Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Oh no— these steps are imperfect!

Sociologists like to complain about all the beautiful people that populate advertising and the media. Presenting all those Ken-and-Barbie types as role models, they say, sets an unrealistic standard for the rest of us. Home improvement shows have, in their own way, much the same effect: In their alternate universe, contractors are all pillars of Yankee virtue, project snafus are always resolved in the nick of time, and 45 degree miter joints always fit perfectly. What a disappointment, then, when our own homes are so often far from perfect. 

It’s just as well, however. Perfection is overrated--not to mention impossible--and we’d all be happier if we’d learn to settle for “near-perfect” instead. I couldn’t count the number of past clients I’ve known, for example, who suffered untold anguish over a tiny scratch in a countertop or a microscopic dent in a new hardwood floor.   

This dread of perceived imperfection is partly the fault of our materialistic, newness-obsessed culture, which conditions us to regard anything that’s less than flawless as worn out and needing replacement. It’s no accident that this cult of newness is also what keeps new home improvement goods flying out of stores and old ones pouring into landfills--good news for people who want to sell things, but not such good news for the planet.  

There was a time in the middle of the twentieth century when some modern architects tried to convince us that flawlessness was in fact a requisite quality of fine architecture. Holding up the perfection of machine-made objects as a paragon, they designed buildings that were utterly reliant on the perfection of their surfaces, as if they alone would somehow be magically immune to the ravages of time. We need only look back at the many moldering and decrepit Modernist works still extant to see how abysmally wrong this thinking was. Predicating architecture on the notion of aesthetic perfection is as fruitless as predicating one’s life on eternal youth. 
Ah, now that's perfection—but only thanks to
vast sums spent in maintenance each year.
(Mies van der Rohe: Farnsworth House,
Plano, Illinois 1951)

All things--not least human beings--inevitably wear and show age, and once we accept this fact, we’re all the better for it. Yet Americans are strangely ambivalent about this process of aging, whether in themselves or in their environments. On the one hand, we profess to adore the sort of well-worn antiquity we find in places like Europe--a continent that’s notably old and beat up. But that quality doesn’t fare so well when we’re talking about our own homes. There, every tiny flaw becomes a cause for hand wringing.

 That’s a pity, because the inevitable dents and dings that arise through human habitation can just as well be viewed as a record of life’s events, forever frozen in time. See that scratch in the door jamb? That’s where Uncle Clem fell out of his chair on New Year’s Eve. Those scrape marks in the driveway? That’s where the bumper of our old Mercury used to drag. Rather than being cause for embarrassment or annoyance, such marks tell the colorful tale of time’s passage. How much more interesting that is than a flawless surface, and how much more human.

Oh no—she's imperfect!

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