Think for a moment of objects you use on a daily basis. Which do you value most and why? It could be an article of clothing, a particular pen, a comb or a bowl.
Our favorite objects are Supreme Goods. We highly value them for their own sake. They are functional. They get better with age. We often need or want only one of them.
These are objects that could easily be overlooked by others, but when we hold them in our hands, or wear them on our backs or use them as tools they imbue us with a creative energy that feels almost magical.
They "quiver with life" according to Helen Keller.
Such objects are not overly embellished, but are not so simplified as to be sterile. They achieve the golden mean spoken of by Aristotle when you can "not take from it nor add to it."
Leonard Koren in his book Wabi Sabi describes these objects as having been paired down to their essence without removing the poetry. Conspicuous details are kept to a minimum, "but it doesn't mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds elements into a meaningful whole. It also doesn't mean in any way diminishing something's "interestingness", the quality that compels us to look at something over, and over, and over again."
Margaret Howell, one of my favorite designers, describes her relationship to these Supreme Goods as follows:
There is a certain pleasure in recognising something that has been well made. Good design is about using materials that are fit for purpose. The product has to be aesthetically pleasing, has to be functional – and if it has extra character to it, too, well, then that's something else.
Hand in hand with good manufacture is having an edited approach to dressing. I like to have only a few clothes in the wardrobe that I wear and wear. I'm not somebody who has lots of different things (apart from notebooks – I'm a sucker for stationery). In design, I prefer to get something right rather than the more commercial attitude of doing it in lots of different colours. I really don't like that thing of going and buying very cheap clothes and throwing them away.
Persuading people to this viewpoint isn't hard when you can actually get them to experience good design. Experiencing something that has worn well in a good quality material that gets better with age, that makes you feel fond of it. It's like getting to know a person you really like – you don't just dispense with them." Margaret Howell, Why Good Quality Clothes Matter - The Guardian
When we focus on the Supreme Goods we own fewer things. But the objects we do own we highly value for their own sake because they are inherently good, beautiful and functional.
When we purchase items to impress others with our refined taste or to show off our economic means than such objects are relegated to second order goods - we have an ulterior motive for owning them.
There is a delicate balance here. Objects that are well made are more expensive. Quality materials and production costs more. Good design costs more because it takes time to get it right.
But there is a line that can be crossed when we are no longer paying up for quality, but we are instead paying for a company's marketing budget. Supreme Goods are rarely if ever advertised.
Although well-made beautifully designed objects are more expensive at first, over their lifetimes they are more economical because they last.
And they can be and in most cases ought to be bought used.
Buying well-made used objects adds a serendipitous aspect to commerce. There is an exquisite pleasure in finding a beautifully designed garment in a vintage store or a wooden spoon at an antique store that reminds us of our grandmother.
Such objects seem to find us rather than us finding them. They come into our lives with their own history, but readily allow us to make stories together.
-J.D. Stein | January 2014