Wednesday, June 12, 2013

On Philip Johnson, LifeEdited and The Virtue of Tchotchkes

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Some of my favorite tchotchkes.

Raise your hand if you love mid-century style, but are suspicious of bare, minimalist interiors. Especially those that are so minimal as to be devoid of tchotchkes. Tchotchke is a Yiddish word for “a decorative knick knack — with an emphasis on its worthlessness.” The fancy sister of a tchotchke is the pompous term objet d’art, or “an article of some artistic value” (i.e. antiques, or a small significant Picasso sculpture or whatever.) Neither of these words, however, capture the importance of the smaller objects in a home that provide it with vitality. Sacred and profane objects, collected over one’s lifetime, provide a visual feast for the eye: a tin box found in Ecuador, a small Finnish vase given to you by your well-traveled Aunt Madeline, little bottles of vodka from the flight to St.Petersburg. These are talismans of a life well-lived and remind you of your experiences and past. They are the detritus from your career moves, momentos from trips with old boyfriends, a stolen ashtray from IHOP, or even a framed rejection letter.

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tchotchke_3The Phillip Johnsonesque minimalist house is far too devoid of tchotchkes to be a real person’s house. Surely in the plans for his 1949 Glass House he considered a storage bunker underneath the pristine box? Where else would its inhabitants store all the little bits of life: your child’s trophys, National Geographic subscription, and grandaddy’s matchbox collection? Johnson left no place for tchotchkes in his crystalline architecture. The problem is, Mr. Johnson, that’s just not how an interesting person lives. Graham Hill, the urbanist and serial entrepreneur behind TreeHugger.com and now LifeEdited, approaches modernist living from a similar less-is-more perspective, but adds a layer of “less space is more” ethos to the argument by suggesting that 420 sf is plenty of space to lead a fulfilling life (see Fast Company’s piece about this new eco-architecture movement.) And naturally, his LifeEdited prototype home is entirely devoid of tchotchkes, or the suggestion of comfort, for that matter. I have nothing against living in 420 sf in New York City — one of the most fabulous places to live in terms of public amenities. But can’t I bring in grandma’s little Victorian sofa? And what about my vintage Paris Review collection? Are there even enough shelves? I do indeed have an axe to grind in terms of the LifeEdited’s suggestion that stuff is meaningless. Are you supposed to photograph all your favorite objects, toss them, and show a streaming slideshow of what your formerly tactile life was like? This depresses me the way that ebooks depress me. You can’t smell an ebook like a musty old hardback. And you can’t live in a perfect clean box and expect to be reminded of your past. The visceral is too important to be left behind for the sake of ecology. I hereby challenge LifeEdited to continue to think in small square-footage numbers, but consider a more open-ended prototype that allows the user to be themselves, rather than a minimalist robot. Just because LifeEdited is ecological does not mean the result is humanist. Mr. Graham, if you’d like to collaborate with Vigilante Living, we’d be more than happy to address this architectural conundrum! But maybe we could meet somewhere more comfortable than the LifeEdited apartment.

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Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House in Connecticut

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Graham Hill’s prototype 420sf New York apartment for his company, Life Edited.

Tchotchke montage photos by Olivia Joffrey/ Life Edited prototype apartment via Lifeedited.com / Philip Johnson’s Glass House photo by Thomas Loof/ Trunk Archive via ArchitecturalDigest.com

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