An Argument for Simplicity

picket fence oakland

As artisans we’re often compelled to make things that last, for obvious reasons. If the thing is functional we don’t want out efforts to be wasted; we want the functionality to remain in tact over time, hopefully adding to a thing’s value. If a thing is purely aesthetic, we want its beauty and meaning to translate across spans of time beyond our reach. What makes something last is all the more compelling in an age of rapidly changing technology, infrastructure and economies, where obsolescence becomes almost an intrinsic value to any manufactured thing.

I’m particularly drawn to things that were made to last that retain their beauty and functionality despite their obsolescence- barns, tools, scientific apparatus, even weapons- and find myself searching for persistent patterns that might apply to making anything of relevance to contemporary life. Here is a little glimpse of my findings related to what makes something last:

Historically, things made to last are a distillation and/or embodiment of a set of cultural values that, by mining accumulated knowledge, project forward, assuming they (the values) will remain relevant. I can think of three cases of the above:

  • architecture and hard goods (furnishings and other functional or domestic objects)
  • technology and hardware
  • information/publication/knowledge

Each of these can be parsed out into two general categories:

  • those that allow for adaptation and improvement through maintenance and use
  • those that are locked in to any combined set of beliefs, labor practices and assumptions about material resources

The first grouping would be epitomized by concepts like open source, crowd source and constitutions of binding laws, but are only occasionally manifest in the built environment unless at the service of public safety (building codes). The second grouping constitutes a more monolithic capture of a particular time and place where the same factors of labor, material and use are frozen for the ages, with varying degrees of adaptability- barns, tools, weapons, energy production, etc.. Ideally, making something that lasts today hybridizes the two groupings by taking into account the dynamic interplay of variables like labor, material, distribution and patterns of use, with the added goal of minimizing waste and energy consumption in the process.

Things will last that have the capacity to change or resist change in sync with or in anticipation of the ideas and values they embody, which is an argument for simplicity.

2 replies on “An Argument for Simplicity”

  1. “capacity to change or resist change”- there’s the rub. Is that something that can be intended do you think, I mean by someone in process of creating? Your argument is beautifully clear, though simplicity needs to be supported by a very complicated framework as you lay it out. I think that’s the case also but it sort of alters the definition-of simple.

  2. Good to hear from you, Chuck. Your comments gave me an idea for a follow up post. I should have something up in the next few days so stay tuned. Cheers-

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