Mistakes Happen (Sometimes Intentionally)

Nothing is perfect and we should embrace mistakes and imperfections.

Mistaken Mistakes

Persian carpets (aka Iranian carpets) come in a diversity of designs and sizes, but they frequently contain repeating symmetrical patterns. One alleged feature in handmade Persian carpets is a mistake in the design pattern (not in the construction) included intentionally. This “Persian flaw” serves as a reminder that only Allah is perfect. The flaw would be something small only noticed by the keenest of observers. It’s also been said that the Amish have a similar practice, that they include an intentional flaw (a “humility block”) in their quilts as a reminder that only God is perfect … but it isn’t true.

Lancaster curator Wendell Zercher has quoted Amish quilt makers as saying “… no one has to remind us that we’re not perfect.” As for Persian flaws, most accounts of this idea come from Western sources and is probably an example of orientalism. While both of these are nice stories that probably help to sell imperfect rugs & quilts, we have little to no evidence to support them. If anything, to intentionally make just one mistake out of humility would prove the opposite, bragging that you have the ability to make a perfect creation (but choose not to).

Actual “Mistakes”

There are however some cultures that really do include intentional imperfections in their work. Women in the Punjab region between India & Pakistan create Phulkari shawls of intricate designs. In these designs they sometimes include “mistakes” which are momentary changes in the overall design pattern. These changes are included to mark important events during the creation of the shawl (births, weddings, deaths, etc). Sometimes the symmetrical pattern is disrupted as spiritual protection from the evil eye.

On the left is a phulkari shawl with intentional changes to the pattern. To the right is a Navajo weaving featuring a “spirit line”.

Some Navajo also include imperfections in their weavings for spiritual reasons. The ch’ihónít’i (aka the “spirit line” or the “weaver’s path”) is a single line leading out of the middle of a design to the edge of the weaving. The spirit line is thought to give the weaver’s soul a way to exit the weaving so as to not get trapped in the design.

Embrace Imperfections

Of course if you accept that nothing is perfect then you have no need to add imperfections because everything is imperfect. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi is the Zen view that everything is imperfect, impermanent, vulnerable. Unlike Western design ideas which frequently strive for idealized perfection, wabi-sabi celebrates the imperfections that make everything (and everyone) unique.

Kintsugi repaired ceramics, using gold & lacquer to feature (rather than hide) the imperfections.

Building off of wabi-sabi, kintsugi is the practice of repairing broken pottery with bits of valuable metals & lacquer that, rather than trying to seamlessly hide the repaired cracks, highlights them. Kintsugi honors the history of the object and celebrates its imperfections. Nothing lasts forever and we should recognize the beauty of imperfect vessels.

A crash course on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.

Ugly Fruits & Vegetables

In the West this embrace of the imperfect has recently manifested itself in ugly fruits & vegetables. Imperfect looking produce has traditionally gone unsold and makes up 40% of total food waste. Producers throw away food because they don’t think retailers will want it (it doesn’t meet “quality standards”) and then retail stores throw away the unsold odd looking food that customers won’t buy. This is all despite the fact that the taste and nutritional content of this “ugly” food may be identical to “normal” looking produce.

The European Union declared 2014 the European Year Against Food Waste. The French supermarket chain Intermarché began their “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” marketing campaign that celebrated ugly looking produce, gave them their own section in the store, and sold them at a discount. It proved so successful that other stores began their own campaigns as customers began to accept the wabi-wabi nature of produce.

The Intermarché marketing campaign to help reduce food waste was a huge success.

Gemütlichkeit

The German concept of belonging & happiness that English doesn’t have a word for.

Sitting in a tent at Oktoberfest one song that will be played again and again is Ein Prosit. It only has four words in the lyrics, it takes less than 30 seconds to sing, and after singing it the band leader directs everyone to drink. The lyrics are:

GERMAN

Ein Prosit, ein Prosit
Der Gemütlichkeit

ENGLISH

A toast, a toast
To Gemütlichkeit

What exactly are we toasting? What is Gemütlichkeit?

groups of people enjoying gemutlichkeit
Gemütlichkeit is the good feeling of being with friends enjoying the simple things in life.

Good Feeling

Gemütlichkeit (roughly: ge-mut-lee-kite) is a German word that we don’t have a direct translation for in English. It’s a feeling of happy belonging, sort of like cozy but unlike cozy it’s felt in the company of others. Gemütlichkeit can’t be felt alone. It’s the good feeling you get wandering a Christmas market with your family, it’s a summer BBQ in a friend’s back yard, and of course it’s gathering together at a beer garden. Gemütlichkeit is a state of mind. It’s the enjoyment of simple pleasures shared with others.

Part of gemütlichkeit’s meaning comes from its origins. In the early 19th century Biedermeier period, industrialization helped create a new German middle class. This growing population used their new found money & free-time to embrace a quieter, simpler life. Feeling secure and happy with friends & family was more important than politics. This was also around the start of Oktoberfest, which began as a wedding festival but turned into an annual tradition in 1811. Gemütlichkeit and Oktoberfest go well together because, as people gather for good food, beer, and fun, they’re celebrating the simple things in life with others.

The legendary Franzl Lang sings Ein Prosit, a toast to gemütlichkeit.

The Hedonic Treadmill

Knowing when to step off the treadmill and be happy

Hedonism is about finding pleasure and avoiding suffering. It ranges from the wild to the mild, but essentially it is a way of thinking where we want to be happy and should seek out ways of making ourselves happy.

The hedonic treadmill (also called hedonic adaptation) is an idea where each of us has a default level of happiness, and that our happiness will return to this default level despite life changes. If we make more money and start living a fancier lifestyle, what might make us a bit happier at first, soon becomes the new normal and we return to our default happiness level. We get more, we get used to it, and then it takes even more to make us (temporarily) happier again. It’s an arms race where it can constantly take more to feel happier and it can go on forever. Whatever the change, we tend to get used to the new speed of the treadmill.

The good news is that it also works the other way around. If we lose a job or some catastrophic accident befalls us, we can adapt to that as well and (over time) return to our default happiness level. In his TED talk on the science of happiness, Dan Gilbert discusses a study of lottery winners and people recently paralyzed, and that after a year both groups had returned to their pre-incident level of happiness. The treadmill can speed up or slow down but your happiness level will adapt.

Epicurus

Epicurus was a 4th century BCE Greek philosopher who created a school of philosophical thought, known today as Epicureanism. While the word “epicure” means someone with fine taste in food & alcohol, Epicureanism is a much deeper collection of teachings that have little to do with food. Epicurus was a hedonist, in that he felt happiness was good and pain was evil, however he taught that we should enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Happiness can be achieved through friendship and living a simple life. Perhaps it’s best to know when to step off the hedonic treadmill and appreciate what you have rather than running faster for more.

More on “Less is more”

The idiom “Less is more” is by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “Less is more” is about simplicity, that keeping things to the absolute essentials is more effective than including extraneous additional elements.

Mies

Ludiwg Mies van der Rohe was born in Germany in 1886. His architectural career started by apprenticing at various design firms but it was in Berlin in the early 20th century that he gained greater exposure to the new progressive ideas of the age. After World War I people in the Weimar Republic were living in a world of increasing industrialization with fast-paced metropolises. The old traditional social constructs were from a bygone era and weren’t compatible with the new modern industrialized world. It was in this environment that Modernism was born.

Modernism embraced new ways of thinking. As people struggled to find their place in a world broken by the old regime, modernism explored new ways forward. It found its way into design, art, literature, philosophy, music, and other fields as experimental new ways that were alternatives/rejections to the rules of the past.

Modernism was at the center of Mies’ architectural thinking and he quickly became a leader in this new school of thought. While serving as the third and final head of the famed Bauhaus design school, he realized the political climate in Germany was becoming increasingly hostile and emigrated to the USA in 1937, eventually settling in Chicago. It was in Chicago that he worked the rest of his life creating some of his masterpieces in modernist thought such as the Farnsworth House.

The Farnsworth House is a perfect demonstration of Mies’s modernist design philosophy that “less is more”.

Less is more

His entire approach to architecture stripped designs down to the absolute essentials; removing classical architectural decorative ornamentation entirely. It was from this design philosophy that “Less is more” was born. It was a utilitarian approach where a design is more powerful the less you add. Basically a design is better the less stuff you add to it. Keep it simple.

Ornamentation served no functional purpose so it was omitted. It took Louis Sullivan’s idea that “form follows function” to the extreme. A building’s visual style should take a backseat to its purpose.

While celebrated as a design visionary and as a father of modernism, Mies’ aphorism of “Less is more”  has taken on a life of its own where it is arguably more famous than he is.