Thursday, March 29, 2012

Useful and Beautiful

This gorgeous print can be found at the V&A Shop.

Well, I'm about out of crafts for the time being, but since spring is a time of cleaning and decluttering your home and life, as well as a time of creation and newness, I thought we could talk a little about getting rid of some of the excess in our homes.

Personally I love a slightly cluttered-looking "Cabinet of Curiosities" look, and my own collection is still in its growing phase, rather than its "paring back and getting rid of excess" phase. But as someone (I can't recall who!) on the Facebook group pointed out, Domythic decorators are often prone to collecting and over-stuffing their houses with lovely things. How do we pare it all down? find the solution one only has to look as far as the Grand Master of all things Aesthetic, William Morris. Not a single book on home decluttering, and very few books on home decoration, fail to include his most famous quote somewhere in its pages. And here it is.

"Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

This motto is not only lovely to read, but it quite thoroughly sums up an entire philosophy by which we can explore our homes and choose what to discard and what to keep. It's very straightforward, but I still think we can glean a little by a line-by-line closer examination.

"Have nothing in your houses"

William Morris' statement here is absolute. He isn't saying "have very little" or "Try not to have." His statement is a direct command, and one that brooks no room for leeway. William Morris lived his life by the philosophy that if you want to learn about something or do something, take it as far as it can go. He was a role model when it came to starting projects and seeing them all the way through rather than abandoning them. Of course he was only human, so there are some exceptions, but for the most part he lived more of a life than any five other men as far as how much he accomplished, learned, and did. It should not surprise us then that such a man found no room for a tepid statement. Have absolutely, positively *nothing* in your houses...

"that you"

William Morris gives the individual the responsibility for judgment in this situation. He could have easily adopted a more passive tone..."have nothing in your houses that is not useful or beautiful"...but instead he leaves it up to the homeowner to decide for him or herself where to draw the line in the sand. I really consider this aspect of the quote to be the most important...that Morris is telling us that taste and beauty are in large part an individual thing. Of course he was also saying this during a time when people would stuff their houses with the stereotypical objects of the day: stuffed peacocks and layer upon layer of tassled curtains covering up any light coming in from the windows, ornately carved furniture and frail teacups Morris would have crushed in his hand with a single distracted wave of his arm. None of these objects were of personal significance...the entire point was to fill one's house with objects to impress others. By emphasizing the word "you," William Morris was putting the importance of interior decoration on what the individual deemed lovely and useful, not society or conventional wisdom. But of course, we don't have this problem at all nowadays, do we?** This epidemic of styling our houses according to trends and public popularity rather than a personal aesthetic or artistic expression?

"do not know to be useful"

Here's an extremely important word as well. We aren't supposed to keep what we suspect might be useful, or what we think perhaps someday might come in handy. We are to keep what we *know* to be useful, present-tense. This is the piece of advice that is repeated time and time again in modern books on decluttering.

"or believe to be beautiful."

Again Morris emphasizes the importance of individual taste in the decision making process in one's home. But beyond that, the simple inclusion of this line into the directive indicates just how integral beauty is to our daily lives. For Morris, a man who was a huge inspiration to the Aesthetic movement, beauty was just as essential as usefulness in helping a person get through the basics of an every day life.

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

Whole books have been written and haven't expressed the idea of what a home should be 1/100th as well as that simple sentence.

I'm absolutely in love with this photograph of Morris, found by my friend Kirsty of The Kissed Mouth.

**Link contains language some may find offensive


  1. I love this post! Clutter is a huge issue for me, I collect so many things and have so many books. Not to mention making sure our household also includes the things my husband and children love as well (with five of us, that's a lot!)
    I've never seen anyone break down and analyze Morris's maxim as you did. It's excellent.

  2. ...but if i didn't keep all the things that might someday be useful, I'd never make or fix anything! My present is a long, stretchy sort of thing.

    Still, fantastic. :)

  3. But my books are not clutter. Nor my magazines or loose page files. They are reference sources. But that's the first thing that people who help me move gripe about. I DO go through them every few years and pull books I KNOW I'll never look at again, and pass them on to others.

    But then I'm an artist, and other's rules don't apply.

    Having said that, I DO agree with Wm. Morris. I detest fads in housing and interior design. Alot of them are a joke, and a money trap.

  4. Stephanie, thank you darlin! I agree that useful and beautiful should be determined by everyone in a household.

    Linds, it's all relative :D

    Leigh, that's why it's up to the individual to decide what's useful :)