Category Archives: DESIGN

Assemble Papers: adventures in design


When I wanted to write about Assemble Papers, originally it was going to be a plug: ‘look at this wonderful magazine, with its focus on the culture of urban living, high-density living, good design, ethical design, meaningful things and good architecture’. But the moment passed: the paper version of Assemble, sent to me by mail, is no longer the latest thing that Euge, Rachel and Pino have done.

Instead, these photos remind me of the wintery evening in Brussels when I returned home from the offices of the European Commission and found Assemble in my mailbox, full of photos of summery Melbourne, of wide open spaces, designer folk, Rob Adams, good coffee. It was the first time in my short life that I felt heart-breaking homesickness for a place that had never been home before.

The lightness of Melbourne life, the feeling of not-quite-freedom, but definitely-not-frustration. The open-mindedness, which hadn’t always been there, and a sense of style, poise and purpose, which intermittently always had. Assemble Papers is such a good magazine, filled with such ethics and beauty. Reading it always reminds me that we can do better than average, and than often we do. It makes me proud of Melbourne and, even, sort of, proud of Australia a little bit.

I was at those first meetings with Euge, when she was dreaming up, drawing up, this magazine, and my job was to try to shoot it down, game-test for all the problems before they actually occur. A few years on, she is doing such a marvelous job.










spatial poetics: Graffiti Featurism

The extent to which graffiti is not an aesthetic, but a mode of cultural production (with its own materiality, process, social embeddedness, but also ethos, and an ethics), a whole and living thing, is exactly the extent to which this building is pathetic and vulgar kitsch.

Robin Boyd defined featurism as the subordination of the essential whole and the accentuation of selected separate features, so that something always looks like a bouquet of lots of somethings. Boyd considered it the most representative characteristic of the national aesthetic of Australia, particularly of its ugliness, and I wholeheartedly agree. Once you have trained your eye, you can see featurism leave its mark on everything: from our plays (a little bit of comedy, a little bit of drama), to our policies (always treading the middle ground between USA and Denmark, as one of my students once remarked, approvingly). For Boyd, featurism is a symptom of Australia’s “unwillingness to be committed on the level of ideas. In all the arts of living, in the shaping of all her artefacts, as in politics, Australia shuffles about vigorously in the middle – as she estimates the middle – of the road, picking up disconnected ideas wherever she finds them.

More clarifications on the building below (please note that the ‘walls of the apartments are inscribed with these letters and other hip hop iconography’):

The Hive Apartment was designed by architect Zvi Belling of ITN Architects.This site was specifically selected for a graffiti/architecture project. The ideas in the building have been refined over time by the designer in prior competitions, publications and collaborations with street artists. The architect developed the project with his neighbour (aka Prowla), a respected old school Melbourne graffiti ‘writer’ who contributed the design of the graffiti letters. The external precast concrete walls of the apartments are inscribed with these letters and other hip hop iconography.

The graffiti relief panel spells HIVE written in ‘wild style’ with some initiation into the cultural codification of letters being required to decipher the words. These external geometries directly determine the interiors and have been extruded into living spaces in bulkheads and wall shapes. There are inherent tensions in the building where graffiti complete with spray drip effect has been created without any paint and an anti-establishment art form has been situated in an exclusive inner city residential suburb. These tensions are resolving over time as respect for the building spreads within the graffiti community and the local residents begin to claim ownership of their new street art. The outward presentation of robust public art fortifies the internal spaces into a calm refuge that is adorned with street art frames and canvasses. The notion of hive as home has been extracted from the facade and reappears through the fitout in various guises.

The concrete relief façade containing shapes such as letters, arrows, swooshes and drips has been slotted into the exposed brickwork shell of an old Carlton tailor shop. It was important for the street art, graffiti in this case, to be essential to the experience of the building inside and out. The 4m high concrete letters are load bearing with the weight of all four stories transferring to the footing through the oversized letter ‘E’ and simultaneously creating a dramatic visual entry to the apartment. Similarly the punctuations in the facades allow interesting views and natural light opportunities within the habitable spaces.

via The Hive Apartment | competitionline – Wettbewerbe und Architektur.

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Rijeka, or on the meanings of architecture

Whoever is regularly in my vicinity, gets a certain amount of lecturing on how beauty is a function of proportion, not decoration. The building above is a fine example of what I mean by that, proportion, but it is also something else, something entirely more.

Being in Europe, and low-cost flights also being in Europe, it has now become possible for me to do the unthinkable-in-Australia: to fly back to my hometown for a two-day roam-around. And once I was there, it dawned on me immediately (it exploded upon me, even) that I need to do this more, that I need to do it regularly, because having access to Rijeka I have access to my own history. Those two days left me feeling grounded in a way indescribable: they have made me remember where I come from. Losing the sense of my own history is inevitable when I live in Melbourne, Australia, because Australia is the end of the world, far far away from Rijeka. But it takes so little, a few days, a few thorough walks through my hometown – because Rijeka is a distinct place. Very, very distinct.

I have had the good luck to live in some very particular cities: Rijeka; Venice; Berlin. Melbourne was the only place I lived in that could in any way be called normal, a city from which one can extrapolate conclusions that apply to one or more other places as well. But I come from Rijeka; and I don’t come from Venice, Melbourne, or Berlin. Generations of my family have lived in and around Rijeka, but that in and of itself means nothing – Rijeka is a distinct place, as I say. It marks you far faster. It is enough to arrive, get off the bus or train or car, and start walking up and down its steep streets and stairs, and it is as if I suddenly remember how to walk again. It is in this act of walking, in the distinct rhythm of steps that shapes one’s life in a place, and life-in-a-place always being life itself, that I remember who I am (where I have been walking, why I set off). Six years on another continent mean nothing. I have never felt like a stranger in Rijeka. I cannot imagine the number of years I would have to spend in another place (and I have, so far, spent 10 outside Rijeka) before I stopped being from Rijeka and became from somewhere else. Nothing like K, who stops being from Brisbane every so often and becomes from Melbourne – whether because of personal identification, for simplification purposes, or simply because of time invested elsewhere. The city of Rijeka, with its history, geography and culture, is like no other, and my own being-like-no-other starts sitting better within me the moment I start climbing its rocks and jumping over its creeks, cutting rubber soles of my trainers on the shards of limestone, running down its hills through private gardens and along historical staircases.

Rijeka was a part of six different countries only in the past 100 years or so, including a period of 18 months it spent as a self-governed, pirate-anarchist city-state. It has its own dialect, its two winds (bura, the northern mountain wind, bringing cold and dry weather, and jugo, the warm and humid sea wind); its karst landscape, with soft and poround limestone forming tall mountains and deep canyons; and its culture of extreme tolerance to difference, focus on one’s own affairs, and frankness which would be brutal, if it wasn’t so non-malicious.

The living landscape of Rijeka is one half Mediterranean urbanity, tight stone towns ranging from sizeable to small, built by the sea, between cliffs and gullies, connected with medieval roads that were even then a feat of engineering; and one half complete and utter wilderness, forests and mountain tops and islands and the Adriatic Sea. When our bus stops on the side of the road cutting through makija (or maquis, as it tends to be known in English, the low Mediterranean forest), to drop off a frail old woman seemingly in the middle of nowhere, on a cliff, K is incredulous and concerned. Where is the lady going? I point to the town at the bottom of the hill, hundreds of metres below us, by the sea. But how is she going to get there? There will be a road or a staircase, I say, but K’s good Australian heart is not at peace until he really sees the road, going down the hill at an angle of a ski slope.

This is a cityscape without suburbs. A city can sprawl unchecked and unplanned only on relatively flat land – not when urban growth requires feats of engineering. Among the many distinct topographical formations of the karst landscape, not one is flat. There are 200,000 people living in Rijeka, but one can start walking from the national theatre, with its opera ensemble, ballet ensemble and orchestra, and arrive to the forests in 15 minutes.

It is a city without suburbs. What looks like suburbs, technically is just a lot of edge: city here, nature there. The insistence of Melburnians of all kinds that they are ‘just a suburban boy/girl/family’ is something I cannot relate to, because to me all suburbs look and feel like pitiful wasteland of both nature and culture, and Rijeka has never had any. In our teenage years, we have been known to go hiking on the hills outside the city for hours, then bush-bash our way down the hill and proceed straight to a punk concert or theatre performance. To have to walk, on flat suburban wasteland of houses and petrol stations, for 30 minutes just to get a carton of milk, is to me a personal, non-generalisable tragedy – not so much because it clashes with my values, but because it confuses my sense of walking.


But I wanted to talk about something else – about architecture and beauty.

We walked up and down hills, through the city centre, and arrived at this building, the so-called Mali neboder, ‘Little Skyscraper’. With its 10 1/2 storeys it is hardly a skyscraper, but it was a tall building when it was built, and so the name stuck. I am generally a fan of early modernism in architecture, buildings built not in cookie-cutter repetition, but as thought-through one-offs. The promise of modernism exists in them still: buildings as a promise of the more efficient future, signals for how to make things rationally and intelligently, lighthouses of technological enlightenment, of engineering which makes life better for everyone.

There are many such buildings in Rijeka. They fit in with the Mediterranean sense of beauty (on which hopefully more later), they are unadorned and simple and truthful to their materials. ‘Mali neboder’ is a building made for its location: it respects the curvilinear street and the slope of the hill it sits on; its balconies open up to the view of the bay and the city centre; its colours are muted, and its windows have (FFS) the kind of blinds that buildings in hot climates need. It is a good building in every sense of the word: high-quality, honest, unpretentious, sensitive to the environment, modest. It did not demand changes of context – it was designed to slot in nicely, and yet it has a beauty of form that is distinct, unrepeatable. It is just that bit higher than other buildings on the street to say, hey, this is what human species can do now, let’s discuss where to go from here!. It neither pretends to come from a time before industry, not does it insist on ignoring the entire city before its time. It doesn’t pretend to be in Paris or New York. It simply makes as much New York on that corner as Rijeka can honestly work with. The story goes that the owner built it as tall as he could sell apartments: the building was finished when the market demand ran dry.

Stendhal said nicely: “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” The promise of this building, in 1939, was of a future that would be different, and perhaps better, without pretending to forget the past. There are many such buildings in Rijeka, and there has never been any discontent with modernist architecture there. The people of Rijeka never blew up any buildings on the grounds of ugliness. Today, they don’t build medieval-looking houses for a comfortable fantasy of a better past. It is an honesty which could be brutal, if it wasn’t so non-malicious.

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Laforet campaigns, 1997-2012


laforet grand bazar from steve nakamura on Vimeo.

Summer 2011: Cheer up, Japan!


Winter 2011: GEEE FACE


Spring 2011: be noisy



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This is a Christmas present I bought for my friend Julian. But it is also one of those infamous presents we buy to people when we really want them for ourselves. I immediately managed to rope Julian into a game of building Don Roboquixote, Robosancho Pansa, and Robodulcinea, plus Robowindmill. Here are the results.

Thank you, Isa Goksu!

In the spirit of respecting and honouring craftsmanship, and recognising that all of our work is only possible because of the work of so many other people we share this planet with, I would like to recognise that I have found the perfect audio/video-playing WordPress plugin.

It is called Pro Player, and it is the work of Isa Goksu, who – in the best caring/sharing/collaborating spirit of the internet that the Facebook generation missed entirely – is not seeking remuneration for his work. It is the best WordPress player I have found yet, it is beautiful, and it’s available on Goksu’s website.

Apprenticeships: Addendum #1

But the reason why I have been intrigued by apprenticeships as a model of teaching, is that it seemingly affirms, but really essentially undermines, the kind of insane capitalism that is being enforced around us today.

It seems clear to me that the satisfaction in a job well done is one of the very few things that give any sort of meaning to life; that such a satisfaction comes only after exhaustive training; and that a society which does not valorise craft at any point is in some way failing to maintain the very nails and hinges that hold it together. This is not exactly a lone and loony position: Richard Sennett appraised the craftsman in 2009, in a beautiful and important book. It is also increasingly clear to me that Australia valorises exactly the opposite: the job done-just-enough. This is a worldview I see among academics just as much as among plumbers, and it is extraordinarily resilient to critique.

Apprenticeships are primarily a mode of teaching, an almost-one-on-one tuition that, as the Monocle video reveals, depends on touch, on hearing, and cannot be easily abstracted. It is exactly the sort of teaching that, in societies such as Australian, have been just about eradicated, and replaced with large-scale, standardised, detailless, bulk teaching. Two people that have considered this process most finely are Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism and Konrad Liessmann in The Theory of Uneducation (sadly not translated into English yet).

Mark Fisher writes about how economic pronciples of profitability and efficiency are blindly applied to public services (specifically, education), how the processes of application are deeply irrational, and the results poor:

JF: Drawing from your experience working in the public sector as a lecturer, you write about “business ontology” – a pervasive belief that market criteria by which corporations judge success (profit, debt, growth, etc) are what really matter and would benefit any and all institutions. Thus overpaid managers have been integrated into what remains of the public sector (e.g., health care, education), creating dismal “anti-productive” bureaucracies at odds with the original social purposes of these institutions. Have I got that about right?

MF: Yes, although I think it’s important to make a distinction between markets and business here. It’s often not very easy to marketise public services. So what we have instead is pseudo-marketization, a series of measures designed to simulate the so-called market, and these typically involve bureaucracy: targets, league tables, spurious quantification, the whole battery of surveillance and self-surveillance that goes with ‘continuous professional development.’

The superiority of the ‘market’ over public services was supposed to be that it minimised bureaucracy, but one of the perverse effects of pseudo-marketisation is that it massively increases the amount of bureaucratic labour that workers in public services are subject to and required to do. However, it’s crucial that we don’t accept any of this on its own terms. These measures have nothing to do with their ostensible goal of ‘increasing efficiency’, but they achieve very well their unofficial aims of putting workers into a permanent state of anxiety and normalising the near-total control of culture by business.

I use the term ‘ontology’ because what’s been constructed is a world in which only business values and practices are held to count. One effect of this is to make public service workers think that they are lucky to have a job at all. They only have their ‘unproductive’ jobs because of the generosity and hard work of those in the private sector who do the ‘real work’. This was absurd enough before the bank bail-outs. It’s utterly insane now.

Konrad Liessmann, on the other hand, proposes the concept of ‘industrialization of knowledge’. For Liessmann, all the talk about ‘societies of knowledge’ and ‘knowledge economies’ just hides the fact that, instead, we are industrialising our knowledge production. When you google ‘industrialization of education’, you will get millions of hair-raising entries that genuinely extol the benefits of education in bulk, the lower costs, the savings, etc. However, Liessmann defines knowledge not as information, but, in the long European humanist tradition, as information supplied with meaning.

Instead, Liessmann sees contemporary education (from primary to tertiary) as applying all aspects of the industrial production process:

  • division of complex tasks into a long series of very simple tasks that can be performed by untrained employees (so that the course is designed by person A, subject outline by person B, teaching done by person C, but assessment by person D – and only person A might be well paid)
  • standardisation of procedure (national curricula, multiple-choice exams, point-based merit system that equalizes a medical-science article and a literary essay)
  • high concentration of producers (mega-universities) and
  • standardised mass products (generic subjects teaching ‘design process’ or ‘theory’, recombinable into courses, as opposed to tailor-made degrees).

In this context, the most interesting thing about the ‘Polish plumber syndrome’ is that it reveals the structural inefficiency of a supposedly rational, efficiency-driven model of education such as the one above. Apprenticeships, for all their kleinbűrgerlich associations, are models of inefficient learning by all of these standards. And yet they clearly create much better plumbers, so much that people will pay more and write newspaper articles about it, too.

And more generally, the year 2011 may be the year in which many a ‘rational’ approach has been finally unmasked as structurally completely not. From our banking to our plumbing…


Monocle video podcast: Apprenticeships in Vienna (mar 02, 2011)

[pro-player type=”MP4″][/pro-player]

When I was in the UK in mid-2010, the most interesting new development for me was the strange respect of Polish people that the Brits seemed to have found themselves in, seemingly by accident. This seemed to hinge largely on the high quality of plumbing performed by Polish plumbers; and the abundance of Polish plumbing, in return, seemed to be the most tangible evidence of borders-opening-to-new-EU-members. More precisely: the end of the 7-year moratorium on people-movement from the ex-socialist, Eastern-European, mostly-Slavic, and in all other ways intrinsically inferior European countries, and into the historically-capitalist, Western-European, Germanic-and-Mediterranean, and in all other ways intrinsically superior European countries.

When the EU expanded, such Western Europeans were all aflurry at the cheap and nasty labour that would pour in. Online sources are a bit hard to find so many years into the past, but look at this sample from the BBC News:

“This is being driven by business which wants mass cheap labour. As a worker I do not want cheap competition.”

“Now the citizens of current EU countries have to give serious to consideration to whether or not they want to spend the rest of their lives funding a crazy scheme to integrate the rich, poor and even poorer nations of Europe. I know I don’t. Given individual nations’ failure to do this domestically it doesn’t seem to be feasible on a continental scale.”

“Full membership is going to be a hopeless disaster. There are more farmers in Poland than there are in all the current members of the EU put together. There will have to be a massive redistribution of wealth of Polish farmers and there will be riots on the streets of France, Spain and Italy when these countries find out what’s at stake.”

“Surely this is just going to create a tide of economic migration from poorer East European counties to the west. Who is going to pick up the tab for their benefits? The British tax payer I suppose! I am totally against it!”

“If people are already angry about asylum seekers, then they ain’t seen nothing yet!”

“I definitely welcome new countries to the EU, but not until these countries can offer as much economically back to the member states, as the member states offer to the applicant. After all the EU is not a charity.”

All of these, not by design, come from commentators from the UK (citizens of other countries made more moderate comments and generally refrained from bringing in labour cost). Around 2004, when the 7-year period was ending, The Guardian was warning that “Downing Street must not surrender to xenophobic arguments over a feared influx of eastern European immigrants”. The German BPD was diagnosing public fears such: “75% of Germans surveyed expected unemployment to rise following the accession of the Central and Eastern European states; only 28% welcomed the expansion. In France, the ‘Polish plumber’ became a symbol for a perceived threat to the national labour market due to EU expansion, a perception that helped fuel France’s rejection of the EU Constitution in May 2005”. And, travelling around the EU in 2004 and 2005, I did not exactly feel welcome and respected.

But how the tables turn! Come UK in 2010, and everyone seemed as surprised as I was that they had so much praise for the Polish plumber (PP having become, by then, the synecdoche for all East-to-West European intramigration). The underlying attitude seemed to be of genuine surprise (not some bleeding-heart trying) and mild reluctance, but also general relief that life could be good. Apparently this had started in 2005, straight after the people-moving ban was lifted (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C), continued throughout 2006 (Exhibit D), when it was linked to rising prosperity. By 2008, the return-migration of Poles was a worry (Exhibit E), in 2010 their return interpreted as sign of fat cows around the corner (Exhibit F) – or just a good thing in and of itself, and even when Eastern-European-directed racism awoke again, in 2011, Polish plumbers were singled out and mercifully exempt Exhibit G). Indeed, businesses now market themselves as Polish.

Why? Because they seemed to have introduced into Britain, that first of industralising nations, the sense that a manual job could be well done, with skill and professional pride.

“I feel humbled to have temporarily had at my service one of this country’s 95 Polish plumbers.” wrote Peter Dobbie (Exhibit A) in 2005. “In Britain today, the Polish plumber is seen by mortgage payers as something of a hero. He – I have yet to come across a she – is like a resistance fighter, parachuted into occupied France during the Second World War, nurtured and passed from safe house to safe house. The Polish plumber I employed was quick and efficient. He found the cause of the pong that hung around the outer drains of chez moi. He was cheap and did not make me feel that he was doing me a favour by just turning up at the promised time. He left a card which gave a first name and a mobile telephone number. I would not hesitate to pass him on to the next victim of blocked drains or broken central heating.”

“They are coming in and making a very good reputation as highly skilled, highly motivated workers,” said Christopher Thompson (Exhibit B), a diplomat at the British Embassy in Warsaw, in 2005.

“It is hard to go a week without reading an article about the army of Polish workers becoming a shining success story in construction and home repairs.” wrote The Guardian (Exhibit C)

During my 2010 visit, even the cause of this plumbing excellence was identified. Everyone told me the same thing. “It’s because they have apprenticeships, in Poland.”

An apprenticeship in Poland is the same as in Austria (see video): 3 years of work placement, with 1-2 days of academic study a week, after the age of 15 or 16. This is precisely the sort of system Britain abandoned after the de-industrialisation of the 1970s and the 1980s (because the financial services made so much more money, remember?), and that countries like Australia possibly never had – see previous writing on Australian attitudes to jobs-well-done, or inspect the quality of craft on any house built 1787-2011. An apprenticeship of this sort is a serious commitment, and out of it comes a professional pride. Many semi-academic high schools and universities, from architecture and graphic design to hospitality and technical sciences, work as essentially highly-skilled technical schools. My little sister, who is about to graduate from an applied arts’ high school, is essentially learning a trade. That is fine, and there is no loss of status associated. (Here I am reminded of a conversation I had with my Australian ex-husband, long ago, on the subject of children and our parental expectations. While I was claiming to be a liberal future parent, he asked: “But what if your child said they don’t want to go to university?” This caused me great confusion at the time, while I was trying to understand what he meant by the question, and why this was parental anathema. I myself was considering a TAFE at the time, before I realised how little they were respected in Australia.)

In contrast, according to The Daily Mail in 2006:
“Mr Kosniowski, one of the original Polish community in Southampton, says: “We supply skilled workers rather than labourers because there is a shortage. A lot of young British people are not interested in trades or apprenticeships. The problem is that the emphasis in this country was on getting young people educated rather than skilled.” It is a sad truth that apprenticeships fell out of favour in Britain in the Seventies and Eighties when the manufacturing industries shed jobs and the construction industry went into decline.”

(Long aside: the specifically British attitude to manual work, which is respected on the level of product (especially if foreign) but not on the level of person, is a class-related attitude, and is quite probably the reason why Britain, among other things, has such awfully poor-quality food. While Australia is supposedly free of class hangovers, its own attitude to craftsmanship reveals basically the same set of problems. In most European countries there is a certain recognition that society is a complex system of inter-dependence, which leads to a respect for the waitress, the coffee-maker, the plumber, the farmer, the baker and so on, and results in a number of structural supports to the art of waiting tables, baking bread, etc – fiscal, educational, migration, and so on. (Read Michael Symons’ One Continuous Picnic: a gastronomic history of Australia to find out, among other things, how a cascade of contradictory laws, introduced in the first half of the 20th century, decimated the small bakers of Australia. This is a kind of gross negligence that speaks of societal values.)

Perhaps Britain is permeated with an aristocratic-wannabe snobbery towards manual work, as this wealth of literature suggests. But poor-settler countries like Australia, Canada, the US, more insidiously, feature a kind of delusion that we can all somehow be a civic middle class, which in the collective psyche translates into white-collar, and perfect equality and prosperity-for-all would somehow mean literally freeing everyone from the need to fix objects, grow food, milk cows, make machinery, and so on. Again, if this seems like a caricature, picture yourself the billion suburban houses built in these countries in the past century or so, all little manors in little parks, or houses with gardens that are not used for growing food even if that is the single most appropriate use for a small house garden. Or the idea of university for everyone, which eventually leads to the loss of manual skills such as those promulgated through apprenticeships. In other words, if you put ideas of equality on top of a very strong class culture, this weird homogeneity appears in the idea of what everyone should be like: instead of respect for all kinds (or classes) of labour, the society tries to get everyone to fit into one labour class. And even when the practical need for lost skills is then reasserted, it gets reappraised in a strangely semiotised way – as an image of longing for a fantasy – so that growing your own food/milking your own cow/building your own house comes to stand for suburban middle class par excellence. Which is to say, if good plumbing ever rises to an actually-appreciated craft, in places like the UK, Canada and Australia it is more likely to result in suburban hipsters opening boutique plumbing businesses than in a structural access to apprenticeships for all high-school leavers.)

In any case, there has (especially since the GFC) been a lot of brouhaha in the UK about re-introducing apprenticeships (Exhibit H, Exhibit I, Exhibit J, and even in The Daily Mail Exhibit K).

For all these reasons, the Monocle video podcast above is very interesting – as is Monocle’s general abundant coverage of craftsmanship. As Hugo McDonald, the Monocle Design editor, says in the clip above:

Beyond creating a workforce that continues to produce beautiful things, the apprenticeship system fosters a social attitude of respect between generations, attention to detail, and an ability to make, do and mend almost anything. At a grassroots level, it is these qualities that keep a country intact.


The art of wrapping

I bought many things on my recent trip to Japan. It was hard not to: just about everything on sale in Japan was eminently worth buying. Food, drinks, books, shoes, humble boxes, ceramics, paper goods, whatever I set my eyes on was simply beautifully crafted, with precision and care. Even more, it was all displayed with such respect for the object that it made everything seem meaningful, valuable, important.

Even more importantly, every item purchased was so lovingly wrapped for me by the shop assistants that many of the things I bought I didn’t have the heart to unwrap. I felt, in a way that might be quintessentially un-Japanese, that I might ruin some crucial quality of my buy by getting it out of its paper packaging.

So take a look at this humble little thing, a papier-mache box, I bought in a shop in Asakusa, and religiously carried around for a month after in its original packaging. Watch as it comes apart, the thing of beauty (見事) that it is.

The box itself is gorgeous; after all, that was what I saw on the shelf in Asakusa. However, the multiple layers of packaging added an entirely new level (or layer) of beauty to it. The habit of wrapping a square item in a square sheet of paper by rotating it slightly was common to my experience of Japan: many very humble items came to me wrapped like that, in very humble shops and from people who clearly weren’t any sort of paper artists. The folds in such a wrapping process result in many very small, unusual corners. It was only once I had unwrapped it, and examined the paper, that it became obvious that, despite the seeming haphazardness of the angle, and the irregularity of the little folds created along the way, there was great thought involved in the technique. It was only once the wrapping paper was laid out that the symmetry of the folds was revealed:

After returning from Japan, I spent at least a month gripped by what my boyfriend called a case of post-Japan blues afflicting all Australians. Nothing, to put it simply, was good enough anymore. What would have seemed like ordinary customer service until my departure for Tokyo suddenly looked like gratuitous acts of random and deliberate rudeness. I was appalled by shop assistants across multiple states shrugging and declaring that they weren’t really good at wrapping, instead handing me some brown paper and letting me do the job myself, if I was so keen on having my bought goods packaged. In a bookshop in Brisbane’s South Bank, adjacent to GOMA, a bookshop that purported to be a classy joint, I had to quite warmly insist to the shop assistant that his wrapping skills would certainly be adequate before he deigned to wrap the pile of books I had just bought with the intention to give as presents. And not to say anything about the quality of the purchased goods. After Japan, quite simply, nothing was good enough anymore.

Japan is certainly heaven for anyone with a love for applied arts – Japanese arts are all applied, and Japanese culture values application enormously. But being there reminded me strongly of the little pleasures of living in Europe – travelling a few kilometres whichever way and experiencing a thousand microfelicities upon finding something new, beautiful and native to the local area to savour, touch, perhaps bring back as a little present (omiyage, お土産). And I remembered my visit to Perth, my first travel in Australia outside of Melbourne, walking through shop after shop, all of which could have been called Cheap&Nasty (dot-painted boomerangs, koala keychains, postcards of men holding pints of beer), and wondering how it was possible that so many people had spent so much time settled on that corner of the Earth without producing, appreciating and refining a single thing, a single item special to them. A single thing worth making with care, displaying with respect, wrapping with love and selling proudly to a visitor.

One could make the age argument (Australia is so young!, has not had the time to produce papier-mache boxes worth raving about!), but it is an insincere argument. What makes the Asakusa box special is not the thirteen hundred years of Japanese civilization. It is the care with which it was made, the care with which it was displayed, the care with which it was wrapped upon purchase, the care which naturally extended to my own greater appreciation. Such care comes with respect for the craft, and appreciation of beauty that is a degree separate from the utility, cost or status value of the object. It is materialism in the proper sense of the word.

It is care that Australia lacks, not history. After all, most of what human beings do, as a species, is rather banal: growing and eating food, building shelter, hitting balls of varying shapes according to varying rules; some paved roads here; some drying racks there. Civilization and culture are not so much the sum total of our operas, marble horsemen and bell towers, but of our ability to imbue with meaning and purpose these everyday activities that we have shaped our life around. What makes Italy a deeply satisfying place to live in is not the ruins of the Colosseum, but the way Italians talk about food and football: not as guilty pleasures, but as activities of cosmic importance. (As of Japan; look no further…)

To be able to tell why something that you do matters, it is not enough to bullshit (marketing thrives in Australia as well as in Italy), because a narrative of that sort is not a lie. It is definitional, and generative. It is born by giving a voice to one’s own innate sense of what is important, and it makes others care for it more. It forms, by default, a community. But it requires an opening up, and it makes one vulnerable. Especially if the context is that of a place in which it is considered somehow embarrassing to care.

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