A Unified Theory of Aesthetics

The chief aim of aesthetics is to create harmonious relationships between elements.

It sounds so simple and yet it’s astonishing how rarely that concept is actually carried through all the way by professional people in fashion, architecture, interior design, landscaping, and maybe a lot of other fields. Most of them have a vision that is too limited.

I discovered this fact by complete accident while following the advice of personal style consultants who recommended choosing home décor based on one’s personal style and colors, possibly merging color palettes if you shared your home with another. My efforts were a miserable failure all the way around, though I later learned the reason why.

Some elements are so large you don’t notice them, which leads to my corollary:

Larger elements determine the most harmonious transition between themselves and lesser, adjacent elements.

When I moved from the southernmost part of the United States to the Great Northwest carrying my regional sensibilities with me, I had no idea that the furnishings and color palettes I admired back home wouldn’t have the same effect in the new environment. They felt insipid, childish, and out of sync with the geography, architecture, and culture around me. Later I discovered a book, Devine Color: When Color Sings, by Gretchen Schauffler, a woman after my own heart. She had moved from Puerto Rico to the Northwest and found herself in the same predicament for similar reasons.

Because of her I learned why keeping the curtains drawn in my house didn’t make my favorite colors and décor style work indoors. The architecture was against me, and the sun was lower on the horizon all winter than I was used to, casting a very different color over the world and into the house for half a year. And clothing: I couldn’t understand why people wore black during the dreariest part of the year when one would think they would try to cheer themselves up. The barefoot girl had quite a few meltdowns trying to find warm clothing that didn’t feel disgusting.

Honor the largest elements first

My first aha! moment had to do with architecture and geography. You have to respect the sticks and stones of a building, the landscape, and weather patterns if you are going to create a harmonious home interior and exterior. That was my first clue that the largest elements (usually things you can’t control) always provide the basic form for whatever you want to do. If you cross them, you will be sorry and there is nothing you can do to fix it.

To make peace with the things you can’t control, you have to get past the wrong-headed idea that you can’t be creative, original, or authentic without imposing your will upon the environment (which you can never do). You will be amazed to find that the biggest conundrums you face are the very things that will bring the biggest pops of surprise and originality to all of your aesthetic endeavors. Those seemingly contrary big elements, weather, regional architecture, and (fill in the blank) will actually provide the structure needed to do something pretty original. Think “freedom within a form,” for these very things will also hold you in check when you start going off in all sorts of incompatible directions.

Basically, it’s like jiujitsu. When you apply yourself to understanding the power, momentum, and direction of what already defines your space you can learn to harness it to take you into organic authenticity. (That’s how I think of it, at least. You are not being “done to,” but you are learning your true relationship as the smaller element relating to the larger, defining element: the environment, the neighborhood, the city, the geography, etc. You are a nuance in the relational scheme of elements.)

Let me explain

Long ago in a galaxy far away, I managed the day-to-day affairs of an institutional property. Because I had once been a certified nurseryman (probably the worst my state ever turned out) my opinion was sometimes sought on landscaping improvements. The head of the landscaping crew in charge of our property one day lamented the state of plantings around town and asked what better ideas I could suggest than the usual photinia shrubs and boxwoods.

“Well,” said I. “If it were up to me I would plant more oaks.”

Her eyes went all goo-goo and I knew I had said the most daft sounding thing in the world, as we were already surrounded by oak woodlands.

“What I meant was—that is to say . . .” And of course all coping mechanisms broke down right then, leaving only an incoherent stammer on my lips. If there had been time, I would have explained my position more lucidly.

I was reacting to the fact that all around the state there was a big craze to plant much shorter-lived crepe myrtles and Bradford pears every time an oak tree died. My suggestion was not intended to limit creative choices in plantings, but to protect against the wholesale destruction of the native ecological patterns in favor of fast-growing cheap replacements.

This imposition of the individual will—this customization of everything—is the reason for urban sprawl, plastics in the ocean, the aesthetic higgledy-piggledy appearance of public buildings, and so on and so forth. Someone decided to impose their will upon a neighborhood, a university campus, a public plaza, agriculture, ecology, and the rest without regard for already existing organic relationships between elements.

I read a book one time, A New Theory of Urban Design, that expanded on this idea concerning the development of towns before the Industrial Age. If you have ever wondered why old towns are so endearing, it is because vernacular buildings were constructed with materials native to the region (the larger environmental element). It might have been wood, rocks, limestone, adobe, or grass, but old towns appear to have grown out of the countryside because—well—they kind of did. As well, their patterns of development were based on natural relationships the grew out of space, topography, weather, and human enterprise. This is how regions developed their distinctive patterns and cultures without being under contract to check their paint colors with the neighborhood association. Variety was still possible, but the choices came naturally to the region.

The moment I realized this was all true

As I said when I started, my efforts to customize our home according to “moi” (the smaller element) against the nature of the house, weather, and geography (larger elements) failed. But success came without warning.

As I said when I started, my efforts to customize our home according to “moi” (the smaller element) against the nature of the house, weather, and geography (larger elements) failed. But success came without warning.

My husband and I had gone round and round trying to make our front living/dining room coherent. We have our furniture grouped a little oddly because of the way we must use the space. In other words, we don’t use the actual dining room for a dining room. We have to use it for something else. But it leads off of the living room and is visible from there. And so we use part of the living room for a dining area, which means the seating for the living room is then crammed into only one half of the room, and it has become the “house that Jack built,” blah, blah, and so on. (You know how that goes.)

For some years we experimented with changing décor colors, buying a new couch. But we found the space was too cramped for a regular couch and so considered building a custom couch or settee. This went on for years. I wanted a certain look throughout the house and used my personal style color palette as a guide. It worked for parts of the house but not for all. I have a nice, soft color palette, and left to my own devices, the place would look like a spa—which I love. But in the cold, dead of winter, those colors are not relaxing; they are deadening.

We were in a thrift store one day and as soon as we walked in, my husband saw some red thing crumpled up in a corner. When I say “crumpled,” I mean it was a big piece of fabric something-or-other that had apparently just been dropped there, presumably by a customer who picked it up and threw it down. My husband was all over it, talking about what a great find it was.

“This might be just the thing for our love seat,” he said.

“Huh?” coming from my blank brain. It was like someone took a picture of my eyeballs with one of those old flash cameras. I saw nothing.

“Isn’t this a beautiful jacquard quilt!” he kept going on.

“Uh-huh. Yeah. . . great,” said I. I don’t think I meant a word of it, but I was too beat to care anymore. “Okay, yeah, let’s get it. We can always take it back.”

What Happened at Home

Our semi-bohemian cottage offers a lot of decorating leeway. Here is the red quilt in all its glory with mismatched cushions. We will still replace it when the perfect couch comes along. In the meantime, fate brought us two beautiful wicker chairs I had been dying to acquire. Now when that perfect couch finally comes along, everything will be complete!

We got it home, threw it over the existing dingy love seat. I just kind of stared and was about to say, “Oh, it just throws off everything.” But I didn’t. If we go with this red, I thought, we’ll have to change everything. All my color scheme will be undone. On the other hand, it hasn’t been working anyway.

We had some little discussion, and then he said something magic: “Instead of thinking about what we like, what about considering other people who come here? What will make them feel good in this space?”

Hmmmm…. Perhaps he had a point. At first I was afraid I was losing the sanctity of my little home to the Other. But we have bedrooms for sanctity, don’t we? Do we really have to put our mark, our brand on the living room? I had been envisioning a blue-and-white color scheme. But come to think of it, it would be easier to make that red quilt work with the already existing (and permanent) element of the red-brick fireplace. What an invigorating color during the winter.

For a few moments I let go of all my preferences and imagined: Yes, we often have clients come to our living room. Maybe he had a point about considering others instead of trying to make our mark on everything. Yes, it is our house, but it is also the segue between the outside world (larger element) and the inside world (the smaller element of our private space). And, further, the bricks of the fireplace are part of the larger element of our architecture, which means smaller elements only work if they are compatible with the bricks.

After that it was a matter of testing the things we already owned and loved to see which of them could be adapted to the red quilt and the bricks. There is a way, there is always a way! That red quilt changed everything: we threw out the floor rugs that were lovely but were the wrong color, and I always found them a pain to clean around anyway. I recovered a lot of cushions with cheap material in case we didn’t like the red quilt on the love seat after giving it a reasonable chance.

In fact, I went crazy and used fabrics I never would have chosen in any other universe, solely because they might work with the red quilt. Before long, we had changed the dining room seats, an office cushion, and covered about six pillows. The whole place looked alive, comforting, but uncluttered. It cost us maybe just over $20, and we didn’t have to buy a new sofa or build one. We literally gained more living room space than we ever had. Now we wouldn’t change anything for the world because it turned out so perfect.

A Universal Key

I have read up since then on a number of aesthetic fields and it seems this is a universal key to dealing with aesthetic schemes (maybe any kind of scheme): First define the largest elements (they may be so large they hide in plain sight). Then as you factor in the lesser spaces or elements, you consider how to harmoniously transition from the larger elements to those.

One example of this in decorating your home is to consider firstly the outdoors: geography and weather, your specific landscape and neighborhood (general architecture), and then your individual architecture. Then create your first interior space (it might even be your front porch) to transition from the wider world just outside your door. From there, you increasingly personalize the most interior elements of your home, remembering to transition from the public/private mixed spaces, and taking into consideration the structural style of the house (which you cannot change drastically without creating an ugly mess—always respect what is permanent).

I went through the same process using the idea of Context in my personal style. If you always respect the design of larger-to-smaller elements, your styling of anything will be great—and the odd conundrums you solve will make the whole thing original without your having to reinvent the wheel to show how creative you are!

Featured photo: The Merchants’ Bridge, Erfurt, Germany, the home of my great-grandfather. This is an example of vernacular architecture. The individual buildings respect an overarching pattern of design and yet they are not without variety. Falk2, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons