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Leisure • Art/Architecture

What Goes With What

When it comes to design and clothing, almost without noticing, we tend to operate with a strong background sense of what goes with what. If we owned a heavy dark oak table and were looking for a vase, we might decide that a small white ceramic carafe was exactly what the moodiness and solidity of the timber was asking for – especially with a few wildflowers in it – just as a sombre wide bottomed earthenware pot would feel intuitively entirely out of place.

We operate with a similarly powerful sense when we choose an outfit and decide – without consciously reasoning – that our light patterned summer dress ‘needs’ a pair of thick soled urban shoes or that our rather formal suit is calling out to be paired up with a beanie hat.

It’s as if objects and scenes were permanently on the verge of becoming a bit too much, of heading excessively in one direction or another, towards immoderate seriousness or frivolity, nostalgia or modernity, formality or rusticity – and so needed to be pulled back by a contrasting and compensatory force. 

When approaching what to wear or how to arrange a room, we are as it were asking ourselves: what does the situation ‘call for’? What direction are matters headed in already – and therefore what is potentially unbridled and needs to be calmed or assuaged? Conversely, what needs to be buttressed and supported? Do we need to remember history or the future? Do we need to emphasise worldliness or honour naivety? 

Beneath all this lies an inherent attraction to poise and an equilibrium of forces. We want places, rooms and outfits to be masculine as well as feminine, strong as well as tender, delicate as well as tough, nostalgic as well as forward looking – and adjust and tack accordingly. We’re looking for combinations of virtues. This is what seems to animate us when we say that a room ‘needs’ a certain kind of cushion or chair or that this rust-coloured coat needs a brooch, or that this outfit would benefit from earrings, or that this slightly over-refined jacket is saved by an old pair of jeans.

This also explains why taste can be so context dependent. In the fierce brightness of a southern Spanish climate, we may finally understand – and crave – the very dark wooden interiors which we previously hated (because, back in the north, the gloom felt so overwhelming) but which now promise to return us to a sense of interiority, weight and calm. Just as in frigid Scandinavian winter, we can never have enough of pale wood and light fabrics with whose help to try to lift the temptations of melancholy. 

When Mies van der Rohe designed the Barcelona Pavilion in 1929, he was in many way turning his back on the still-dominant forces of conservatism, introverted orthodoxy and tradition – and angling his work towards the virtues of modernity, openness, clarity, logic and transparency. But it was evidence of his emotional talent that he did not let his sympathy for the qualities of the contemporary world quash his sensitivity to the achievements of the past. He understood the legitimate role of craftsmanship and memory, of refinement and dignity, and so had his acutely modern building decked out in large rectangles of travertine, his columns made of chrome-plated steel and a beguilingly elegant Classical-style statue placed in the reflecting pool at the back of his angular masterpiece. We call it ‘the Barcelona Pavilion’, but it could just as well be described as a small libretto on how to live like a clever, judicious, confident, nuanced person in a roiling complicated century.

Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, 1929.

What we register as ‘beauty’ is never just a visual treat, it is a sign that we are in the presence of emotional balance that attracts us as much as any aesthetic dimension. Our sense of taste alerts us to the dangers of emotional excess. We are looking – always – to smooth out our extremes, to contain our opposites, to even out our forces. We’re trying to ensure that we are not only or simply masculine or feminine, strong or weak, open or closed, cheerful or glum, inward or outward. When we thrill at something beautiful, we are simultaneously celebrating the promise of a more emotionally well-tempered future

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