Douglas Lloyd Jenkins discusses a sensory sensibility
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.