Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Londoner's Diary

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Londoner's Diary

Article excerpt

Alain de Botton on why a chair is never just a chair, and his secret desire to do work experience

MY wife and I have been arguing in furniture shops.

We can't agree on chairs for the living room - and feelings have run high.

It's hard not to feel threatened by others' tastes. 'How could anyone (normal) like that?' we ask, when confronted by something that seems ugly to us. No wonder the Romans coined the expression 'de gustibus non est disputandum' (tastes are not to be disputed) and that responsible people have been repeating the mantra ever since.

But there is much you can say about why something seems in good or bad taste. Any object of design - be it a chair, or a sofa, or a spoon - gives off an impression of the values it embodies and supports, so the interiors and buildings we admire are those which, in a variety of ways, extol attitudes we think worthwhile. Our sense of beauty and understanding of the nature of a good life are intertwined. It was the French writer Stendhal who offered the most crystalline expression of the affiliation between visual taste and our values when he wrote, 'Beauty is the promise of happiness.'

That's why struggles about what's beautiful and ugly in architecture and design get heated. Of an angular steel-legged sofa, a man might say, 'I love this,' drawn to qualities of order, logic and rationality which this piece suggests to him. His partner may kick up a fuss precisely because she hates all the sofa-like sides of her husband - and would love to infuse their marriage with the virtues of calm, sweetness and romanticism that she detects in a contrasting 18th-century-style chair.

It seems the fights that unfold in furniture stores are logical: a lot is truly at stake.

No fewer than three friends have recently had co-workers bring their children into the office for 'work-experience' days. These neophytes have been paragons of efficiency and kindness and also managed to shed light on their parent's well-hidden secret sides. The seemingly relaxed office character can be revealed by his child to be disguising a surprisingly authoritarian streak.

I've listened to these tales of work experience with envy. It's not that I'd like to be visited by a would-be writer who'd open my packets of chocolate biscuits (the days would be long). Rather, I'd love the chance to go on an adult version of the work-experience day. Writers are such solitary, miserable beasts, it would do us a world of good to be able to get out of the house, look at the real world in action and try to complete a contract or file something. Not least for our audiences, we'd be sources of fascination and pity, a little like the odder creatures in the forgotten corners of London Zoo.

Matters of design and architecture have been in my mind the last couple of years because I've been writing a book about them. …

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