Friday 8 June 2012

Chan or the art of luxury

"Chan or the Art of Luxury" - by Alexander Gallé - first published in Luxury Briefing's May 2012 issue.


Chan or the Art of Luxury
by Alexander Gallé

This column is going to be part of a series I’ve been meaning to write for a while now.  In fact, I first thought about putting it down on paper when China started being talked about as an up and coming economic power.  I heard many people in the luxury sector at the time saying things like “the Chinese are all trying to copy our lifestyle, it’s a great opportunity for luxury brands to make their mark”.  Entire armies of art consultants and shopping assistants were being sent to China, as if the Chinese didn’t know the first thing about luxury and needed lifestyle consultants from Europe to come over and tell them how to live a luxurious life.  

Now, I suppose this holds true if you look at luxury in the shallow sense of the word: the bling, all-you-can-eat, spoilt-teenage-daughter version of it.

On the other hand, you can look at luxury, as we always have at Luxury Briefing, as something more akin to a philosophy, in which case it approaches what the ancient Greeks might have called “the good life”, which as a culture in itself leads to good craftsmanship, thoughtful design, a deeper appreciation of quality, etc.  In this case, the Chinese have nothing to envy on us, because they have been studying this in great depth ever since Lao Tzu penned down the Dao De Jing, and they’ve been expressing it in the way they manufacture objects for millennia.

I’ll divide my argument into two parts, the “how” of luxury, and the “why” of luxury.  The former relates to craftsmanship, the latter to design.  

The “how” of luxury is directly relatable to a core concept in Daoism, which Lao Tzu called “Wu Wei”.  It roughly translates as “doing without doing”, or “effortless doing”, or, more precisely, “working with the way life already works”.  You might say this, for example, of a woodcutter who, rather than hacking at a piece of wood, first studies it to find the direction the grain is going, and cuts the wood in the grain’s direction so as to get a single, clean cut.

Great musical performers also "do without doing": they just play and the music comes out just perfect. Get their thoughts, their self, in the way and the music goes wrong.  

The connection that is thus created between maker and user - via the object or performance - is one which many Western architects will recognise, as it leads to the same principles of honesty of shape and of materials which have guided modernist design thinkers such as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Richard Neutra.  The difference being that we had to unlearn centuries of aesthetic misdirection about the nature of craftsmanship and design in order to get there, whereas the Chinese elevated it to something close to a religion many centuries ago.

To be continued...