British author, illustrator and painter, Mary Eliza Haweis, wrote a series of essays on domestic décor which were published in the monthly magazine Saint Paul’s. In 1878 and 1881 these essays were captured and elaborated on in her books titled ‘The Art of Beauty’ and ‘The Art of Decoration’ respectively. While reading Haweis’s work I was struck by the relevance of some of her ideas (while at the same time not becoming blind to the outdatedness of others) for our current experience.
In particular, her discussion on the importance of thoughtfulness in design struck a chord that, up until that point, had seemed so symptomatic of our time. It is easy to be lulled into a sense that the challenges of our time are somehow unique and only relevant to us. That the decrease in quality, care and originality resulting from mass production, mass media and mass consumption has resulted in a sort of soullessness that is a unique characteristic of the present moment. But reading her words it becomes apparent that many of the same concerns have been with us for well over a century.
Presenting her case for the value in design and craftsmanship from previous times, Haweis states “one reason why the earlier designs and workmanship are so much better than the modern, is that they were always thoughtful…It is the thought put into a work which renders it interesting and touching – and when a thing interests the mind and touches the heart, it is generally beautiful too.”
She argues that when it comes to design and making, “in the old days men did not speak without having something to say” arguing that those who made things did so because they had something to say, an emotion to express. “Life was not easy, interests were fewer and more concentrated; [but] with less knowledge there seems to have been actually more feeling”
Haweis presents ‘feeling’ - the expression of the maker’s unique emotions and values - and thought – production with intentionality and care - as the essential ingredients of good design. She argues that even when there is an apparent lack of skill, this can be compensated for by the thoughtfulness in concept of an artefact:
“There are innumerable instances we might quote of early work, in which ignorance and mediocre ability go hand in hand with an enthusiasm and thoroughness of conception worthy of any age, which ennobles and redeems the whole production…We feel that the [makers] had all that makes an artist – feeling and enthusiasm”
What Haweis is arguing for is for the idea that when we infuse what we do with deep care and intention and when our creative process is driven by the desire to express something personal to us, even when we may not have all the skills of the expert, this thought and care will shine through in a way that has value that can be perceived by all.
In the context of home-making, this sentiment can apply to both the objects we acquire for our homes and the way we ourselves approach the design of our homes. Those objects created with thought and care are different from mass-produced items created only for the purpose of generating money. What’s more, her point would suggest that thoughtful design decisions based on an approach of how we want our spaces to serve us and feel are far superior to design based on polished reproductions of the latest trends.
Haweis elaborates on this point further in her book titled the Art of Decoration, firmly speaking up against the idea of blindly following trends:
“If you adopt other people’s ideas, you ought to have some better reason than simply because someone else does it…It is marvellous what mistakes we may fall into unless we observe whether or not Precedent defies Propriety…For instance, one hears ladies laying down the law in this style: ‘You must have old point on your mantel-shelf; it is indispensable. Everyone has it!’ Yet good sense tells us that delicate fabric designed to adorn a lady’s dress is as unsuitable to the rough and dusty service of furniture close to the fire as a pearl necklace or ostrich plumes. Why therefore, ‘must’ we adopt a freak of luxury, founded on neither good sense nor good taste?”
Her point, though firmly made, stands as true today as it did over 100 years ago when her book was published: a thoughtful approach to homemaking will always serve us better, and with that produce more favourable results, than one of following trends.
“Good sense is the basis for all that is beautiful, and details of ornaments as well as the ensemble ought to be the natural result of our habits and tastes…Hence the present aesthetic craze, when it does not represent individual thought and effort, is as poor and parrot-like as many other craze which has led intelligent creatures astray.”
But even if we agree with her sentiments, the question remains of how to implement them? How can we use our own personal voice to guide our decision-making rather than simply following trends? Here too Haweis has some words of wisdom that are still relevant today:
“I have said, educate yourself before you act, and this may be best done by studying and comparing various styles, and determining one’s own by careful judgement. Read the hosts of books on art and colour that are published, question nature, study the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ which celebrated pictures teach, and think – think-think.”
While not everyone may have the time to read hosts of books, there is a simpler recommendation in her message. The starting point for all good design is a thoughtful approach. There is often an unspoken assumption that design in general and especially so interior design, is about the ‘look’. But Haweis point is that an appealing look emerges naturally out of thoughtful design. By starting the design process, not by asking ourselves what should the end result look like but by asking ourselves the important questions of how our homes should serve us, how we want to feel within them, what will the experience be for us and for others who spend time in our spaces, what values do we want to communicate and reinforce through our design, we approach design from a conceptual rather than just a visual angle.
This process will inevitably be slow. But it is the one most likely to inoculate us against the dissatisfaction that can result from following the changing whims of fashion.
Images above show our Hand Dyed Velvet Jewel Cushion Covers in Still Willem, Jordaan and Frisian Silk, Firesand Crackle Glaze Plate, Classic French Table Glasses, Frame for Life book by Ilse Crawford, Kapok Safari Daybed Mattress in Soft Charcoal used as a floor cushion and new Handwoven Merino Wool Blankets (coming soon).