Touchy feely

Dou­glas Lloyd Jenk­ins dis­cusses a sen­sory sen­si­bil­ity

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A close friend works in a pres­ti­gious San Fran­cisco firm that spe­cialises in do­mes­tic in­te­ri­ors for tech-boom bil­lion­aires. The bud­gets with which he works are eye-wa­ter­ing – so too are the scale of the projects. Th­ese in­clude ev­ery­thing from pent­houses to ranch houses – on ac­tual ranches. Other than his job, he is typ­i­cal of many young peo­ple of his gen­er­a­tion. He has a con­nec­tion to ‘the nat­u­ral way’ (a lit­tle alien to my way of look­ing at things at his age) – or­ganic food, yoga, walk­ing, cycling, end­less con­sump­tion of wa­ter. Ar­ti­fi­cial stim­u­lants are used only in mod­er­a­tion. Th­ese all serve to keep him con­nected or, per­haps I should say, his feet firmly planted in the sen­sory na­ture of the nat­u­ral world. For as long as I’ve known him, he has had an aver­sion to wear­ing shoes any longer than is strictly re­quired. Don’t get me wrong, he has a wardrobe full of stylish shoes, but he will, with­out be­ing asked, aban­don them on the front doorstep or qui­etly slip them off when­ever the op­por­tu­nity arises. His Cal­i­for­nian work­mates, all res­o­lutely clad from head to foot in de­signer gear, find it highly amus­ing that, given a chance, he will pad around the of­fice in per­fectly pedi­cured bare feet. They at­tribute this (and the fact that he brings his lunch to work ev­ery day) to his Kiwi ori­gins and as­sume it’s what we all do down here. It is of course what we all do down here. Al­though most cor­po­rate of­fice en­vi­ron­ments would be ap­palled by bare­footed staff (and, per­haps, at­tribute it to time spent in Cal­i­for­nia) it did get me think­ing how of­ten we pad around our houses in bare feet, par­tic­u­larly in sum­mer. We do this as part of the much-cel­e­brated ‘ca­sual Kiwi life­style’, and also be­cause it feels good. Our feet, too of­ten over­looked, are pri­mary sen­sory re­cep­tors and a wooden floor feels dif­fer­ent from a tiled one. The coarse tex­ture of a coir mat con­trasts markedly with that of a silk car­pet. The sharp­ness of a gravel drive or the heat of sum­mer con­crete, both felt di­rectly through the sole, are good for the Kiwi soul. Th­ese sen­sa­tions con­nect us to the environment in which we live in the most ba­sic way. For this rea­son, we used to brag about how Kiwi chil­dren went bare­foot all sum­mer. What we’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing when we walk over dif­fer­ent sur­faces is tex­ture. Ar­chi­tects and de­sign­ers talk a lot about tex­ture, but there are two types – vis­ual and tac­tile. The for­mer is ab­sorbed through the eyes, the lat­ter through touch. Too much tex­ture leads to sen­sory over­load, so there’s al­ways some­thing of a bat­tle be­tween the two. In re­cent years, New Zealand ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign seems to have de­cided that vis­ual tex­ture wins out over tac­til­ity. As the con­tem­po­rary look, a sort of mod­ernist re­vival nears the end of its sec­ond decade of dom­i­nance, a same­ness has crept into do­mes­tic de­sign. About now in the life­cy­cle of a style, a man­ner­ist phase be­gins to sneak in – a sort of self-par­ody – in which key mo­tifs dom­i­nate just be­fore the style tips into cliché and some­thing new emerges in its place. We last saw this in the 70s and the first years of the 80s in the late mod­ernist pe­riod (think na­tive tim­bers, Formica and quarry tiles). We are now fairly solidly in a sec­ond high-modern pe­riod in which pol­ished con­crete, ply­wood and broad ex­panses of glass are the es­sen­tial build­ing blocks – each tee­ter­ing on cliché. In part, same­ness comes from the im­pulse to favour vis­ual tex­ture over tac­tile tex­ture. In­creas­ingly, we con­sume with the eyes alone and for­get the im­por­tance of touch. For ob­vi­ous rea­sons, de­sign mag­a­zines can’t sta­ple a sam­ple of cur­tain or up­hol­stery fab­ric to ev­ery page – it is, of course, vis­ual tex­ture that catches the pho­tog­ra­pher’s eye. When search­ing for in­spi­ra­tion, one has to ac­tively re­mind one­self of the im­por­tance of touch. Tac­til­ity makes a house a sen­sual, rather than a solely vis­ual, ex­pe­ri­ence. Vis­ual tex­ture makes great pho­tog­ra­phy. Tac­til­ity makes a great environment. Ma­te­ri­als cur­rently in favour don’t give much tac­til­ity. To some­one brought up in a time that em­pha­sised the syn­thetic pos­si­bil­i­ties of life, the cur­rent fo­cus of mod­er­a­tion and ab­sti­nence can seem a lit­tle wowser-ish. In part, what led my bare­foot friend into in­te­rior dec­o­rat­ing af­ter com­plet­ing two de­grees in ar­chi­tec­ture was an in­ter­est in the sen­sory. In par­tic­u­lar, a love of tex­tiles and the pos­si­bil­ity they of­fered for a more tac­tile ex­pe­ri­ence. For a gen­er­a­tion with dif­fer­ent sen­sory goals, the pos­si­bil­ity of a new and in­ti­mate con­nec­tion to the de­sign of do­mes­tic en­vi­ron­ments of­fers the po­ten­tial for change. One that, sur­pris­ingly given its ori­gins, could be more based in plea­sure than ap­pear­ance.

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