It’s well known that William Morris decreed that people should only keep in their home objects that they either believe to be beautiful, or know to be useful.
This philosophy seems appropriate today – I think we’re living through something of a modern-day version of an Arts & Crafts period.
In the era of the long tail, it’s never been easier to plough your own furrow. The aligning of specialised supply and niche demand has never been easier, and never more scaleable. Beating a path from the beaten track also offers a retreat from what can feel like an overly industrialised consumer society, with many people seeking respite in new models of community, heritage, authenticity and craft.
In short, we’ve discovered the simple pleasures of making things again.
Sometimes this manifests itself in ‘proper’ skilled craftsmanship. Like with my friend Miriam, who’s using a year of maternity leave to document the stuff she makes for her house, her girls and friends.
But for others, and on a bigger scale, in place of the A&C’s symbolic handmade furniture and art we have applications, tools and user-generated entertainment.
And the API is the new workshop.
And I think there’s another distinction from the era defined by Morris’ famous aphorism. The way we might characterise something as beautiful or as useful have converged. What we describe as being one isn’t precluded from being the other. Design-thinking and aesthetic pleasure are both brought to bear in our efforts to solve problems technologically.
On one sense it was ever thus. Not knowingly a digital thinker, the architect (and 19th century near contemporary of Morris) Charles Barry was the man behind the Houses of Parliament in London and many a glorious building of the Victorian era in Manchester. You can see from his work that form and function were not necessarily separate.
He said a great thing when talking about how the duty of the architect when defining and creating civic spaces.
“Beauty is nothing without Utility.”
Which I think is lovely. And when reversed – Utility is nothing with Beauty – is even lovelier.