have driven a new car off the lot and felt the elation of consumption-it is pretty unalloyed that feeling-there is no element of regret or loss at that moment. The shock of degradation comes the first time you scratch the car, when it loses, never to regain, that fresh from the factory look. The point is that those initial shocks do not make the car wabi-sabi. Somehow there is a purgatory between perfection and patina. A collectible 1950’s Porsche Speedster may have been dented and repaired many times. The wear on its rubber door gaskets, the spidering of its paint. That is wabi-sabi. But that interim phase has not been brought out into the light. A truly great object, to me, would be one that could go from new to wabi-sabi without that horrible middle period.

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