THE NEW GENTLE AGE

I just finished looking through a recent weekend’s issue of the Financial Times supplement How To Spend It, dated Saturday 6th of February. Recently Jo Ellison became the editor, after many years covering fashion for the newspaper and writing a column that I have enjoyed on countless Saturdays.

The magazine's front cover has an image of a model dressed in a short sleeve sweater with colour from a palette of what Ellison calls “earthy neutrals” and is accompanied by the headline "The New Gentle".  In the Editor’s Letter, Ellison explains that as she went to print during a tumultuous January 2021, she had reached a point where the events of the last year had clearly left her exhausted by the adrenaline and agitated state of mind that many of us can relate to, and that she desperately craved a world where more nurturing things and thoughts were the order of the day.

Having put the supplement down and started to type these words out, I may not agree with every article, but I am captivated by the Editor’s Letter and her plea for change.  It is exactly how I have slowly begun to think about the mess that has surrounded us, and how it brings together themes that were being explored before the pandemic and the loose talk, as I call it, that surrounds the current general public's interest in the home.  Having seen at least three moments where the economy and the life of many people were severely disrupted over the quarter of a century that I have been working, there is always much talk of either "nesting" or a return to basics and then this quickly fades away when things begin to improve.

But here we are at the start of a decade, which many agreed had to bring real and urgent transformation, prodded by a scientific consensus that points to very real and severe impact from man-made climate change.  And with many this resonated with an uneasy feeling that much of contemporary life that dates to the last thirty years was built upon mountains of waste.  Whilst the pandemic has delayed our much needed focus on a world that is far more frugal, far more willing to look at the nose-to-tail costs of everything we do, including the costs we pass on to future generations, it has forced a retreat into our homes but at the same time frazzled our thoughts with an endless stream of bad news.  This surely isn’t the way out of this mess, and that is where Jo’s call to arms becomes relevant and timely.

In fact, the huge increase in goods being traded across the oceans over the last few months, which has led to dramatic increases in the cost of moving sea containers from one side of the world to the other, alongside port congestion not seen for decades, implies that we are learning very little from our past mistakes.  It seems that time spent at home, totally disturbed by an endless news cycle, is being invested in finding more junk for the home.  Just to pick an example, we know that when there are 900,000 containers sent a month from China to the US, then a good proportion of what is inside will probably not have a long life or even capture the interest of the owner for more than a few brief months.  The same can be said about many items made in much of the world around us.

Now I know that whatever I say here will be undermined by the fact that these points of view are often adopted by people who have had little to worry about during this year of lockdowns and I recognise that.  But having thought about it, this does not diminish the value of the message.  The way consumption in our society develops is intrinsically linked to the consumption of luxury, what certain students of society will call bourgeois taste.  Whatever name we give to this phenomenon, we can pretend it isn’t there, or we can mould it to the needs of a better world where the value of truly well made things is amplified by how they influence the way other products are made, and how they influence what many people call desirable or good.

Slowing down or finding the “New Gentle” for me involves looking at the home as a place where careful and reasoned decisions have to replace the mindless following of trends.  It means a thoughtful approach to provenance and materials becomes imperative.  And I would argue that apart from an approach that demands straightforward answers to the questions that the two previous issues raise, we all need greater awareness of the building blocks of the home, and knowledge that they are built up patiently over time rather than assembled artificially from one day to the other.

If we are to avoid becoming slaves of new trends that will take us towards another decade of waste, we need greater awareness of what it is that a culture of the “New Gentle” requires of us, and when faced with this question I have always reverted back to the writing and the work of a figure from the first half of the 20th century.  In the years running up to the pandemic, there was increasing interest in the work of Josef Frank, an Austrian architect who started his career in Vienna but left for Sweden in the 1930s.  Lest we ever forget, forgetfulness that grows over time, he leaves because of a climate of increasing hate speech and violence towards people of the Jewish faith.  His influence on Swedish society is not to be underestimated, in part because of the artistic direction he provided to a shop in Stockholm that became a focal point of the chattering classes.  Frank had much to say that is relevant today, but for brevity’s sake I will quote from the programme of the the MAK exhibition in Vienna from early 2016, where it is said he aimed for an “uncontrived and unpretentious functionality, whose aim was an independent, free, enlightened bourgeois domestic culture far from stylistic dogmas and fashionable conventions.”

That means that it is upon our shoulders to build a culture that takes earnest interest in the building blocks of the home, not just with the view of prizing the humanistic values of comfort and beauty but also because this is a road towards a better culture for every member of society.  Over time I hope to be able to look at these building blocks one by one but it all starts with graceful blending of different furniture, both contemporary as well as furniture made in the past.  We have to look at lighting carefully, in particular low level lighting, which is essential after the two decade assault on all of us caused by halogen and then LED lighting.  I believe there is much good work to be done on rugs, even if there are companies out there that I admire.  And last but not least there is the eternal question of how art brings a home together, turning static walls into living and breathing parts of the home.  All this will make good subjects for conversation in the days and months ahead as we look at what can be done to bring about a much needed “New Gentle Age”.