Douglas Lloyd Jenkins ponders the vernacular of measurements and quality
Open a weekend newspaper or a magazine and it won’t be long before you come across an article in which you are being corralled into one of those social groups based on behaviour. There is, it seems, a new label for each new generation or part thereof. It all started once the Baby Boomers had done their thing. Suddenly there was a term for each new batch – X-Generation, Y-Generation, Millennials, Digital Natives, Snowflakes… Annoying as it can be to be parcelled up in this way, we can take solace that even from inside one of these groups, there is still room to claim some individuality. There are, it seems, always moments in which you can process a shared experience differently from most of your peer group.
One such occurrence that stands out for me was when New Zealand decided to convert from imperial to metric measurements. There has been no recent nationwide conversion that is comparable – except perhaps abandoning a rather strange left turn road rule, which was always counterintuitive. It’s hard to think what might happen today that would have the same impact; a compulsory and immediate conversion to Te Reo, perhaps (it happens – in the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk gave Turkish people three months to learn an entirely new alphabet). However, to me at least, nationwide change today never seems quite as sweeping or as immediate as the conversion to the metric system in the mid-1970s.
Back at my intermediate school, teachers, who were perhaps still struggling with the change from pounds, shillings and pence five years earlier, were completely confused by the new system. The way I remember it is that they simply decided not to teach measurements at all.
Rather than learning a sort of measurement bilingualism, the end result for me has been a sort of confused interchangeability that expresses itself in measurements such as one yard, six millimetres. Still uncertain about the fractions of an inch, I’ll use millimetres for any small measurement. I like both feet and yards for their immediately understandable humanist values. I think of a mile and a kilometre as being much the same (both are distances I don’t want to be made to walk in the rain). I know a pint is 600ml because they kept the same milk bottles even when plastic came along. Clearly others of my generation were not so affected – I hear people of my age talking confidently in pure metrics – but I’ve ended up with my own internal system of measurement, which works for me.
When navigating the world of design, and in particular interiors and architecture, a few personal systems of measurement can be helpful. The most difficult one to perfect is a system, or even simply a language, to measure quality. The words we use for quality are always under threat from advertisers, who like to claim superiority for very run-of-the-mill products in order to better sell them.
If you go back 50 years or so, New Zealanders had two measures of quality that were largely unassailable. ‘English’ could be used to denote the quality of china, glass and textiles. For the rest, the fallback term was ‘old’ – old, or antique, meant of a quality that had stood the test of time. In a contemporary world, however, announcing product as either ‘English’ or ‘antique’ is no longer a universally winning formula. We live in a time in which many of the materials encountered in a design project will be new; often products of technological innovations that have taken place a very long way from our friends in Brexitland. It is ironic, then, that some of the terms now in frequent use for quality come from the very heart of England – London’s Savile Row.
Made-to-measure is a term that originated in the process of making men’s suits. Smart and all as it sounds, it is the middle of three options. Most suits are off-the-peg – you buy them in the shop and hope they fit (they seldom do), perhaps having the trousers or sleeves altered to suit. Madeto-measure suits are those that come from an existing standard pattern, which is tweaked prior to assembly to reflect the customer’s measurements. And at the top end are bespoke suits. These are tailored to your body from the ground up – super stylish and super expensive, they take seemingly forever to make, but are worth the wait. Most welldressed men (and no doubt a number of women) yearn to own at least one bespoke suit in a lifetime.
The thing about suits – and the explanation of their longevity as the staple of the male wardrobe – is that a good one hides a multitude of sins, and may appear to be of higher quality than it really is. Off-the-peg can look made-to-measure, and if the planets align, either can pass for bespoke. Here the flexibility of language and the flexibility of appearance aligns with our current age. The range of suit-making terms gives us a way of measuring quality that we can adapt for ourselves; to fit our own personal needs, for our own personal satisfaction. And after all, this is exactly what a personal measurement system – even one as confusing as one yard, six millimetres – should do.