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Furniture and Philosophy- Take A Seat

​It was the British designer William Morris who famously insisted that you should have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

It was the British designer William Morris who famously insisted that you should have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. But the Morris motto, for all its pithiness, is not as easy to live up to as it sounds. After all, beauty and utility are not the only shows in town when it comes to our living spaces. What about comfort? We all need somewhere to crash: somewhere where we can just let it all hang out and properly relax. And what about sentiment? For all its ambition, the Morris philosophy doesn’t allow any space for that inherited objet that may be as ugly as sin, but that is still the one iconic relic of your youth, or your grandmother’s memory. Morris doesn’t have much to say about mementos.

This is not to say that stylish home living is not something we should aspire to. Yes, it sounds like a first world issue, but the quality of our living spaces genuinely can enrich our sensibilities and enhance our day to day lives. Even our most ancient ancestors decorated the walls of their caves - it may be human to err - but it is no less human to want to make things look good.

The pull to art

The pull towards art is one that every designer must feel every time they put a newly sharpened pencil to a virginally crisp sheet of paper. For all their finely drawn lines, the soft edge between art and design is one that can easily blur in the eye of the beholder. And nowhere is that more true than in regard to the furniture we bring into our homes.

As the Italian furniture specialists Vivendo insist on their website, furniture should not be a choice between function or beauty. The great furniture at Vivendo is a continual exploration of the space between those two poles. And the fundamental principle, one that draws on the finest traditions of Italian design from soft furnishings to high fashion and fast cars, is that functionality and aesthetic finesse should both be simultaneously in play.

Furniture demands a phenomenologically softened design aesthetic. Our bodies are shaped and proportioned in such a way that the fundamentals of sitting and reclining in comfort can’t be ignored. Seats and tables need to be comfortable, practically durable items, no matter how much of a premium we put on their appearance.

The Irish philosopher poet John O’Donohue had a good way of putting it - as poets so often do. ‘The human soul is hungry for beauty’ he wrote, ‘when we experience the beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming’.

Different ends of the sofa

You could say that O’Donohue and William Morris are looking at the same thing, but from different ends of the couch. Morris insists that our homecomings should be made beautiful; O’Donohue wouldn‘t disagree, but he takes the discussion up a philosophical notch: He talked about that homecoming as ‘being present in ourselves’. In other words, he starts with that sense of homecoming as a metaphor for what beautiful design can do for us - in our homes, on our couches or anywhere else - giving us that vivid sense of being that little bit more alive.

The bottom line here is that well designed furniture can have an effect that is spiritually useful because it is beautiful. You get the sense that William Morris would have enjoyed sharing a couch with John O’Donohue, no matter what it looked like.

-by Lucy Nicklin