Useful or Beautiful? Why Not Both?

Story By Elisabeth Lanier

A quote that I’ve loved for a long time – and tried to live by – is from the English craftsman, designer and poet, William Morris, whose design credo helped to generate the arts and crafts movement. It is this:
“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
Reference to this sentiment again and again will be the basis for upcoming musings bethey residential design issues or issues of style, trends, lifestyle, color schemes, furniture, equipment, arts and/or crafts.
“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Hmmm– to have only those things that you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.
If you really stop to consider the implications of what this means, our houses would be a whole lot simpler; we would no longer need to rent storage units for all of our extra stuff; our real estate agents would no longer have to remind us to de-clutter to be able to sell our houses; we could find what we needed when we needed it; and we might actually find ourselves enjoying the small rituals that make up our daily lives. Who wouldn’t aspire to that?
But getting from our cluttered busy environment to one of simplicity and grace is awhole lot easier said that done.Where would one even begin?
Well, unless you are contemplating a whole house renovation – which, as a designer, I know to be a real motivating factor – my suggestion is to start small, and gradually, to build one small success on one small success. Before you know it, the junk drawer in your kitchen will contain only those items that you know to be useful – or your closet will contain only those garments that you know fit and flatter you and work for the way you live – you get the idea.
As to beauty, well, for sure, it is in the eye of the beholder but take, for example, your morning cup of coffee (or tea – or cocoa). You probably don’t even think about, simply grabbing for whatever is clean in your cupboard. But what if one – or two – of those mugs were something special, something beautiful, something meaningful?
Yeah, but it’s only a mug, you say – to which I say, why can’t it be special – or beautiful – or meaningful – or all three? Wouldn’t you want to start your day with something special or beautiful?
Pictured are three white mugs, all of them functional, absolutely capable of containing steaming, hot liquid. One is a straightforward commercial mug, sturdy with thick walls, but it is perfectly serviceable.
One is an antique, a reminder of days gone by, and special to me because it was a gift from my mother. The third one was hand-thrown on a potter’s wheel (with the tell-tale spiral clearly visible on the bottom), an inky glaze on the inside, and beautiful to me because of those decisions made by the potter. Personally, I’d rather drink my morning coffee from the special one or the beautiful one.
Or take my garden shears. A gift from an Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) teacher, they are handcrafted from steel and they are wickedly sharp. But, more, they are beautiful – look at the graceful line of the handles and howthey turn, just so, at the ends to create those lovely little curls. Yes, other scissors or shears would work as well, but these – well, thought was given notonly to how they work, but to how they look. Useful – and beautiful – in the same object!
Try to think about these little decisions and choices that we make every day aboutthe things with which we choose to fill our homes – and our lives. Think about those objects that please you, that make you smile – and those that are simply annoying. Which would you rather use?
Elisabeth Lanier is an interior designer and space planner who, with her husband, is co-owner of DesignWorks, gallery and interior design studio, at 2119A Postoffice Street in historic downtown Galveston. She can be reached at 409-766-7599.

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