Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

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The less said about my late, unlamented father, the better.  However, he did give me several things that are really worth having:  access to good school districts, a critical eye for fine detail, and a powerful interest in design, one that borders on the obsessive.  The first was probably an unintentional artifact of his desire to live in affluent homogenized communities.  The second is an artifact of living under the glare of his hyper-critical microscope.  The third is an immersion experience.

He was an architect, and a very good one.  Prize-winning.  Exported to Saudi Arabia to design palaces for princes.  That sort of architect.  His focus was on residential architecture, and thanks to this, a typical childhood Family Outing involved a trip to a building site, where we learned how to envision the building that would soon be there.  Or a trip to a set of model homes, where we were invited to provide our thoughts on what we found there (see: glare of hyper-critical microscope, above).

To this day, it’s impossible for me to enter a space without immediately formulating a set of opinions about the quality of the design in the space and its contents.  Typically, these are strong opinions.  Reason being: there is a lot of truly awful design in the world.  And this isn’t just my opinion.  Check it out.  If you want to, get the book.  I highly recommend it.  It’s an entertaining read – vastly informative, if you have an interest in design – and it will explain exactly why you spend so much of your life cursing one machine or device after another, and feeling like an idiot.

It’s not you.  Really, it’s not.  It’s bad design.  It’s amazing what a difference bad design can make.  Consider the door that has to have a bloody huge sign on it saying “PUSH”. Why should we need instructions to operate a door? It’s not because we’re dumb.  It’s because the design of the door doesn’t map properly to human psychology, causing people to mistakenly believe that it should be pulled instead of pushed.  You wonder why?  The wretched thing has something on the inside of it that looks like a handle, and handles get pulled.  Big flat panels get pushed, because there isn’t anything to grab.  So some brilliant designer gets an artistic award for designing a door that is so confusing because of bad psychological mapping that it has to include directions for use.  A door.  Instructions on how to use a door.

Then we get something like Microsoft, a disaster of design if there ever was one.  Twenty years ago they gave us Windows.  A user interface that was so easy anyone could sit down at a computer and figure out the basics with an hour’s worth of work, after which time, they were Off And Running.  This is good design in action – interfaces that map so well to the individual’s psychological and societal contexts that they render separate instruction largely unnecessary.  This is how it should be done.

And yet, in the strong tradition of never letting something that works go without trying to break it, we get a comprehensive overhaul of the user interface.  Let’s be clear: Windows 7 doesn’t give us anything we didn’t already have.  The stuff you want to do with your operating system?  You can’t do anything now that you couldn’t do three years ago.

Only now?  It’s harder.  Because they took the only really good thing about their system, and they deliberately broke it.  And they broke it in such a way that it’s caused millions of people to lose valuable work time relearning how to do something they already knew.  This, to me, is a catastrophic productivity waste.  I think the government ought to sue Microsoft for damage to the economy, just on the basis of lost productivity from this.  Because not only did they force massive outlays on new, otherwise useless software upgrades, they have taken what was an intensely well-designed user interface…and replaced it with something artistic.  And, not coincidentally, significantly less well designed than what we had before.  I have to stop talking about this now.  The UI redesign of Windows makes my blood boil.  I could go on for days.

My late, unlamented father had Scathing Words for this kind of thing.  He would sneer at it, and say it was Italian.  “Italian” was his catch-phrase for things that were over-designed to emphasize the Artistic Talents of the designer rather than to improve functionality or usability.  I didn’t understand what he meant by this until I visited the MoMA Design Store, which is, in fact, full of Italian design.  From Italy, no less.

As an example of what he meant by this scornful remark, I found this:

This thing is supposed to be a chair. How comfortable are those ball-shaped armrests, I ask you. How long could the average butt or back rest on this Artistic Statement before erupting into the kind of pain that means lots of expensive chiropractic treatments are on the way, I ask you. Would you even know this was a chair, if you saw it in an office somewhere? Bad, bad, bad design.

I was reminded, forcefully, of this a couple of years ago when we stayed at a hotel in Manhattan near the Garment District.  The hotel screamed EuroTrash from the outside.  The furnishings in the lobby – sofas that were upholstered versions of this chair – did not reduce that impression.  And the hotel room?

Italian.

No direct lighting – nothing but mood lighting.  A desk that was 12″ deep, with no lamp, no power outlets for chargers, laptops, etc.  Very sleek, I’ll grant you.  But as a desk?  Completely worthless.  The bed had mood lighting – just the thing if you want to pretend you’re in a porn flick, but absolutely useless if what you want to do is read in bed before you go to sleep.  The only chair in the entire room was a massive massage chair.  The kind I associate with pedicures.  As a thing to tell all your friends you had in a hotel room? Awesome. As a spot to sit while working on a computer?  Go directly to massage therapy, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars.  The bathroom was even worse.  The toilet was positioned under a shelf – which is great – except that the shelf didn’t provide enough clearance for the toilet lid.  That’s right.  The lid would, at no time, go up and stay up on its own, because it bumped into the shelf.  Men would have to hold the thing up the entire time they were taking care of Standing Business.  If you needed to sit on the thing, you did so leaning forward with the toilet lid pressing on your back.

The design was simultaneously  pretentious, overbearing, and hopelessly bad.  I hated that room, just because the design was so awful.

Thanks, Dad.  No, I mean it.  If it hadn’t been for you, I would just have known I hated the room but not known why.  Thanks to you, I know I hated it because of the design.

One thing I did not agree with Dear Old Dad on was the subject of Taste.  He was a Modernist.  A Bauhaus kind of guy.  We had Barcelona chairs in the house when I was a kid.  And later, we had the kind of furniture that always made me think of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  He liked clean lines, sharp angles, and highly reflective surfaces.

My taste is wholly different.  At age 6 I was drawing houses and furnishing them (when I wasn’t drawing horses).  The houses were spiked with towers, spires, and dormers.  Occasionally, with falkwerk, that German-style half-timbering.  The furniture was Chippendale and Queen Anne, and Oriental carpets.  I like moderately ornate lines, curves, and bright color and rich textures.  That apple fell pretty far from the tree.  My current residence is pretty far removed from the houses I grew up in – it’s 115 years old, an antique mill-worker row house.  It has minimal gingerbread, but it’s still there.  It has bullseye moldings.  It has lots of wooden floors and throw rugs.  It’s decorated entirely in primary colors, mostly red and blue.  It’s furnished from Pier 1: the combination of wicker furniture and Victorian architecture is irresistible.

I’d say the only point of convergence is our taste in Mission-style anything.  For him, it was a departure, and the salt in the stew.  For me, it’s the ballast in the ship, the thing that tones everything else down.  We disagreed on every other artifact of taste except for Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School.

My taste, I’ve been told, is “good”.  Not cutting edge, not hip, not advanced.  Solid. Comfortable. Inviting. That’s what people usually say, if they say anything on the subject.  It’s true.  Most of my clothes are Eileen Fisher and LL Bean.  Not the new Eileen Fisher, after she went off the deep end in an attempt to cultivate hipster 20-somethings.  But theold Eileen Fisher, when she was mostly concerned with designing comfortable clothes that would flatter anyone who wore them.  And LL Bean – it’s as clean, functional, and well-designed (assuming “functional” is a primary value) as anything you’ll find.

And yet, I have my Moments.  In my earlier years, these took the form of a penchant for Animal Prints.  I wasn’t particular: giraffe, zebra, leopard, tiger, cheetah…you name it.  If it was covered in animal print, I wanted it.  Especially if it involved footwear.  The combination of animal prints and shoes is simply irresistible to me.  Fortunately, at this point, I have pretty much completely covered my Shoe Needs.

And so, my more outlandish tastes have had to find a different outlet.  And, I am happy to say, they have found full expression in my Ski Gear.  Not my attire – that stuff is all entirely functional, and not at all outlandish.  It’s pedestrian, if anything.  The only exception is the hat I wear when I’m not wearing my helmet.  It’s bright red, over 3 feet long, pointed, and has a ridge of white triangles going down the middle that look like dragon spikes.  As the guy in the waxing shop said “it’s intimidating, yet fun.”  But beyond that, the ski things that go on my body are completely conventional.

No. Where my outre side is finding its full expression is in the skis.

I bought my first pair of skis last year.  I belong to an online women’s ski group, the Ski Divas. The Ski Divas are most emphatic on the subject of the need to Try Before You Buy. And quite right they are, too.  It’s astonishing what a difference there is in skis, even skis of the same general type and size.  I looked at my local ski shop, first, but they don’t do demos.  That’s the provenance of the ski shop out at the hill.  My time in the local shop, however, did not prevent me from falling in love with a particular ski.  It was Love At First Sight.  I didn’t know what this ski was for, I didn’t know who this ski was for, I didn’t know anything about it at all, other than that I wanted to wear it because it looked that cool.

No, this is not a reason to buy a ski.  Still isn’t.  Skis must be first about performance and fit.  They must even also be second, maybe even third about performance and fit.

The Ski Divas said so, and they were right.  I left my Puppy Love behind in the shop – and couldn’t even remember what the ski was, I was that uninformed at the point.  But I didn’t forget it.

When I demoed skis, I tried four or five pairs.  Some of them were hard partiers, the kind of friend that will keep you out on a work night until 3am and leave you off at home, drunk as a sailor, to deal with the hangover the next morning. Not my kind of friend.  Some were stay-at-home moms, the kind that are steady and stable and absolutely the person you want to have around if things are not going well or you need chicken soup, but not the kind that are going to deliver excitement.  My kind of friend, but not what I was looking for in a ski.  The final round of demos featured a Volkl Tierra.

This is it (in bad resolution, since it’s last years’ model it was hard to find a good picture):


The general impression of this ski is one of Brownishness.  And Creamishness.  Earth-Toniness.  Not, in short, something that leapt off the wall and presented itself to my eye as offering an exciting look.

This is when I realized that to me, “ski” falls into the same mental category as “shoe”.  I do not wear bland, uninteresting shoes.  I have one pair that gets trotted out when I have to make presentations to some group where I need to come across as not having much of a personality (see: Accounting Professor).  Otherwise, I don’t get boring shoes.  And the look of this ski?  Distinctly…boring.

And I had a sinking feeling about this, all the way up on the lift.  I had a sneaking suspicion that this was going to be My Ski, even though it had the World’s Dullest Graphics.  By the time I skied off the lift, I’d managed to talk myself into thinking of it as Classy and Understated, rather than Dull.  And it’s a good thing, too, because it did, in fact, turn out to be the Perfect Ski for me.  That is, in those conditions, at that level of ability.  And I bought it.  And I still have it, and – when I am skiing on hard snow that is really some form of ice – I don’t want ANY other ski in the world. None could possibly perform better for me on that surface.  And I still make myself think of them as being Classy and Understated – this is helped considerably by the knowledge that this is in reality an extremely aggressive, wickedly fast ski, it is anything but dull, boring, and stodgy.  Appearances Can Be Deceiving.

I skied it like crazy all last winter, because last winter, we were skiing on snow that came out of the sky – which, in New England, means “wet” and “icy”.  I loved that ski, despite its graphics, all year…until I met Spring Skiing (aka: Slush).  It let me down, then.  Said it wasn’t the Right Tool For The Job.

My obsession with design translates to a fascination with purpose-built objects.  The notion of the Right Tool For The Job holds a lot of weight with me.  Assuming we have rational designers, that is.  None of this Italian stuff.  And so, when I found my Tierras sinking me up to the ankles in soft spring snow, I realized I needed something that would float, rather than sink. A nice big fat ski, the better to surf on the slush.  And what is soft and easy to get mired down in like slush?  Powder.  Yes.  I decided I wanted a Powder Ski.

The problem is that Powder Skis are not an item in High Demand in New England (see above: icy snow).  They are in some demand, because the Discriminating Skier wants to ride their own gear when they go out west.  It’s hard to go back to crummy rental equipment when you’re used to performance gear.  So you can buy them here…but you cannot usually demo them.  Or, at least, not last year you couldn’t.

I nerved myself up to buy a pair of skis without trying them first.  I did some research to find out what it is that I wanted from a powder ski, and went off to my local ski shop.  And discovered – happily – that my Puppy Love Skis were not just powder skis, but powder skis with the characteristics I was looking for. So I bought them, and assumed All Would Work Out.

I’ll say it worked out.  They were superb in the slush, and they’ve been performing for me all winter under the snow guns on the groomers (and everything else, up to but not including the icy black diamond from last week, where they cost me 2 years off my life).  And, as I anticipated, they are Cooler Than A Bees Knees.  They have the outre style that I long for from a pair of skis.  Here they are, the Rossignol S7Ws, aka My Goth Girls.



I realize that tentacles and tattoos are not everyone’s cup of tea, but they appear to be my cup of tea.  These skis are so fine, in my opinion, that it makes me want to get some of it tattooed on my own back.  And the beauty of it is that these skis rock the mountain.  They’re not just awesome to regard – and the bases are just as awesome, for anyone who sees me ride overhead on the lift – their performance is awesome. Ski Magazine gave them a Gold Medal Gear award.   On our recent powder day, I was afraid I’d get mugged in the trees, there was so much Ski Envy floating around over these girls.  The waxers love them, too.  There’s one guy who fights to wax them when I bring them in – the others roast him that his “girlfriend” is here when I bring them into the shop.  No, they’re not talking about me.

Eventually, being the purpose-built design freak that I am, I realized that I had icy conditions covered, and I had soft conditions covered, but I didn’t have something that would deal effectively with the In Between.  Those days when the top of the mountain is hard and icy, and the bottom is covered with fluffy soft stuff.  I also wanted something that would be a little easier to carve than my Goth Girls (and yes, I know they’re 110 under foot, but they do carve…it just takes some extra effort).

And so, I was back to the ski shop.  This time, do Try Before I Buy.  And Saturday was Free Demo Day for season passholders (yay!).  And I’d already had a couple of pow-wows with the ski dudes that had narrowed the field, considerably…to men’s skis.  Interesting.  But I wanted twin-tips, I wanted rocker, I wanted camber, I wanted something agile, and I have the power to handle a big beefy ski.  Women’s ski technology is lagging men’s by a couple of years, so men’s it was going to be.  After all, I thought, worst case is that I have to pick between my Rockin Awesome Powder Girls and My Hard And Sharp Ice Skis.  No loss, here.

I was overjoyed to find the ski that filled that hole, with bonus points.  And even more overjoyed to find that my new ski was going to look like this:

Oooh.  They are Ninja Skis.  Curly golden dragons.  Fake Chinese Characters.  You can’t even see it from this picture, but there are actual metallic medallions on the tips and tails (you can take them off and put a precut skin on if you want to hit the backcountry).  They’re bas-relief dragons.

I know that ersatz Chinese art, and the whole Ninja effect, is not everyone’s cup of tea.  But it seems to be my cup of tea.  Not only do these sticks complete my need for any kind of surface I’d be interested in skiing on, but they ensure my spot at the top of the Hierarchy of Cool on the hill.  Granted, that hierarchy is comprised mainly of teenaged snowboarders and 20-something guys.  But I’ll take it.  And I will definitely take the performance…because, of course, that is most important.

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About Lori Holder-Webb

I'm a Southern Woman by birth and a Texan Woman by upbringing...and yet I find myself living in New England and married to a New York City boy. Up here we use the same currency as we do at home, and I don't need to travel with a passport, but the commonalities pretty much end there. The language is different, the jokes are different, the people are different, and the weather and terrain sure are different too. I moved away from Texas in 2002, and ever since then, I've been the stranger in the strange land... I've had some questions about the name of the blog - if you were not alive, or living abroad or under a rock, or in grad school during the late 1980s, Oldsmobile attempted to shuck its stodgy image with a series of commercials intended to bring brand appeal to the younger generation: this car, they said, is not your father's Oldsmobile. If you have a morbid curiosity, hit YouTube for William Shatner Oldsmobile...it will take you right there.

5 responses »

  1. Nice post. In Eat Pray Love, Gilbert explained how for centuries there was no “Italian” language – Italians wrote and spoke in different local dialects – and it was only in the 16th century that a gathering of intellectuals decided to make an official (written) Italian language and picked the one used by Dante and his fellow Florentines. I think they debated whether elements were beautiful or not, too. But the Florentines were the power players in that world. But anyway I can definitely understand (a bit anyway) of where your father was coming from.

    You owe it to yourself to try out a Mac. I speak with the Fervor of the Convert.

    My secret shoe love is embossed animal prints with metallic tone overlays. Or sandals with feathers in powdery nude tones.

    Congrats on the skis!

    • Do you mean like the animal print clogs Dansko came out with recently? Like this?

      I have a whole collection of their hairy animal print clogs. And – so we’re clear on this – I got married (the first time) in a pair of conservatively styled flat loafer-style shoes…in metallic gold snakeskin.

  2. Fachwerk, not falkwerk. Just a little one, but while your father was teaching you the finer points of design, mine was teaching me the cultural and geographic roots of traditional housing, ranching, and cemeteries. I can name the corner joint on a log building (he never called them “cabins”) at a glance, having shamed many a grad student of his during his field trips in north Texas starting at age 4 or 5.

    Nice post!

    Sonya

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