The Battle of the Colours

Funny how even a shop called ‘Blue Earth’ turns all red.
Moodboard Fall 2017

This Fall the streets will turn red. Already the shops in the high street show clothes in all hues of red. It makes me happy. It’ll bring warmth and colour in those many grey days we have around here. If people dare to wear it, of course. For some people find red threatening. The power the colour carries also means that about the first advice about professional attire is not to wear red, out of fear to attract hostility and aggression. In fact, that colour interpretation relates to that other Fall. Confused? Read on, all will become clear.

According to my favourite colour expert, Michel Pastoureau, the history of colour is always the history of the society in which it features. In this sense colour – and indeed its manifestations in fashion – is not superficial at all: it offers elements to understand society better. And one of the reasons why I like Pastoureau so much is that he always includes illustrations of materiality and craftsmanship to make the point.

This booklet offers a good summary of all Pastoureau’s ‘colour books’.

Pastoureau’s work is complex and detailed. I can heartily recommend all his books: they’re full of fascinating stories and delightful insights. Let me share a few with you.

Nowadays about 75% of Westerners name blue as their favourite colour. To make us understand how remarkable this is, Pastoureau goes to great lengths to demonstrate that for most of human history it was red that was most preferred. The battle of the colours will take place later, let’s stay for a while with the supremacy of red. 

Think of the caverns of Altamira for instance: they’re Unesco heritage because of the 150 drawings they contain, estimated to be some 15.000 years old and mostly in reds. 

Also Unesco heritage: the amazing wall paintings in Pompeii (80BC) where the intense red greatly contributes to the powerful experience. Almost in passing Pastoureau points out that, contrary to what many think, the garments, the private houses but also the temples and the sculptures within were, in classical times, full of colour.

The first dyes were vegetal, including ochres, which turn colour when burnt, and the popular madder.  The latter is a plant that carries the pigment in its roots. Which begs the question how humans got the idea to go searching underground for tinctorial matter? 

Over the centuries animal colourings were added such as kermes and the New World cochineal, the story of which has been wonderfully written by the American historian Amy Butler GreenfieldIn the middle of the 18th century an estimated 350 ton per annum of cochineal was exported to Europe, providing Spain which had the monopoly, with a revenue which almost equalled that of silver. 

The New World cochineal lives on cacti, only the female yields the dye (1777).

It goes without saying that garments dyed with cochineal were very expensive and thus became a symbol of power and luxury.

Pastoureau gives the materiality of colour a great deal of attention: he tells the stories of the successive chemical and technological advances in the craftsmanship involved. And he offers, to our contemporary eyes, surprising illustrations of that materiality. 

For centuries brides at the countryside for instance would wear red, not of the cochineal variety of course – which was too expensive and also forbidden for ‘ordinary folk’, but the local dyers mastered the red vegetal and animal pigments the best. Red was in other words a good material choice for a radiating bride.

Dyeing was a labour-intensive, intricate activity (Barthélemy l’Anglais & Jean Corbechon, Le Livre des propriétés des choses, 1482). On the right both bride and groom wear red: their festive attire accentuates the significance of the sacrament of matrimony (detail Rogier van der Weyden, The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, c.1470).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also like the story of Louis XIV’s brother who allegedly introduced high heels at the 17th-century French court. The idea was to make up for the short posture of both brothers, which failed utterly because the new trend was taken up swiftly by all courtiers. Fascinatingly the heels were bright red – on the outside, which provides historical support to the failure of contemporary designer Christian Louboutin to obtain trademark protection for his signature red-lacquered soles.

Both at his marriage and when he was 63 and in full royal gear, Louis XIV sired red-heeled shoes (Antoine Dieu, Marriage of Louis of France and Marie-Adélaïde of Savoye, 1678; above right detail after Hyancinthe Rigaud).

In comparison, the Louboutin red seems conservative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Much less light-minded is the Church’s use of colour. In fact, the original Bible hardly contains colour references. It’s only over the centuries and across translations, especially in the vernacular languages, that the Bible becomes increasingly more colourful – in itself an illustration of how colour testifies of changes in society.

These changes resulted in an ambitious colour symbolism that from the 5th century onwards exercized its influence in many domains of religious life (liturgy and costume for instance), social practises (garments, ceremonies, heraldic arms and insignia) and artistic and literary creation. And that for about a millenium. That’s powerful cultural heritage indeed.

With regard to the colour that concerns us here most, the Christian symbolism was founded on two principal references, namely blood and fire. And each was considered in both its good and bad aspects.

Blood in its positive connotation is of course the symbol of life. Even more specifically, it’s Christ giving his blood who has saved mankind, thereby warranting eternal life. In his footsteps followed the Church’s martyrs who accentuated the promise of salvation and the community of believers. This red sanctifies, fertilizes and unites. It’s also the colour of the very powerful Christian concept of caritas.

Both the so-called mystic press on the left and the Lamb of God above illustrate the growing symbolism attached to the blood of Christ (French miniature, 14th-15th century; detail Jan Van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, 1427-9).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But inevitably blood is also associated with violence and impurity. That’s why crime, sin and above all revolt against God were depicted in reds. Hangmen and torturers often wore red garments which had, of course, the additional advantage that their ‘activities’ were not too visible. In more general terms red became the colour of control, inhibition and sanctioning: think of a “red list”, the red pen used to correct exams, the “red line” not to be crossed. Red thus became very much associated with power and authority – which is also why the colour became the exclusive privilege of society’s elites, religious, political and economic.

It’s no coincidence that the guilds’ coats of arms were predominantly red (Ghent, 1524). The power of heraldic red continues to play even now, with 75% of the current UN members having red in their flag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beside blood, it’s fire that features prominently in the Church’s colour symbolism. Biblical divine interventions are often accompanied by fire, as in the case of God speaking through a burning bush to Abraham who’s about to sacrifice his son Isaac. The most powerful image in this respect are the fiery tongues of Pentecost. Here we have divine love that regenerates, purifies and fortifies. Hence also the association with more mundane manifestations of seduction and love, remember the wedding dresses. Alas, fire is not always benign. Undoubtedly the strongest reference in the medieval mind is Hell, with the Devil as the personalization of temptation and evil. In that sense it wasn’t surprising that heretics were burnt – with no hope for salvation.

The two dimensions of fire in Christian symbolism: on the left the fiery tongues bringing regeneration on Pentecost (Hunterian Psalter, c.1165-70), above eternal damnation for heretics (Chronicle From the Creation of the World until 1384).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In sum, these four interdependent dimensions constructed a powerful symbolism that coloured the High Middle Ages very red indeed. But things were about to change.

A first crack in the red supremacy came from an unexpected rival: blue. The Romans disliked it, interpreting it as the colour of the barbarians. In the medieval West, it hardly features socially or artistically and it carried no religious or symbolic connotations.

Note the same bright blue for the Virgin’s coat and the sky. Interestingly, the angels are both blue (on the earth) and red (circling God in heaven) (Nativity, in Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, c.1415).

This raises the question whether the promotion of blue was prompted by technical advances, newly discovered pigments for instance or better ways of mastering the dyes. Pastoureau argues that the ideological mutations preceded the chemical ones: it was the association with the Virgin Mary that set kings, later all nobility, to adopt blue. 

Hitherto depicted in sombre colours, referring to her bereavement, Mary gradually sires a blue coat – which also becomes more bright and luminous. And that brighter blue, miniature artists use to paint the sky, which was black or golden before. This is also the period which saw the construction of the Gothic cathedrals with their famous blue stained windows.

The ideological promotion of blue through the Virgin, queen of the heavens, had some serious material consequences too. Blue upstarts so to speak broke through the dyeing guild’s monopoly and set up their own, rivalling organizations. Severely affected in their economic activities, the red dyers resorted to moral warfare to protect their position. Pastoureau tells of two instances where the red dyeing guild tried to convince their stained windows colleagues to represent the devil in blue – in an attempt to discredit the colour altogether. They failed.

I found one example with both red and blue devils. It’s probably not surprising that this Last Judgement (c.1500) adorns St Mary’s, Fairford. Being one of the so-called wool churches, it’s a testament to the wealth of the wool trade in the Cotswolds region. The stunning windows are 
the only surviving set of medieval stained glass in England. I think the blue devil above rather cute but that must be my wicked modern mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red’s downfall continued with new sumptuary laws and sartorial decrees that the civil authorities increasingly promulgated in the 14th and 15th centuries. The purpose was threefold: economic, moral and social. These laws and regulations fought against luxurious and thus unproductive spending. They also condemned new fashions which were considered frivolous, indecent, scandalous even. And above all they aimed to reinforce the boundaries between the different social classes so that all, in their appearance and ways of life, would remain in their stations.

The Reformation of the 16th century concluded the case. Not surprisingly in view of the powerful symbolism set out above, red to the Reformers represented the Papist Church against the many corruptions of which they so ardently fought. Red thus lost its positive connotations and became exclusively negative. Most particularly, red became associated with sin, pure and simple.

Being banned from Paradise was not a pleasant experience (Ulm Münster, 1461).

And this is where the other Fall comes into the picture. When Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Wisdom, it’s the sanctioning red angel who expulses them from Paradise. But with original sin also originated the need for garments. The fact that we wear clothes, is a continued testimony of our inherent sinfulness. Fashion is not only superficial and frivolous, it’s proof that we humans are flawed. It’s therefore right and proper for clothes not to express status, let alone pride: they must contribute to our awareness that we need to be modest and humble. The Reformers had much less faith in salvation or charity, the perspectives were bleak. Hence a much muted down colour palette, if not dominantly black.

Compare these two Holy Families: on the left the Protestant Rembrandt
uses a very muted palette (1634), the Counter Reformation diplomat Rubens (above) paints his colours as bright as can be and even includes a frivolous parrot (c.1614).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although in reaction the Counter Reformation re-enforced red in all its splendour, in more ordinary circumstances the West has actually adopted the more neutral palette of the Reformation. The dark colours that are dominant in office surroundings for instance still refer to a work ethic that since Max Weber is related to Protestantism. Pastoureau concludes more generally that red has almost entirely been banned out of our daily lives, including the public sphere. 

This conclusion struck me to the point that I went out to test it in my home city. And indeed, there is surprisingly little red in Ghent (I’m discounting the reddish bricks and roofs, and publicity signs). And where it is present, it refers to the authority of the Church, and by extension to the old civic powers. Interestingly the positive connotations are in the majority: who wants to see it, finds evidence of divine and mundane love, charity and the power of the city. The references to violence and revolt are much more muted.

Without the truck you might miss the muted red in the roof windows of the Cathedral,
the Beguinage church tower is already somewhat more obvious,
in the Counter Reformation charity building there is no more holding back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bright red gate of the medieval belfry reminds us of the value of the city’s freedom.
 The so-called Dulle Griet (1431) was moved to Ghent to fight the Spanish. The impressive canon, stretching over 5 m and weighing more than 12 ton, now stars mostly and predictably in selfies. 
The fire reference in the streets is benign: in case of emergency the water supply will be easily found.

 

The least you can say is that the much-discussed circulation plan, recently introduced to give pedestrians and cyclists more space, brightens up the city centre.

The only modern exception, where red was relatively recently introduced in the public domain, are the sea, rail and land traffic systems. Here too though the reference is old, with the red indicating control and inhibition.
Why green was introduced, is unclear: the symbolic contrast red/green is unprecedented historically. Some (in the book unnamed) countries contrast red and blue – which is a surprising reference to the battle of the angels and the devils. In Japan they use green but call it blue.

A postbox in front of my favourite building in Ghent: the Castle of the Counts.

There is the material suggestion (also not in the book) that red is simply very striking to our eyes. This might explain why telephone boxes (now extinct on the Belgian streets) used to be red. We still have the red post boxes (but not in the author’s France).

Because Pastoureau pays so much attention to materiality, I don’t think he would disagree. But his conclusion is much more powerful: although red is no longer the preferred colour in the West, it remains the strongest colour symbolically. That’s why red still provokes such strong emotions. With reference to the historic symbolism we understand better why that is so. And it’s fun to adopt a different mindset and observe the battle of the colours.

Where once was the entrance to the red light district, the Ghent artist Jan Van Imschoot painted several scenes of the local history (2000).
Detail of the wall painting: seductive red stockings.

So, do wear red clothes this Fall and decide whether you’re creating your own private Counter Reformation, or simply want to add more blood and fire to your life – in the positive meaning of spirit, charity and love, obviously.

And on a wall very close to where I live, what should always be the final word.

Alternative Creationism (2)

Don’t spend your energy on something you can’t change anyway. That was the good advice of Ignaas Devisch in the previous installment of this blog. The question is who decides what can’t be changed – and on what grounds. TINA (There Is No Alternative) is often an authoritative argument determined to squash the alternatives – that are therefore implicitly very extant indeed. This to be sure is not what Devisch is up to: because of his unusual argument on restlessness, it’s perfectly understandable that his focus is the modern individual. Yet the question remains what happens when one considers the collective level, the origins and effects of restlessness on society. There are, of course, many effects but let’s restrict them for now to the sphere of work.

We know what the effects are: lots of negative stress, growing number of burnouts, many unhappily working people, struggling businesses. There is a lot of debate about this. But there seem to be two standard answers: individual responsibility and collective resignation. It very much feels as if we, as a society, have resigned ourselves to the fact that working conditions are tough. Alas, there’s little we can do about this: there is no alternative – apart from continuously intensifying the burden of individual responsibility. In the current Belgian debate there’s little hesitation to point to people who ‘dare’ to use time credit to travel or to use training money to follow a course on flower arranging or learning Spanish. Both options are no longer available. Or to make it more personal: it’s all very well to advocate alternative creationism as an individual choice but there is only so much crafting an individual can do. If “the infrastructure of society” is geared towards “bad work”, the individual effort often feels meaningless.

I borrow the quoted phrases from a study on Why We Work. Its author is the American psychologist Barry Schwartz (whom Devisch mentions with another interesting book on The Paradox of Choice). Schwartz focuses on the negative effects of modern freedom on the work floor – and what we, collectively, can do about them. Schwartz challenges the deep-seated belief that people work only to get paid. He argues that this stark view of human nature has turned into the dominant ideology which not only realizes a self-fulfilling prophecy but also organizes “the infrastructure of society” in such a way that turning things round may become very difficult indeed.

To understand this complex argument it’s important to stress the difference between the exact and the social sciences. To put it simply, the cosmos doesn’t change when some scientist makes wrong assumptions or executes his experiment wrongly. Ideas about individuals and society do have the power to affect their subjects in the sense we encountered earlier: man is an unfinished project. Far more than Devisch, Schwartz emphasizes the fact that we are to a large extent what society expects from us. Applied to work: if one expects us to be unengaged, then we may start to behave that way. And before long become disengaged. 

A negative view on human nature cannot lead to positive work 

Schwartz identifies the negative view on humans, intrinsically lazy and disinterested, as the ultimate culprit of work misery. And he argues it’s wrong. His own positive argument is in a sense the collective translation of Devisch’s immoderation: in the same way that individuals enjoy action and engagement, society as a whole cherishes the idea of progress. Yet the work related mistrust has become ideological – a TINA assumption that is never questioned. Schwartz cites an intriguing study which established that people recognize in themselves intrinsic motivations to work – but not in others: they’re in it for the money. You may want to check this with yourself: probably you yourself search for and expect meaningfulness in your own job – but you’ve accepted the sad viewpoint that most people can’t? Because we must be realistic? Because ‘menial’ jobs also need to be done? And there’s no way they can be meaningful?

How work becomes meaningful

Schwartz names (among others) Luke, a Yale University Hospital cleaner who finds fulfillment in his supposedly menial job because he’s internalized the mission of his workplace, namely caring for people. There are many people like Luke, who have intrinsic motivations for wanting to do a good job. In other words: the job is not (only) instrumental (to get a paycheck), it’s considered important and worthwhile for reasons that lie within the job itself. And of course this makes sense considering the amount of time we spend working (and thinking about work).

The good news is that virtually any job can provide meaning when there is a measure of autonomy, flexibility, variety and skill development, when there is space to learn and grow and, especially, when there is a sense that one contributes to the well-being of others, however small. Schwartz refers to caretakers, workers on a factory floor, phone solicitors and hairdressers to drive down the point that there is no need to think that only the happy few could hope for meaningful work. To my delight I discovered that what Luke and others are doing has been called job crafting. The American organizational behaviorist Amy Wrzesniewski saw that people often redesign jobs so that they foster purpose and thus work satisfaction. She also defines ways in which organizations can actively take on this role. The important conclusion is that virtually all jobs can be organized in a way that affects positively both the workers and, obviously not unimportant, the performance of the organization. In other words, there are alternative ways to work.

The vicious circle of bad work

The bad news is that the “infrastructure of society”, that is, the collective structures mostly go the other way – and there is no reason to believe that they will correct themselves “naturally”. More concretely, Schwartz points to the two standard methods for managing supposedly disinterested workers: material incentives and close monitoring of work that has been routinized. The striking conclusion is that both tools have negative effects on work engagement and satisfaction.

Intuitively we think that material incentives, such as wages, bonuses, extralegal advantages, contribute to work positivity. Research has shown the opposite. The main reason is that money is an external motivation, one which lies outside the actual job at hand. And when people are encouraged to attach great importance to external factors, whatever intrinsic motivation they may have had is undermined. In short, the money always wins. And the people involved, the workers but also the employers, the clients, the patients, the customers, loose.

Close job monitoring on the other hand requires an extra layer of managers whose own job mainly consists of controlling others. And they do so in relation to jobs that are increasingly routinized on the basis of detailed scripts that leave no room for variety or individual initiative. Again, it’s not difficult to imagine how all involved draw very little satisfaction from their work.

Yet both methods, material incentives and increasing control, continue to gain importance – and thus strengthen the infrastructure of society, the structures that are difficult to change anyway. They also create a vicious circle of increasingly lower engagement and a dwindling sense of purpose and meaningfulness. Illustrating the rising application of these methods with examples in education, law and medicine, Schwartz argues that good work thus turns into bad work. And all this largely as a result of the mistaken assumption that workers don’t want to do a good job! 

We see the results of bad work all around us. We all know people who experience their job as monotonous and meaningless. Perhaps we experience it so ourselves. Much in Devisch’s way Schwartz points to individual responsibility but he forcefully emphasizes the limits of that approach. If the environment is inhospitable to meaningful work, as Schwartz demonstrates it often is, a collective effort is needed to combat the dominant ideology and replace it with an alternative view both on human nature and our notion of efficiency. 

Economic democracy

The amazing thing is: the alternatives already exist – successfully. Recently I heard an interview on the Flemish radio with the Dutch entrepreneur Allard Droste whose building company functions “without leaders”. There are no meetings, the salaries are good but not excessive. The 50 workers can each make decisions and place orders, for large sums of money. The interviewer couldn’t contain his incredulity and posed what was meant to be the ultimate question to destroy the naivety: “But what if the wrong decision is taken?” The reply was swift – and so very much to the point: “Well, it goes wrong in other companies, doesn’t it?” Indeed, it does. Frequently. And we all know it. So why is there so little effort to try the alternatives? 

In The Seven-Day Weekend Brazilian Semco’s CEO Richardo Semler shows how the Way Work Works can be Changed. He summarizes his innovative management method with reference to its fundamentally decentralized and participatory style. The starting point is the current economic disruption, no naivety here!, and “the need – the absolute necessity – to give up control”. The only alternative according to Semler, his own TINA, is trust. The principle is very simple: everyone makes difficult and complex decisions every day in their daily, personal lives. So why would the professional sphere be the only one in which people cannot be trusted? Notice how the foundational viewpoint is positive – and how different that is from what we’re used to.

The “Seven-Day Weekend” refers to the goal of creating the circumstances in which “workers [can] be men and women in full”: “No-one […] can endure leaving half a life in the parking lot when she or he goes to work.”  In other words, consider workers as human beings and aim to contribute to their living a more integrated life. By avoiding conventional business practices including formal structures, Semco encourages workers to explore their own talents and interests and seek personal challenges before trying to meet the company’s goals. Yet because these goals are so explicitly and repeatedly communicated and debated, the match happens almost organically and translates “naturally into profit and growth.” Semler insists that: 

“On-the-job democracy isn’t just a lofty concept but a better, more profitable way to do things.”

Semco is a very profitable, expanding business. Its principles have been adapted at schools, hospitals, police departments, companies large and small around the world. The emphasis on trust is the foundation of the fundamentally different view on human nature Schwartz insists on. And it seems so simple: trust in people at work creates a “virtuous circle” that includes individual autonomy, skill development, profitability and above all purposefulness and meaning. Good work in short.

Meanwhile in Belgium

I’m sad to say little of the above can be heard in the current Belgian debate. The Bill on Flexible, Workable Work of Federal minister Kris Peeters, has just been voted. And it’s pretty obvious that the implicit founding assumption is a very negative view on human nature – that needs to be controlled and externally incentivized. It reinforces in other words the infrastructure of society in a way that puts even more obstacles to changing work for the better. Unwittingly the ideology is given free rein to continue its negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Bill refers time and again to more flexibility and ‘external’ measures such as the ability to “save up” working hours. There’s not a single measure that refers to intrinsic motivation – or how to insert that concept into the work practice. One of the union representatives in the debate rejects more autonomy on the grounds that people will work simply harder and longer. His solution to work less is presented as TINA: only 34% of employees of 40 or older can imagine “coping” with their job until retirement age. Note the resignation towards ‘bad work’. In reply the CEO’s of the most important employers’ organizations present their own TINA: “The solution is not to work less but more” (sic). They remain entirely within a quantitative framework which has nothing to do with Schwartz’s suggestion of a collective turnaround. “And does it still need to be said”, the responsibility for stress and burn-outs lays “only in part” in the work sphere, it’s (also) “overloaded personal activity calendars”. Note the negative view on human nature: the individual is not to be trusted with his personal choices, so how can you expect us to trust them in the professional sphere? The solution, so the CEO’s claim, is the employers’ current engagement towards a “competence driven employment strategy” – as if any employer in the past would consciously have employed someone who wasn’t competent.

But as Schwartz and Semler have taught us, that’s not the point. What we should be aiming for, is a work definition driven by individual satisfaction and meaningfulness. We need in other words a match between the values of the worker and the organization. For the latter one of the goals will be profit, obviously, but one may hope that it aims to do so with a contribution, however small, to the well-being of those involved – and that it is capable and willing of communicating this contribution to its employees. People look for meaningfulness – and that can be found virtually anywhere, if we are prepared to make the effort, not only to see it but also to make it explicit. The purpose of work then should be at the centre: make it a shared subject of debate and responsibility between management and workers – and start from there. 

Perhaps it’s not too late. Belgium has a strong tradition of social consultation and much remains to be negotiated about the Bill. The so-called Social Partners must become aware of the negative foundation of all their debating and negotiating. If they can change that, if they can collectively decide to replace the resignation with a more positive notion of human nature, they can break the vicious circle. Let’s be optimistic and put it more positively:

Let’s all cultivate our garden.
The final sentence of ‘Candide’ carries the message of my box installation on hope.

The phrase is from Voltaire who used it to conclude his harsh critique on 18th-century French society. Some have suggested it’s an argument for withdrawal from the world: as the case is helpless, give up. With alternative creationism I argue differently: we collectively have the urgent responsibility to turn things around and create an alternative, flourishing “garden” – that is indeed our own, of all of us. In many cases and certainly in the case of work, alternative creationism must be collective. It will be alternative because it’s founded on a radically different, more optimistic and trusting viewpoint on human nature. And it will be creationist because this is a question of collectively creating an equally radically different, meaningful concept and practice of work. As mentioned before, the process of creating understood as craftsmanship refers to the basic human impulse to do a job well for its own sake. And the Enlightenment, of which Voltaire was one of the spokesmen, believed that everyone possesses the ability to do good work that will generate genuine satisfaction. There is in other words an intelligent crafts(wo)man in each of us. With Schwartz I argue that faith still makes sense – if we as a society choose to act upon it.

My installation visualizes new beginnings: new leaves on an old tree, lace to let the light through and glasses to see more clearly.  
This person (by the Flemish artist Michaël Borremans)  is turned away in contemplation. A serious effort is needed to change things.

 

 

The door handle and the watering can are very much in the foreground: the time to change is now.

A Resolution to Your Future Self

The holiday season is again upon us. I’m always delighted when I come across textile interpretations of all the lovely feelings we want to spread around this time of the year. For instance, how wonderful is it to save a Christmas tree and compose one instead with wool bobbins! This one stands in the window of a hairdresser’s in my lovely city of Ghent.

What a delight to come across such creativity, simply passing in an unassuming street.
Here, I presume, the hairdresser who came up with this great idea.
And he has an eye for enhancing details!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yet despite all the messages of peace and harmony, the holiday season is usually a rather stressful period for most of us. One unmistakable factor causing the stress is finding the right present for the ones we love. The present we’re expected to come up with, is preferably something unusual and clever, entirely suitable for and thus desirable to the person it’s aimed at. The result is almost unlimited consumerism, last Sunday was the penultimate shopping day in Belgium since records began!

The question is: do we really need more stuff? Will that make the New Year happy? Aren’t we supposed to be making resolutions about (among others) sustainability and becoming more aware of the environment? To be more content with what we (already) have and more importantly, with who we are? I’m certainly not the first to note that objects don’t satisfy for long. But putting a sustainability resolution in a box with a bow won’t do of course. So how to get out of this predicament?

I have a simple suggestion. And of course it involves fabrics 😉 but I’m sure you can come up with all sorts of other applications. What I’m suggesting is that we don’t so much give things as time. Our time.

How much stronger can a message of affection be when you’ve thought of something to make, wondered about what materials you need, where to find them and how to apply them with what techniques, and then, with a lot of attention, devotion and patience, turn your mind’s image into realization? With a bit of luck both you and the receiver experience genuine satisfaction: (s)he gets a unique present which communicates love and focal attention, in the creative process you feel the earlier mentioned energizing flow.

I know. The process of the making preferably ends in a present – which is of course still ‘stuff’. I don’t really have a solution for this: as any resolution, time does not fit easily into a box. But can we agree that it’s not the product that is important but its symbolic value? That would have the additional benefit that its form hardly matters: the idea is to spread the well-intentional sentiments of the season and be broadminded enough to support them in all shapes and sizes. But of course the holiday season is already here. Even if you can overcome the first objection, there is the now more pressing one that you don’t have the time anymore to make those handmade lovelies.

As this is the season of compassion and generosity, be merciful towards yourself too. And be kind towards your future self! There is indeed no point to get all worked up and let yourself be defeated by the sheer impossibility of the task. What you can do now, is to make an unusual and clever resolution:

I will explore my creativity this coming year. And I will do so in a way that I will look forward to the next holiday season – for I’ll have all my crafty presents ready long before the first Jingle Bells! 

 

The benefit of making the resolution now is double. First this is together with the Summer probably the period of the year that you have more time than ordinary to be curious and explore, in terms of subject, materials and or techniques. Be nice to yourself and offer yourself that time and space to experiment, to see what comes out of your creative process, and wonder whom you will delight with the result next time you find an occasion to celebrate (and inventing those occasions is permitted!).

Second the season offers plentiful inspiration. It provides a whole series of themes, figures and settings that invite creative interpretation. I’m happy to share some of my earlier explorations. But remember: they’re simply meant to inspire, nót to re-create the stress that you’ll never find the time to make so many presents at once. I didn’t either: I made them slowly, patiently, throughout a great many years. 

There is these days a curious, rather tiring discussion in Belgium about whether a nativity set is neutral enough to decorate a public space. I think the discussion ridiculous. It heightens both anxiety and hostility when we should be reflecting harder and better on what’s happening in our world. Why not be inspired by the spirit of the season and understand that to include mildness and generosity?

Fortunately my nativities were never meant for public display. And I like nativity sets: because we all know the story of Christmas, it almost doesn’t matter which components you include, play down or highlight. It is in other words a perfect theme for your very own interpretation.  

My five variations on the theme each 
include felt & vintage finds.
Note the subdued sheep above,
which here have turned very playful!

 

 

 

 

This is my personal favourite: small felt figures, each containing a loadstone which on a vintage platter made magnetic enables movement. Here the arrival of the Wise Men from the East with their precious gifts.

 

Another option is to select one component of the nativity set and explore the various ways in which you can convey all the lovely feelings you want to spread around. The messagers from above seem a good option: surely there are no people who object to angels?

Angels can for instance be reflective or exuberant. Left they’re
entirely made of felt, above & right, it’s a humble wine cork 
which supports their crochet outfit & wings.

 

You could also do stars or candles or Christmas trees. Or take the most humble part of the nativity which in itself suggests softness, warmth and cuddliness: perhaps sheep transmit the seasonal aspirations best? 

First there were two,
then they multiplied in numbers & in colours,
finally to make a very merry flock indeed!

 

Bet anyone’s ears will feel warmer with these merry sheep coming along?

And in case you like more ‘useful’ gifts, why not transfer your theme to objects that equally add to the glow of the season?

 

 

 

gen.er.ous adj. 1: free in giving or sharing

2: noble syn open-handed

It’s not fortuituous that two of the central figures of my favourite nativity set, Mary & Balthazar,
have their arms wide open.

In giving or sharing our time, we practice not only our craft but also our generosity. And being open-handed can lead to an open heart and mind. Which are qualities we very much need in these times.

 

I wish you this season much softness, warmth, mildness, and an open mind and heart for all that life has on offer for you in 2017. And good luck with the resolutions to your future self! 

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

The Invitation of the City

Donald Trump called Brussels “a hellhole” and Belgium “a beautiful city”. Twice wrong, Mr Presidential Candidate.

Of course there are problems in Brussels, as there are everywhere. But it is a beautiful city. Blaming the lack of assimilation of the Muslim population as Trump did, is miscasting the issue. Essentially this is about the fate of multiculturalism for us all, or to put it more simply: how do we see the contemporary city and how does – can it relate to the good life?  

Overall Flemish people prefer to live in a village or in suburbia. Historically this was stimulated by the 19th-century governments which were predominantly catholic and which feared the socialist influences of the city: they supported more rural communities with initiatives such as cheap train tickets. Flanders thus has a tradition of commuting to work and of living a long distance from it (as far as that is possible in Belgium). Hence significant traffic problems which seem to worsen every month. More broadly the so-called ribbon development (a textile reference by the way) causes problems which will only increase in the near future: it tests the environment obviously but also public services that are already strained such as the post, buses and energy distribution. The Flemish Master Builder Leo Van Broeck therefore calls for a ‘condensation’ of our living together.

Perhaps what’s needed above all is that Flemish people get to love the city. Many of them work in Brussels but they commute in and out: they don’t know the city very well. Maybe they got lost once too often, both literally and linguistically, with Dutch being rarely spoken. Or perhaps they associate it with the complicated politics of Belgium and more generally, with problems that are seen as typically urban. Brussels is decidedly multicultural. And that unmistakenly adds to the unease. After the terrorist attacks of March 22 Brussels held an international campaign  #CallBrussels to convince foreign tourists to come to the capital of Europe. Why not organise such a campaign for the Flemish as well?

I was/am lucky: my family often went to Brussels and I associate it with culture, history and art, with good food, fun and discovering interesting and exciting things. Brussels is a great place for exploration. So let me try and share some of my enthousiasm with you. I’m leaving out the standard tourist attractions, delightful though they are. It’s both a humble and a more ambitious tour I’m suggesting. Ambitious because I hope to show how the city invites us to reflect upon some of the components of the good urban life, humble because it’s based on what I encountered on an ‘ordinary’ day in Brussels in terms of colours and fabrics. The day was not so ordinary though: I spent my recent birthday in Brussels ;-).

I found the city most welcoming to my purposes: already at my arrival in the Central Station of Brussels, enormous socks (introducing ‘Atelier Veritas’ of the eponymous chain which sells among others craft materials) promised me a rich textile harvest.

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By the way, the men in green (right) were part of yet another day of action against
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the government plans about ‘adaptable’ work which I mentioned in my last post.
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The city supported my festive mood.

The day was truly festive: I followed a rich trail of secondhand and vintage shops where I found a few really nice pieces to add to my wardrobe and to start dreaming up new box installations and other craft projects. I also visited the Vossenplein, literally the Square of the Fox but in French called the Place du Jeu de balle. This is part of the charm of Brussels: why use literal translations when with two appelations you can refer to the complexity of history? In this case it was the metal factory Usine du Renard that is reflected in the Dutch name, the square that came in its place was reserved au jeu et à la récréation (to games and recreation) and included a trail for kaatsen or jeu de balle, a ball game which resembles the Basque pelota.  

vossenplein4vossenplein3Every day the Vossenplein holds a market which is a delight for treasure hunters like me, with all sorts of objects and trinkets, it seems you can find anything in any material you may want. Some patience and persistence are necessary for there is little order in the amazing offer. And haggling is part of the fun! 

 

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Textile work in an art gallery close to the Vossenplein.
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Street art, emphasised by the contrasting colour of street machinery.
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A yarn bobbin used to set off beautiful jewelry.

I also enjoyed being surprised by textiles and colour virtually around every corner. 

 

Even on the street floor colour is omnipresent, like in these tiles which I found all over the city. They must be part of a series, inserted in the streets as part of a particular project? I don’t know but they’re fun.

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street-craftNear the Vossenplein I found an intriguing book on Street Craft. On a terrace nearby I started leafing through the book and realised I had given myself a great birthday present! Just before my coffee break I had taken photographs of glass containers which featured historical figures in elaborate attire: were they meant to promote selective waste disposal? And then I discovered in the book a similar project in Berlin which aims to embellish ugly everyday objects in order to make people smile.

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Metalheads (2007) by Mentalgassi, a Berlin collective which regards the city as its playing ground.

 

 

 

 


img_1086I found another historical figure, in a window of a building for rent. Is it really the case that people find such images attractive to the point that they can be encouraged to take action? How intriguing!      

I was now set on finding more examples of urban (textile) art which according to the book aims to reinvent the public space. The environment is very much part of the creations that want to embellish the city at the same time as engaging the community of ‘ordinary’ passers by into claiming that public space.

Street craft invites curiosity and engagement.

What to think of this car for instance? It seemed it was parked in its drab Brussels street, simply to add wonder and fun to it.

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Indeed, why not use the back of a car to add colour to the street?
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Of course the front seats can’t stay behind. And the crown on the work:
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a dashboard full of animals & flowers.

 

 

 

 

 

To my delight I also came across urban crochet. This type of street craft, often called yarnbombing, covers buildings, trees, bike racks, statues and much more in crochet or knitting. It’s guerilla action primarily aimed at eliciting a smile from the unexpecting passer by. The creations are by definition temporary: they endure the effects of wind and rain.

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Yarnbombing
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in Brussels.

And they depend on the goodwill of the public to extend their ephemeral existence for as long as possible. Yarnbombing is a new phenomenon that arose in the new millenium. And it can be found everywhere.

 

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Crocheted circles on the bridge of 
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the Amsterdam Eye.
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The yarnbombing of this bus in London took Knitta Please 4 days and a tón of yarn.

 

 

 

 

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a street sculpture by Ishknits in Oakland.
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Steps in Helsinki and

Yarnbombing is fun. It transforms existing street furniture into colourful statements that indeed make you smile.  But there’s much more to it. Not surprisingly the creators of textile street craft are mostly women, extending their traditionally intimate sphere into the streets. Often working in collectives such as Knitta Please, Craftivist Collective or Ishknits, these women reinterprete domestic techniques by playing with subject, context and proportions. And the reinterpretation is often gender inspired. Not only has street art, long dominated by graffiti, tended to be very male, the public space itself carries a masculine culture. To encourage people then to reconsider their daily environment is to open the possibility of reinterpreting its gender stereotypes. And much broader, street art invites us to reimagine a more inclusive public and community life.

The street art of women such as Olek or Sarah Corbett of the Craftivist Collective wants to contribute to the public debate. The visual impact and the immediate character of their creations encourage the public to think, to question, to participate. The Polish born, New York based artist Olek wants to bring colour and life, energy and surprise to the public space. But she immediately acknowledges that for many, especially living in the city, life is not easy. With the old fashioned crochet technique she often uses she represents both the complexity and the interconnectedness of modern times. And she insists on strong public messages about large political themes such as the bank crisis, climate change or the condition of freedom. By thus ‘invading’ the public space she hopes to get people out of their comfort zone into a more activist stance.

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‘I’m Still Proud to Say What I Do for a Living’.
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A yarn call for environmental awareness.
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‘There is no such thing as part freedom’.

 

Liverpool based Sarah Corbett also addresses the ambiguities of modern life. She wants “to make people stronger and to encourage them to use their talents and possibilities to become part of the solution rather than of the problem.” It’s safe to assume that she defines “the problem” rather differently from Donald Trump. But it’s equally city related and it includes the many forms of social injustice – or the question of the quality of collective life. Corbett uses cross-stitch because in true craft tradition, she likes the fact that it gives her time to think. And what she thinks about is what people may need to feel more at home in the city. Her suggestions, spread throughout the city in the form of gentle cross-stitched messages, focus on agency: it’s passively undergoing change that hurts people and makes them feel like a refugee in their own city. Corbett wants to reach out to people and empower them to help change the world, one stitch at the time. 

Corbett shows how craft can be the tool for positive activism: because it’s naturally slow and quiet, it allows the crafter to reflect deeply upon the issues he or she wants to address. And when craftivism shows itself in the city, it invites conversation. Passers by often respond spontaneously: they feel the invitation is safe and respectful. And it works! Lots of people feel empowered and they join in, whether it’s through stitching themselves or spreading the messages via social media. Corbett now trains people into “gentle activism” that is encouraging and hopeful. At the heart of Craftivism is the belief that even humble actions can be transformative. The transformation will be slow, in the way that crafting is. Yet as the confidence in our own agency grows stronger, it can more effectively affect the public world that is indeed complex.

Or how an exploratory tour through Brussels sparks reflection upon what the good (urban) life may consist of. And what it may require from us. I can’t wait to see an explosion of craft messages in all our streets. 

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corbett-change2corbett-change3

 

 

 

 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

 

A Humble Trick to Happiness

There’s a lot to do in Belgium these days about so-called workable, meaningful and adaptable work. We should all work longer, yet potential employers fear less productivity and discriminate against candidates from 47 onwards. With a ‘normal’ trajectory, you should be about halfway your career then – another twenty years to go! At the same time long-term absence through sickness or burn-out has never been higher. And yet the ceo of a large employers’ federation managed to comment on the national radio that with burn-out, the problem isn’t work – but all the other activities that fill people’s free time. No outcry followed.

There is also little sense that this discussion (and the action, with yesterday a national manifestation against the government measures concerning work), should be about what the good life consists of. The Flemish suicide rates are about one and a half percent higher than the European average, for women Flanders sits uncomfortably in the top together with Lituania and Hungary. Apparently we have the wrong attitude towards finding help and our problem solving behaviour and communication aren’t good either. Just today the media were already happy that the number of Belgians who take antidepressiva stagnated from 2014 to 2015. This ‘happy’ news is rather sour when one considers that’s still one in ten, or a rise of 16,5% in 10 years’ time. And it suggests that we, as a society, have learnt to accept this sorry state of affairs.  

Yet ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being’ is everywhere you look and compared to previous generations we have armies of ‘health workers’ in the broadest sense of the word at our disposal. Surely all the attention to positive psychology should offer us all we need to improve our psychological health? happiness-industry2In The Happiness Industry William Davies forcefully questions that: emotions have simply become a new resource to be bought and sold.  In a sense capitalism has further expanded. What the system used to regard with suspicion – feeling, friendship, moral responsability, creativity – have now all been co-opted for the purpose of maximising profits. It seems that there is nothing that cannot be instrumentalized. And all this is done via a psychological approach which, because of its individualistic focus, does not need to acknowledge a larger ideological framework. Attention is simply displaced.

Meaningful work, in the Belgian government’s terms: workable work, seems laudable in the view of so many unhappy workers. But the fact that its twin, adaptable work, is virtually always mentioned in the same breath, raises suspicion: are we talking about the well-being of people – or of the system? How come this discussion doesn’t include an analysis of underlying economic or social causes? Why do we hear so little about the societal sources of this state of affairs? When and how did it happen that the collective is reduced to the point that it’s not even mentioned in talk about trends which by definition cannot be individual? In a similar vein as the ceo cited earlier, some psychologists concluded after the economic crash of 2008 that the problem was not the bank system but the emotions of the bank workers. And since how you feel cannot be argued against, it’s conveniently insulated from all debate.

Happiness is not divorced from the material conditions in which we live. Intuitively we all know that it’s bound up with our activities, whether work or otherwise. It is not a mere subjective affair.  Yet that’s the way it’s presented – and very succesfully it is too. We all seem to have incorporated the notion that our psychological state is 1) very important and 2) our very own individual responsability. We’re thrown back at ourselves to improve things. And lo and behold, there is a whole new ‘industry’ that is devoted to our well-being, that offers this training, that method, this diet or supplements, that course of action, that will raise our level of happiness. The offer is there, manifold. If you’re still not happy, evidently it’s your own fault.

I have very mixed feelings about this. Davies’ argument is compelling and I do believe the discussion about the good life should also be conducted at a collective level. Yet when one feels unhappy, surely it’s legitimate that one tries to do something about it. I too aim to improve my well-being in a variety of ways. And I do think it’s mostly up to me. That makes me so to speak a collaborator who maintains the Happiness Industry as Davies describes it. Is there another way?

Just last Saturday I was at a workshop where someone asked for a “simple trick when things do not go well”. In managerial terms this would be a ‘quick win’. How could you be against that? But this is of course a rather desperate question of someone who may not be able to carry all that individual responsability. And I saw many people in the room nodding as if to say: yes, I feel the same and I would like to know a way out too. There was, not surprisingly, no answer: if we no longer believe in the collective, there can also be no straightforward recipes that work for everyone.

Yet commercially the myth of the collective booms. Especially the immensely popular literature on self-help and well-being thrives on the assumption that one size may fit all. Read this book and the world will change for all of you. It’s telling that Gretchen Rubin apologises repeatedly in The Happiness Project that she tells her own story, in the hope that it may be inspiring for others. happiness-projectAlthough not really unhappy, she concentrated for twelve months on how to improve the quality of her life. Within a carefully chosen theme per month she defines a number of very concrete aims – and reports honestly on their realisation (or not). Inez van Oord, creator of the successful magazins Seasons and cirkelHappinez, combines in If Life Is a Circle (in Dutch) her individual story with a more generalistic approach.  I personally think The Happiness Project works better: the individual account is indeed inspiring. It’s not a ‘simple trick’ that everyone should follow blindly, it’s an open invitation to explore possibilities on the basis of what they did for the author. General recommendations so often are, well, so very general that they cannot drag you into action. Rubin also doesn’t claim any quick wins, her story is one of careful thought, concentration and persistence. 

I too have my own personal list of “tricks” for “when things don’t go well”. And among the most effective for me is being creative. Of course that begs the question: what is ‘being creative’? Recently I expressed my incomprehension about wanting to make your own jam – when there are so many delicious jams to be had, without much effort apart from choosing from the bewildering offer. The reply was swift: and why would anyone want to make one’s own clothes or jewelry? Point taken! It’s irrelevant what it is, as long as it works for you. And in the quest for your own set of tricks, it’s inspiring to learn how others found and or changed their expression of creativity.

In the already mentioned Why We Make Things kornPeter Korn relates how he started off as a self-made craftsman who really struggled to continue to learn ànd to find appreciation for his craftsmanship. Yet he ended up as an school administrator, creating the circumstances in which others can learn and create more at ease. To the repeated critique that he denounced his creative mission, he replies that he is still being creative, albeit in a different way. I love this story, especially because it shows how narrowmindedly we usually interpret creativity. And how broad its range can be.

The creative process is a mystery. And unless we’re talking about out-of-reach artistic genius, I sincerely believe anything can be a source of inspiration. The point is to be curious and explore, whether in terms of subject, materials, techniques – or all of them at once. It’s about focal attention to the point of reaching flow. It’s about activities that we want to do well for their own sakes. It’s about slow time or kairos in which we may see a glimpse of the good life. 

For me, creativity is (among others) about fabrics and fibers. So let me show you some humble craft examples. They’re mostly imitations in the sense that I tried to reproduce an existing design or object into felt. They’re certainly not perfect. But I made them thoughtfully, with care and attention. And the necessary persistence tricked me into more well-being. 

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Probably the most famous mouse in the world,
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needlefelted on a brooch for my godson who finally enjoys reading thanks to Geronimo Stilton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A delightful trumpet playing pig,
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and her needlefelted sister. Especially the jaunty legs were a challenge 😉
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And surely other animals can play an instrument too?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Or what about a piggy bank?
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Perhaps its decoration suggested that I should be saving to buy a house.
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I bought a silk scarf instead and created my very own felt Monopoly street.

 

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The humble guardian angel is mine,

 

 

 

 

 

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my niece made the painting. How delightful that she turned the colours around: she found her own expression of creativity!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the process of making these things I was happy. Because they were gifts and or home decoration, I hope the happiness contained in them spreads wider. And that might be a very humble contribution to making well-being a collective objective again.

Clothes on Display

It happened naturally, almost without me noticing it.

Clothes are everywhere in my apartment. The photographs in a previous post already suggested a serious collection of fashion. And books and magazines related to textiles in the widest sense of the word are also present in significant numbers. But those are subjects for later posts. For now I want to suggest an alternative praxis which may find its way into your own home. With little effort, I promise!

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A friendly gatekeeper greets anyone who climbs the stairs.

 

To adapt a well-known expression to our current needs, all’s well that begins well.

So visitors to my home are ‘warned’ even before they enter:

 

This is the crux of the matter: I think (some) clothes are too beautiful to be hidden away in closets. So I let them out, literally, to do their thing – which is to give us joy, because of the happy amalgamation of colour, shape and style.

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A vintage kimono combined with the dress my godmother wore to my parents’ wedding attune beautifully with the oriental green house I painted in the upstairs’ corridor.

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Another great thing about decorating with clothes is that you can update your interior when and as often as takes your fancy, without having to think about new paints or wallwapers, let alone about finding time to do the decorating. Changing the jacket on a manekin (a word of Dutch origin by the way) doesn’t take valuable time away from, for instance, adapting that lovely dress you found for no money in a secondhand shop to your own measures and tastes. Speaking of which, since June 1 ecocheques can be used in Belgium to pay for secondhand clothes – which is a great way to promote the sharing economy.

Even the bathroom doesn't escape.
Even the bathroom doesn’t escape.

 With its focus on sustainability and social responsibility experts say this alternative has staying power, which I for one hope to be true. Without getting too highbrow about it, when we all contribute, we make it happen. So why not give it a try?Decorating with clothes is simple. It doesn’t require much time or effort. It adds personality to your home.

And it can be applied anywhere:

 

William Morris (1834-1896) already understood:

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful,      or believe to be beautiful.

Colour Fundamentalism

Colour plays an important role in my life.

Which is why I call myself a colour ‘fundamentalist’.

This means, amongst other things, that I ‘need’ colours to be coordinated – and that I can spend a lot of time making sure they are.

This is most obvious in my wardrobe. I’m often decked out monochromously: wearing one colour at the time – two at once is about my maximum. That doesn’t mean I wear one shade of colour only: the fun bit is precisely to combine different tints & hues which make up an harmonious whole. And I’m always delighted when I find a scarf which enables me to wear two colours the match of which didn’t come to me naturally.

Especially in winter I’m always surprised at how little colour there is to be seen in the streets. In Belgium, where I live, winters are generally grey, why would we want to strengthen that colourlessness?

My clothes are (somewhat) ordered by colour, how else?
My clothes are (in piles
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or on hangers) ordered 
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by colour, how else?

 

 

 

 

The interior of my home also testifies to my colour fundamentalism. Each room has a distinct colour & its attributes contribute to the overall colour scheme, again with the hope of many different hues creating harmony. A friend long believed that I changed clothes every time I went into another room. That’s taking it a bit far 😉

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But I must admit that my books too are arranged by colour.

 

Colour is undervalued.

I would be delighted if I could make you think and act differently about something that can add so much joy to your life & those around you.