The History Of Whys

by seanlow on May 2, 2017

I had the very good fortune to spend some time talking with Vicente Wolf this morning. He was gracious enough to let me and a friend pick his brain about his thoughts on the current state of the interior design industry.  For those of you who do not know who Vicente is, he is a remarkable interior designer with a storied career that spans over four decades and counting. Vicente is on every “best of” list you can think of for his ongoing contributions to interior design both here in the U.S. and around the world.

We spoke of many things, but the one that sticks out is this thought from Vicente: “Great design requires a history of whys.” As in, it is not enough to think the couch is beautiful, but rather why it is beautiful, why it matters of its own right and in relation to the rest of the space. And on and on to the depth where there is only light. His lament, one that I wholeheartedly share, is the effort to diminish, even dismiss the history of whys. There is comfort (which should make every artist uniquely uncomfortable) in conflating furniture in a room, flowers in a vase, or pretty letters on a page with design. Design can be pretty, however, pretty is never, by itself, design. Design requires talent, intent, vision, structure, experience, faith and, most of all, conviction that the world you see as an artist is the right one for your client.

So what causes the demise of the history of whys? Fear.

On the client side, there is information paralysis. Not only is choice ubiquitous but also juxtaposition belied by choice. If there is an alternative to the couch that is cheaper or presumably closer to what the client hopes the couch to be, why not choose that one? Or the one next to it? Or the one next to that one? All of these choices living in the palm of your hand on your phone.  And more to the point, if the couch is muted for a reason, how to argue when the client seeks to un-mute it? Designers choose for reasons far beyond price or function, they choose for experience, feeling, tapestry. Clients faced with a sea of viable choice are overwhelmed with fear that something other is afoot with the designer.  Something beyond the history of whys.

The fear of alienation is the designer’s plague in today’s world. No designer wants to say definitively, “this is the one” when there are legions of “almost the one” or “could be the one” living just behind the one. So they hide the history of whys so as not to offend.

When it was difficult to access the legion of the possible, it was easier to say with conviction that this is the one. Ironically, ubiquitous choice exposes those who have not done their work to be a voice for the history of whys, just not for the reason you might think. It is not because designers are less savvy or knowledgeable than their clients on a particular item. The designer might very well be not as up to date on a particular couch as the client who spent the last several days on the Internet researching the couch. Nope, it is because the designer cannot explain the role of the couch in the designer’s vision. Left only with pretty, they lose unless they can confuse pretty with design. So the spiral begins until those who live on the history of whys have to succumb to justifying pretty and answer the question about whether another couch could work with the design.  Power yuck.

Is choice going to become any less ubiquitous? Of course not. Will those, like Vicente, who have always made the choice that matters to them and their vision have to learn to adjust to those determined to see only pretty? Also, of course.

BUT BUT BUT, the future cannot exist for creative business without the history of whys. When stuff takes over, the breath of artistry is extinguished.

There is hope though.  Beyond the fear is opportunity. If design were about the ingredients, everyone would be a great chef. The best ingredients matter.  Art matters more. Every designer will have to own the history of their own whys to succeed.  It will be why you are paid. It will also put the focus squarely back on the creative in creative business, where it has always belonged.

Yes, it is scary to live in the history of whys when pretty is around the corner. Who cares? Do it anyway. You would not be here in the first place if the chaos of the unknown did not beckon you home.  Better to be there than to drown in a sea of pretty.  Many thanks Vicente.

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