Pre-industrial design literature speaks of the importance of “taste” as a virtue to be cultivated. Today we speak of taste much less frequently, especially when it concerns aesthetics. Perhaps we associate it with the elite class, snobbery, or someone attempting to force their opinions on us. It’s a shame, as taste is far from all those things. Taste is no respecter of wealth, class, or fashion. In fact a common complaint in the older writings is how difficult it is to convince wealthy and educated patrons that it costs the same to build something aesthetically pleasing as it does to build a lifeless design void of all beauty.
Simply put, taste is fostering a deep knowledge of something to the point we can discern differences in quality. Someone with a developed taste will be able to appreciate subtle details that go unnoticed by others. That’s one of the reasons I frequently reference toolmakers here in my blog (DaedToolworks). They belong to a class of artisans who on the whole are sensitive to nuance and detail. What’s assumed, is that taste is a result of learning to see. A designer sees by visualizing a space and observing the relationships of shape, contrast, rhythm, transitions, light, shadow, and texture, which is very different from how most folks look at the world. That ability to see means a designer puts little stock in style labels like contemporary, craftsman, or antique this or that. A designer’s eye should be able to look past glitter and trendy gimmicks and see into the DNA that underlies a design, it’s strengths and weaknesses laid bare.
Warning, if you dive into design, you will cultivate aesthetic taste. But it comes with side effects. The furniture you like, you will like even more (and you’ll know WHY you like it). The furniture you dislike, will repel you even more (and you’ll know WHY it’s repulsive). You’ll become even more opinionated than you are today, i.e. more of a furniture curmudgeon. But don’t be mistaken, taste will not lock you into a style or fashion. Developing your aesthetic taste will open your eyes and appreciation to a much wider vision. I gravitate towards American period furniture, but I now have a greater appreciation of good design from Asia, as well as contemporary work. I’m also more selective in my admiration for period work. Often, I’m taken by details crafted by back country artisans who weren’t so tied to the latest fashions of the day.
There are worse things than becoming a furniture curmudgeon, vegetarian haggis for one.
George R. Walker