Kettle’s Yard: a reflection

I recently visited Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, UK.  Kettle’s Yard was the home of Jim and Helen Ede during 1958 to 1973 . Jim had been a curator at the Tate Gallery in London 1920-30s.  Collecting and curating art and nature in his home, became his cure for undiagnosed PTSD brought on by the Great War.  He became a patron, collector and buyer of works by then unknown (and some famous) artists- paintings by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, David Jones and Joan Miró, as well as sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

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This work, called ‘Bird swallows a fish’ by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, made a profound impression on me. Very pertinent for our ecological crisis.

Jim did not distinguish between high art, naive art, and nature.  There are no labels, so the visitor enjoys the work as it is.  Surprisingly for a curator’s home, there no curatorial statements either.  Alongside carefully positioned valued artworks, we find broken and old furniture, glass, ceramics and natural objects. The aim was to create creating a harmonic whole, not perfection. He was influenced by his visit to India after the war and his work reflects his interests in Eastern religions and folk art.  He invited students for talks at the end of each term and in the end, left the house to Cambridge University.  He meant this humble home to be neither ‘an art gallery or museum, nor … simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste or the taste of a given period. It is, rather, a continuing way of life from these last fifty years, in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.’

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Humble collections of stones, arranged carefully, give a peaceful ‘zen-like’ calm to the home.

Looking and reflecting on the interiors, as an architect and home maker, I came to realise that to create a home you have to know yourself and your own needs deeply.  And to create such an harmonious home, you don’t need expensive things- just things that reflect who you are.  So Jim and Helen Ede’s home could be viewed by some as eccentric and unsophisticated but the abiding impression is that of a couple who consciously chose to eschew the materially rich for that which is soulfully rich.  A lesson indeed for these chaotic times and materialistic culture.  Such expression where someone’s inner life has been thrown open public gaze requires inner confidence, critical thinking and unwavering certainty.  This is the home of someone who has absolute happiness, not relative one.  In the end, the lesson for me wasn’t from the art but from the collection and the home as one.

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Works of art by famous artists are placed deliberately low on the floor so that the viewer can sit down and contemplate these.
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Light and shadows play a part in how sculptures are placed
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Plants also part of the display- a living natural art
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You are invited to sit on the chairs to contemplate the space and art

Lessons on design and interiors from Kettle’s Yard

  1. Make the design work for you, don’t follow others blindly.
  2. Choose things that enhance the spaces- these might be cheap things like plants, rocks, books and sea shells. They could be things that you love to touch and see.
  3. Follow the design through as you walk from space to space.  It might be simpler and cheaper to have a flow, rather than each space having its own ‘theme’.
  4. Remove and hide things seasonally.  This gives a sense of the home through the seasons.
  5. Eclectic collections have a charm of their own.  Many design magazines feature empty monastic looking spaces but as this home shows, you can have many things if displayed well.

 

Why I have problems with Konmari methods

The Konmari method of decluttering and organising has taken the world by storm. With astutely commercial timing, Netflix launched ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’ on New Year’s Day this year, when everyone was making their New Year’s resolutions. There is even a best selling novel, Careful what you wish for, set in the world of professional organising.  Charity shops, streets, and recycling centres have become clogged with donations of clothes, books, and home furnishings that have failed to spark joy.  In the US, in some shops donations were up 66 per cent over last year in the first week of 2019, and one even saw a 372 per cent increase! In Australia, the charity, Lifeline, was begging people not to leave goods outside overflowing donation bins. Even returning new stuff is causing problems- in a typical brick and mortar store, there may be 8-10 per cent returns but with online purchases, there is a 20-30 per cent return rate, much of which may be sent on to landfill.  Returned stuff generates as much as £5 billion worth of waste as it is cheaper to send packaging and goods to landfill instead of recycling or reuse (although after listening to consumers, Amazon now has used goods stores in the US and UK).  Some luxury retailers even burn returned stuff (In 2018, Burberry incinerated nearly £27 million worth of returned clothes and cosmetics to ‘protect their brand’).

So while generally decluttering and organising are good practices, I can see why the Konmari method might not work for everyone.  In fact, in my view, this decluttering and reorganising is a singularly Western consumerist obsession (Japan, despite its Buddhist beliefs, is a hugely consumerist society today struggling to cope with stuff packed inside its minuscule homes).  Just look at how people in the West (and now in the East too) struggle with decluttering someone’s home when they die.  When I visited my village in India, I didn’t find this obsessive need to declutter there.  And it was liberating to be just so.  Mahatma Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary year this is, left behind just ten items when he died. He said, ‘You may have occasion to possess or use material things, but the secret of life lies in never missing them.’

Some Western fans believe this is an exotic Shinto/Buddhist practice backed by a spiritual theory. Marie Kondo’s books don’t mention any connection with Shintoism but a  ‘Chinese whisper’ connection with spirituality circulates, even a ‘theory of austerity’.  Marie Kondo actually attended Tokyo Women’s Christian University to study sociology. As a practitioner of Japanese Buddhism for over 35 years and having knowledge of Japanese culture, I know that both Buddhism and Shintoism believe in ‘dependent origination’ of material goods and a profound connection with nature. But can this joy can be sparked in mass produced goods made of synthetic materials?  In the actual Japanese version of the book,  Marie Kondo uses the word ‘tokimeku’ or “ときめく” instead of ’spark joy’. The English translation is ‘to throb’ or ‘to flutter’. It was probably easier to market a book on decluttering called ‘Spark Joy’ instead of ‘Throbbing or Fluttering’ joy!  But as research has shown, positive human experiences produce joy and well being- not material goods, whatever their origination.

Second, the method doesn’t allow for reuse, just discarding.  The stuff found in the charity shops had once sparked joy in the buyer- that is why they had bought them.  Could they not try to spark joy again by doing something creative with it? The photograph below show dresses I bought from a charity shop. While I loved the colours, I found that each item had a small defect which I fixed with the minimum effort using whatever I had in the house.  For instance, the pink blouse had a flap at the neckline that kept flipping up. So I ‘weighed’ it down by sewing on some pearly buttons.  Surely the people who had dropped these off at the charity shop could have done these tweaks as well?  Anyway, it was my gain.  But my issue with the Konmari method is that it makes it easy to discard.  That’s because there is no reflection about why you bought the product in the first place. Instead, by just holding it and feeling this so called joy emanating from the thing, you can decide to keep it; or throw if you didn’t feel the joy.  There is no critical thinking involved so it makes it easy, especially when you can buy again. But consider, if your partner doesn’t spark joy for you, would you just discard him/her; or would you at least try to make the relationship work?

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Then is the folding method, especially the socks. Apparently the socks feel upset if they are rolled up and tucked in (also called the ‘army roll’).  So using the same logic, would clothes feel bad if they were rejected and thrown or left in the charity shop?  Who has the time to fold clothes unless you are being paid to do so?  Having tried it, I now just put smaller items like underwear in the box while larger items are either hanging or rolled up.  Another thing that someone on Youtube pointed out is that no one has seen Marie Kondo’s own home- we only see her going to others’ homes. If you were the expert in home organising, wouldn’t you be proud to show off your own place? In all the videos or visual contents I’ve seen of Marie Kondo, she is wearing different outfits- I wondered if she has a huge wardrobe.

Some fans of the Konmari method believe that it is a system that doesn’t need further organising or looking after.  Again, this appeals to people who want to get stuff done easily and quickly.  But people move homes, marry, have children, age and become single, ill or disabled at some point in their lives.  Lives are never constant and you get things that fit that particular stage in your life.  So the Konmari system is not a ‘forever’ system.  Marie Kondo admits that she had to change her own organisational habits once her children were born.  Even the system that worked for her older child didn’t quite work for the younger one. So this is not a system that will work for all forever.  The actor, Jamie Lee Curtis, who interviewed Marie Kondo when she was nominated as one of 2015 Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, says,

‘Decluttering is a fruitless fad. It’s a reaction to the confluence of all our technology enabled connectivity and the gnawing feeling that we are wildly out of control of our bodies- overpowered by drugs and and obesity- and as a planet, burdened by the fear that we are one tweet away from nuclear war. By focussing on the order within our homes, we’re missing the point: life is messy, and so are people.’  (Time magazine, August 5, p.50)

I’m also not impressed that Marie Kondo, having told us that we don’t need to buy anything to organise our stuff- all we need are shoe and other empty boxes- is now promoting decorated boxes that she designed. Her method, if followed properly, requires you to buy more stuff from Marie Kondo herself.  The Hikidashi Box Set, was available in four Japanese-inspired patterns, priced at $89 until it sold out last summer.  Where is the Japanese method of secondary or multi form use and Wabi-Sabi, the love and enhancement of imperfections?  Then to become a Konmari consultant, you need to pay more money to do the training. This is not a spiritual matter but an organizational empire with books, TV shows, and storage solutions. While it is good that Marie Kondo has a business worth $8 million (2019), it is serious business for her, not just freely available life changing magic for us.

Sixth, and this is my biggest problem with the method, is that it won’t help serious hoarders.  This is because hoarding is considered a mental health problem. For a hoarder, everything sparks joy, everything is important and useful.  I know, because I have a close member of my family who will keep packaging of every kind, used match sticks, used notebooks, etc.  Funnily enough, this person also suffers from regular constipation. For such people, counselling by trained therapists will help. For the millions of hoarders around the world, discarding will be a painful exercise, not a joyful one. This journey requires sustained compassionate care and understanding.

So having read the Konmari books and watched some of the shows, what have I done myself?  First, I try to use and reuse as much as I can, which helps the environment by stuff not going to landfill or clogging up charity shops.  Second, I look at the houses of people who are like me and who I admire.  I like the homes of creative people and I see no minimalism there- instead a lot of stuff to stimulate the brain, arranged beautifully (there a beautifully produced Youtube channel called ‘Nowness’ which takes us inside homes of artists and creatives around the world).  These interiors are colourful with curated collections- and surprisingly common are lots of indoor plants.  And there are lots of books!  (Agatha Christie had a very messy desk and look how creative her output was)  I was going to get rid of most of own my books using the Konmari method until I realised how much I loved them and used them.  My home wouldn’t be my home without my books and painting materials.  Third, I believe in the easy enjoyment of a space without the need for everything looking immaculate all the time.  There is tidying, dusting and cleaning to be done, always.  But I’m not going to spend all my valuable time doing that.  So for some time, if my place looks a bit dusty or messy, I am not going to be worried about it. I am just going to enjoy it all!

A poem about mornings

I read recently about people who write ‘morning journals’ to capture their streams of consciousness after waking up. I didn’t realise what a powerful tool it is to capture your ideas, inspirations and aspirations. I used to think that if I checked the morning news, it might give me some idea on what to concentrate on for the rest of the day. But that is reactive thinking.  Morning journals and thoughts which help me to prioritise not only my day but also a way of future planning, are a much best way.  As I am not a morning person, here is a poem that I read each morning to inspire myself.  It is not written by a new age guru or the latest ‘Tim Ferriss’, this was written in 5th Century AD-

Listen to the Exhortation of the Dawn!
Look to this Day!
For it is Life, the very Life of Life.
In its brief course lie all the
Verities and Realities of your Existence.
The Bliss of Growth,
The Glory of Action,
The Splendor of Beauty;
For Yesterday is but a Dream,
And To-morrow is only a Vision;
But To-day well lived makes
Every Yesterday a Dream of Happiness,
And every Tomorrow a Vision of Hope.
Look well therefore to this Day!
Such is the Salutation of the Dawn!

Only Plan A

Plan B types

I have read that the best way to pursue your creative ideals to divide your sources of income- i.e., to have a day job and also a creative evening job.  The intention is that if your creative job isn’t paying the bills, the day job will pay until one day you hit jackpot with your creative venture; and eventually that will become your only source of income.  So your day job would get you ‘passive income’ while you pursue your true vocation.  So you see the bank clerk who plays the piano in the evening at a bar, or the painter who pays his bills through his teaching job.  You can see this from many historical examples- Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin, the Russian: Georgian Romantic composer whose day jobs were as a doctor and chemist, Phillip Larkin, a librarian who was a poet and many others.

Plan A types

On the other hand, artist Paul Klein says that you should have only Plan A and you should put all your energy into pursuing it.  By having too many eggs (and perhaps even too many baskets), you are exhausted with nothing left for creativity.  In this video on Youtube, he says only have Plan A- having Plan Bs are distractions.  By having only Plan A, you focus almost desperately because there is no other way- you have to make it succeed.  Paul Gaugin comes under this category but he never made any money from painting while he was alive- only after death did his paintings sell well.  Do you agree with this approach?  Personally, I am very risk averse and currently do a few jobs while I pursue my creative ideas.  What about you?  Let me know. Here is a lovely video on finding your passion from Ken Robinson, who says it is not enough to be good at something, you need to be passionate too.

 

 

 

On being authentic

I saw this at a not very posh furniture shop and thought about it- a lot.  It is trying hard to be something it is definitely not.  It is new furniture trying to look as if it is old- with mismatched bits like some cheap chic but ends up looking like an embarrassed DIY effort or worse.  IMG_1133.JPG

I wondered if we also do this same thing with how we present ourselves- trying too hard to be something we are not.  When we imitate others, or present an image of us that is not authentic, not true to ourselves.  It is worth keeping this photo in mind when we look at others, celebrities and other famous people, trying to be them.  You can only be you, warts and all- that is what this photo teaches me.

On the other hand, yesterday trying to do some Kintsugi with broken pottery, I realised trying to be something else or expressing something that is not natural, is not an easy thing to do.  Trying to suppress our authentic selves is very hard- one has to be in control all the time.  In the Kintsugi workshop, I started out with the aim of making something practical with the broken bits and ended up tearing up the rule book and making something quite impractical, but now I realise that is totally me.  I loved the result- hope you do too!

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Deciding what to do

Recently I have been reviewing what to do, having spent many years doing it all, or rather trying to do it all.  I feel now I have come to the state in life when I need to edit things out.  This kind of editing has involved giving away of things I am not using; not going to events/shows/talks; editing out facebook and other social media contacts; getting out of mailing lists and also deciding what to do with work goals.

The Konmari method of cleaning out spaces uses the idea of throwing out anything that is not ‘sparking joy’.  William Morris suggested that everything in our house should be useful or beautiful (or both).

The author, Scott Sonenshein, says that the Konmari method is ‘not just about what we do to our physical space.  It’s about what we do to our mental space. Once we break that dependence that having more equals more happiness and more success” and apply the “spark joy” filter, we “can recognize what is most meaningful and important to us because it doesn’t get lost in clutter.’

However, it has taken me a long time (decades) to see what sort of rest of my life I want to lead.  So he says, ‘Deciding which projects to pursue may be more challenging for individuals beginning a new career, as they have yet to develop a strong sense of the work and environments they prefer.  However, just as the KonMari Method is structured so individuals can “calibrate before getting to sentimental items”, people may need time in their professional lives to gain a better sense of what “sparks joy” for them.’

Using the method by William Morris, one can decide if the project is not useful or creating something beautiful it is time to let go of it.  After all, we live short lives and in that time, we do not leave something behind that is beautiful or useful (and even both), then there is nothing to remember us by.  That leaving gift need not be a physical thing- it can be advice or love you give to another person.  For example, my Uncle did not leave me anything but his love and advice (which I use all the time).  He lives on in my life and also in my children’s lives as I recount things he used to say or do with me.

Worth watching this 12 minute funny TED Talk (assuming you are not offended by the language!)

In search of perfection

Many artists like to produce perfect artworks- that is understandable.  They see beautiful works of art before them in museums, cities and in homes; and now in the media.  So the quest for perfection is ‘even more in your face’- if your work is not perfect, perhaps you are not perfect.  I have now heard from two artists who are suffering from depression and exhaustion, trying to be perfect, and trying to produce perfect pieces of art.  There is a Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi, which actually elevates imperfection

But there is a Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi, which actually elevates imperfection.  So cracks in pottery are filled with gold, literally emphasizing and embellishing the imperfection, instead of hiding it.  The Wabi-Sabi aesthetic is a beauty that is ‘imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete’. It is quite like our physical selves- our bodies are not perfect but using clothes, shoes and make-up we make them look perfect.  But the most memorable faces are those that highlight imperfection- such as David Bowie’s mismatched eyes.  The actress Jennifer Grey who had her nose done, regretted it- she felt she had lost herself or her unique character.

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These are two pieces of pottery that I found destined for the skip.  The creator had discarded them in this bin in a pottery workshop.IMG_3517.jpg

I took them home and I have used them regularly for the last three years. They have not broken or cracked (and I have washed them in the dishwasher) and were perfect the way I have used them.  As I use them, I thank the creator of these two pieces and sometimes feel sorry that in the quest for perfection, the artist threw away two little gems.  I am pleased they came my way- each time I look at them, I think about the imperfection of life and how we can create value of each imperfection through acceptance, patience and love.