FEBRUARY 27, 2021
1) THIS IS A really good book, and a short one.
2) When you were a kid, did you ever build an improvised fort in your backyard? I did, at my grandma’s house, utilizing a stepladder, a few deck chairs, and some dust sheets. I loved it, but that was about as far as my architectural efforts ever went. This is very different from Leonard Koren’s experience.
When Koren was a teenager, his stepfather went to Japan and returned with a stack of books about Japanese design and architecture. Having absorbed the material, writes Koren, “I asked my mother if I could build a Japanese teahouse in a corner of our property.”
Now, I believe my own mother, and certainly my grandma, would have said no, but Koren’s mother was more compliant and told him to go ahead and build. I’m also not sure that every boy would have seen the project through to completion, but Koren did — and, he says, he “proceeded to make something quite unorthodox, yet in terms of atmosphere, it was faithful to the earliest Japanese tea-related environments.” In a footnote, he tells us that “[t]he ‘spiritual authenticity’ of my tea house became apparent to me much later.”
3) The title of Koren’s book is a doozy because it contains three words — musings, curious, aesthete — the meanings of which we all more or less think we know and yet which are also slippery and paradoxical, tending to drift away from us the harder we try to pin them down.
4) What, or who, is an aesthete? Is it someone who lives for beauty? Is it simply someone who has expertise? Is it someone who believes in art for art’s sake? Is it William Morris? Edward Burne-Jones? Oscar Wilde? They would certainly all have considered themselves aesthetes — indeed, part of the Aesthetic Movement, for which they were much mocked, not least by Gilbert and Sullivan. But to be publicly and widely mocked suggests that you may be doing something right. In ancient Greek, αἰσθητής (aisthētḗs) simply means “one who perceives.”
To be fair, Koren has some of the same difficulties defining an aesthete as the rest of us do. He previously wrote a book with the title Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean?: Ten Definitions (2010). In his current book, he writes,
It is the “thinking about” that distinguishes the aesthetic from the merely sensorial or hedonistic. […] Sensorial means not only the sensations of touch, taste, smell, sight and sound, but also cerebral “feelings” — like the tingle of evocative ideas coursing through the brain.
This makes a lot of sense to me, and I think, without being absolutely certain, that Koren would agree with Wilde that “[b]eauty has as many meanings as man has moods. Beauty is the symbol of symbols. Beauty reveals everything, because it expresses nothing.”
5) As for curiosity — well, educators (and indeed aesthetes) surely consider it a universally good thing. An inquiring mind seems to be the most basic and useful piece of equipment you can have for understanding and engaging with the world.
A bit of free association, and a look along my bookshelves, brings up The Curious Mr Sottsass (1996), a book of photographs taken by the man behind Memphis design — he’s curious about things such as walls, pipes, graveyards, beds, kitchens, war, and “Eros.” There are cabinets of curiosity, there’s Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. There’s “A Field Guide to Curiosity,” Mark Dion’s online project to “intervene” in the collections at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. There’s the comic Curious George, of course, and Mark Haddon’s riff on Sherlock Holmes, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and those thrillingly transgressive (or so it might have seemed at the time) movies, I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) and I Am Curious (Blue) (1968). Curiosity also just happens to be the name of the vehicle designed by NASA to explore the Gale Crater on Mars.
As we well know, there is one major piece of folk wisdom telling us that “curiosity killed the cat,” which is really an admonition to mind your own damn business, but it’s an admonition most of us ignore, and we’re happy to take our chances.
There is also, of course, a definition of “curious” meaning unusual or singular, and Leonard Koren is that in spades.
6) As for “musing” — well, I found myself thinking of Stephen Dedalus’s visit to Dublin’s “Museyroom” in Finnegans Wake — a joke (I think) at the expense of museums, in that these are not necessarily the serious and recondite places that some curators and visitors would like them to be.
Musing has the feel of something not entirely worked out or codified, not a manifesto or an agenda, something provisional, something subject to revision. It’s not deep thought, and it’s certainly not philosophy, but it’s something many of us do much of the time.
Leonard Koren’s musings are more rigorous than most.
7) At this point, you may be asking, “So who exactly is this Koren guy anyway that I should read his musings?”
Today he’s probably best known as the man who introduced the Western world to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, a way of accepting the transience, imperfections, and incompleteness of the world, initially in a book titled Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994) and, later, in Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts (2015).
He’s written over a dozen other titles too, including Arranging Things: A Rhetoric of Object Placement (2003), How to Rake Leaves (1993), and Gardens of Gravel and Sand (2000).
A good while before these publications, Koren had a life as a fine artist, muralist, and photographer, with a master’s degree in architecture and urban planning, but the place where many of us first encountered him and his work was in WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. Founded in 1976, it was sui generis, with elements of art, punk, and fetishism, though I don’t believe it wholly satisfied the needs of any of those markets. By the time of its demise in 1981, it was featuring Priscilla Presley on the front cover and looking (to me anyway) much like Andy Warhol’s Interview. By then, it had been subtitled “Gourmet Bathing and Beyond.”
Koren is on record as saying you either “got” WET or you didn’t, and at the risk of seeming unhip, I always thought I was missing something, that it was an in-joke I wasn’t quite in on. Still, I loved that quirky subtitle. I envisaged people sitting up to their necks in soap bubbles in vintage claw-foot tubs eating caviar on toast points (which is okay by me).
8) If you have any doubt that Leonard Koren has led a charmed life, consider that, when he’d had enough of publishing WET, he traveled to Japan, as a vacation at first, where, “[a]fter learning that WET was no more[,] an editor at a popular Japanese men’s lifestyle magazine inquired if I would write articles for his publication.” Initially, the editor wanted him to outline his ideas in advance but, when Koren balked, told him to go ahead and write whatever he liked. The magazine was called Brutus, and the column was titled “Dr. Leonardo’s Guide to Cultural Anthropology.” Brutus was (and is) much easier to “get” than WET.
Then Koren’s life got even better. He met an agent, and “within a month [he] was commissioned to make music videos for a Tokyo-based television station. Later [Koren] was hired to come up with the music and images for a feature-length video sold through a trendy Japanese department store chain.” It’s impossible not to be impressed, also very hard indeed not to feel some envy.
9) Not only does Koren have a more agreeable life than you and I, but there’s evidence that he might also be a better human being. He describes having dinner with a “professional acquaintance,” an unnamed architectural designer and writer, who asks him about his ethnicity (which I assume is Jewish, though Koren doesn’t actually say so) and then proceeds, at length, to denounce this race.
Now, you and I might think that a cup of hot coffee flung across the table would be an appropriate response, but not Koren. At the time, he does nothing. Afterward, understandably upset by the insults, and by his own failure to respond strongly enough, he finds himself wandering the city, wanting to do something: “But what? How do you retroactively counter ugliness? With more ugliness? No.” Instead he wrote a book about the aesthetics of floristry: The Flower Shop: Charm, Grace, Beauty, Tenderness in a Commercial Context (2005).
Countering ugliness with beauty is, of course, a beautiful idea, and one that Koren raises in different ways throughout his musings. He recounts a visit in the mid-1970s to the studio of fellow artist Billy Al Bengston: “I once caught Billy Al painting while watching soap operas on TV. That seemed weird but who am I to judge? When Billy intoned[,] ‘There is never enough beauty in the world,’ I was sure he was onto something.”
This inevitably raises the question of what beauty is, and what is beautiful. A soup can, a taxidermied shark, a pile of leaves? Koren writes:
When it was my turn to advance a new understanding of beauty I homed in on the concept of absurdity. For me, the ultimate absurdity was the fundamental human condition. […] [B]ecause our lifespans are so extended […] we invent stories, amusements, obligations, and myriad other ruses to occupy ourselves and to provide a distraction from the reality of this reality.
10) It’s interesting, even perhaps noble, that Koren doesn’t name and shame the racist architectural designer he had dinner with. There’s another occasion he writes about when he found the work of an ambitious fine-art photographer who considered himself an interior designer to be “merely competent” — a severe put-down in the Koren vocabulary. Then he finds out that this merely competent practitioner has been featured in The New York Times after decorating an 8,000-square-foot loft with unobstructed views across New York City in all directions. The job took four years and involved bringing ancient stones and rare woods from Japan. Koren writes, “What I perceived was a betrayal of the unpretentious spirit lying at the heart of the truly great Japanese design. Modesty, humility, and unfussy refinement had been unceremoniously shoved aside. Ostentation took their place.”
He doesn’t name the designer, but he does provide bibliographical information for the Times article, so you can find it if you want to. So, he is perhaps not entirely noble.
11) Elsewhere in the book, he tells the story of buying a very expensive chair, an iconic design classic that’s to be found in museum collections. The chair is constructed of wood and airplane glue, and in due course it starts to fall apart. He writes to and calls everybody he can think of at the company, all the way up to the vice chairman. He’s given the runaround at first — the chair is five years old and therefore out of warranty — but finally the company agrees to repair the chair for free: persuasiveness is surely another of Leonard Koren’s gifts. Then the chair starts to fall apart again, and Koren concludes, “What else could I do but laugh?”
This is nicely philosophical, perhaps even Zen, and although he doesn’t name the chair, the designer, or the company, his book does contain a line drawing of what looks very much like a chair from Frank Gehry’s Bentwood Collection, manufactured by Knoll.
Incidentally, my curiosity led me to research this chair online, since when I’ve received a fair amount of “targeted” advertising suggesting that I might like to buy a pair of them for about $5,000. The fact that I know, thanks to Leonard Koren, that it’s likely to fall apart (and frankly looks as though it would fall apart if you even leaned on it) is just one of the reasons I shan’t be investing.
12) Musings of a Curious Aesthete is also the story of Koren’s complicated though rich relationship with books and publishing. While running WET, he was approached from time to time to create a book, but, he says, “books seemed too permanent.” Well, he got over that. It was while in Japan working on the book that became New Fashion Japan (1984) that he fell in love with the process of making books. When mainstream publishing changed and became less welcoming, he reinvented himself as an independent publisher, and now he runs Imperfect Publishing, which published this book.
Koren is well aware, however, that a love of books and beauty can get an aesthete into choppy waters. He talks about a book on the horrors of clearcut logging published by “an ardent environmental activist who also believed in the importance of beauty.” But when Koren looks at the book, he sees that it’s “filled with images of denuded forests, all beautifully photographed. The photographs were so gorgeous that I found myself questioning, ‘Is clearcut logging really that bad?’”
13) Aesthete that I am, while reading Koren’s book I happened to come across elsewhere an anecdote told by Naum Gabo about walking with the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters — two modernists exiled in Britain during World War II. As they sauntered along, Gabo tells us, Schwitters would from time to time suddenly stop, stare at the ground in concentration, and then pick up “an old scrap of paper, of a particular texture, or a stamp or a thrown-away ticket.” Schwitters would proudly display it, and, says Gabo, “[o]nly then would you realise what an exquisite piece of colour was contained in this ragged scrap.” I don’t know that Edward Burne-Jones would “get” that, but Leonard Koren certainly would.
The anecdote fits with a story Koren tells about his own dealings with unconsidered trifles. While on vacation in Italy, he sees, on his afternoon walks, large amounts of litter on the surrounding roads. He picks up as much as he can and deposits it in trash receptacles, consoling himself with the notion that he’s restoring a little order and helping to save a “tiny corner of our planet.”
This is something that many of us do in a small way, but Koren has already given us a larger theory, developed while he was sweeping leaves off the steps of his house: “With every sweep of this broom,” he decided, “I am saving the universe.” Then he has another thought: “[N]ature has given us a mind capable of creating meaning out of just about anything. Furthermore, nature has given us a mind with the ability to believe that the meanings we create are actually true.”
I shall be musing on that for quite some time.