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Beautiful and Useful

'Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful' - William Morris

Most people living in America today are engaged in an ongoing battle against clutter. The concept of minimalism in life and home appeals to me, and I make attempts to implement a minimalist approach, but I’m inconsistent, and the problem of “too much stuff” persists. Many of us are familiar with Marie Kondo’s admonition to ask ourselves, “Does this spark joy?,” when looking at an item that we could cull or keep. That does seem to be a worthwhile question. I like Morris’ suggestion, however, because it acknowledges the reality that an object can be useful, while it produces little joy. My potato masher is useful, though it brings me little pleasure. It serves a purpose, and when I need to mash some potatoes, I’m grateful for it. It perhaps goes without saying that I don’t, though, find it does anything for my soul. I think what Marie Kondo is getting at is the idea that we should hang onto that which stirs our souls on some level, that which creates a little spark of delight or that ignites a precious memory, that nourishes us in some way. For Morris, that’s where the beautiful object comes in, but he also acknowledges the value and satisfaction of possessing the right tool for the right occasion.

It’s not surprising that, as a Victorian artist and textile designer, William Morris considered beauty a key criterion for whether an object stays or goes. And I like the permission this gives us to purchase or to retain items that we consider to be of great aesthetic value, whether they are functional or not. It reminds me of a comment C.S. Lewis made regarding friendship. In The Four Loves Lewis proposes, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Embedded in this commentary on friendship is a commentary on art, expressing that it has “no survival value,” but “rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” If an object, however lacking in utilitarian purpose, strikes you as truly beautiful, it is likely to bring you joy, and therefore both Marie Kondo and William Morris would urge you to keep it. By the same measure, though, both would urge us to dispense with non-useful items in our home, items such as wall art or decorations that we do not, deep down, find to be beautiful.

What criteria do you use in deciding what to throw out, what to donate, give away, or keep? Could you use the questions, “Do I know this to be currently or, at least, recently useful? Do I find it to be beautiful?”

Photo my own.

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