I had a meeting recently in a particularly lovely space. The office was in one of Sydney’s old warehouses and it felt fabulous. There were high ceilings, plenty of windows drawing in oodles of light and lots of solid wood (columns, beams, floors). The stylish chairs and sofas were covered in one of my favourite materials, wool, all in soft greys and reds. Lighting was discreet. It all screamed quality.
On my way home, I kept thinking what it was that had struck me so strongly, although maybe it’s clear from my description. And yet I’ve been in spaces that have looked similar and I haven’t felt the same thing. Why? Were the wooden floorboards narrower and of a cheaper wood? Was the furniture more generic, the fabrics less appealing?
It made me wonder what exactly quality is. How do we recognise it? Or rather, how do we manage so often to overlook it? The answer, perhaps, is in that well-worn phrase: never mind the quality, feel the width. It was said of tailors in London who would push cheaper fabric to the customer to optimise their profit. (And it was the name of a creaky old TV sitcom about two East End tailors, one Jewish, the other Irish – I’m sure you can imagine the ‘humour’.)
Quality is not the same as style or taste and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with money, either. Sure, that office space was expensively designed but someone else might have looked at the bare brick walls and thought them rather basic and in need of a good plastering. Others might prefer floral fabrics to felted-wool. To me, the quality was in the solidity of the materials, the lack of fakeness, the way things spoke for themselves. It’s that ‘honesty’ thing that Modernism always called for, where nothing pretends to be anything else. Something of quality gives you more than you expect. It makes you feel better. Quality gives quality to life.
And yet we still fall for tricks, or at least for what is dished out to us.
Recently I was looking for a new jacket. It was surprisingly hard to find one that hadn’t been tweaked with manmade fibres or given a jazzy lining or some other little feature. I felt they were all designed to take my eye off the fact that they weren’t very good quality. It took me ages to find something plain and simple and made of good fabric. It wasn’t any more expensive than the others so it wasn’t even a case of ‘you get what you pay for’.
Fifteen years ago I was given a Giorgio Armani tee shirt. There was nothing but a tiny label sewn inside the neck, no big logo on the chest. I had always thought that ‘designer’ clothes were a bit of a swizz but that tee shirt taught me a great deal about quality. It’s something of a marvel. Despite being worn umpteen times over so many years, the fabric remains soft and strong and looks like new if I can be bothered to iron it. It’s kept its shape and has never pilled. In the meantime, I’ve gone through any number of cheap tee shirts which lost shape, whose fabric wore out, and whose stitching came apart. Old Giorgio just keeps going on. Why? Because it’s beautifully made from high quality fabric. Lesson learned (or at least noted, because I still find myself unable to splurge that much on a new tee shirt.)
The idea of quality is in everything.
- The quality of space – when a door or a passageway is wider than usual or a room has a higher ceiling than usual, the quality is generosity. Mean spaces at the top of stairs or just inside entrance doors give you a niggly feeling and usually say much about the quality of the rest of a building.
- The quality of good conversation – someone who listens to you and remarks and questions what you say, versus someone who only uses your words as a springboard for their own thoughts and observations. Don’t you feel uplifted after a ‘quality’ conversation with one person, rather than drained by empty-calorie chatter with another?
- The quality of writing – good story-telling shows time has been spent over it, the element of crafting. Good writing is apparent in everything from high literature to potboilers, and it’s very apparent when it’s not there. Don’t you feel let down by lazy writing, and having wasted your time over a badly done novel?
- Leather upholstery in a car used to be a sign of a quality motor. Today it’s usually the cheapest cars that have fabric seats although the leather in many cars, including in upmarket brands, is often fake pleather. That’s not for any moral reason, trying to cut down the number of cows needed so that their methane doesn’t affect global warming, but more about replicating the real effect cheaply. It’s simply the fake Rolex going mainstream and becoming acceptable, and it’s everywhere.
- The quality of restaurant food that has been cooked with care rather than cooked quickly and put on a plate (or a wooden board/ slate/ boot, etc) with lots of tiny dabs of this and that to make it appear interesting. Never mind the quality if there’s so much of it, too.
- The quality of a building which does things that surprise and delight you, rather than just exactly what you expect. I’m thinking of Le Corbusier’s apartments in Marseille, with so many thoughtful touches that make life easier and more pleasurable (steps to sit on, stairs to cling to, knobs to hang pans on). I’m also thinking of the rash of new houses rising in so many Australia towns which have lots of odd shapes and materials to take your eye off the fact they’re cheaply built and poorly planned. The same budget spent on something simpler that is tailored to real life demands would surely be better. We’ve fallen for open-plan when that’s often code for cost-cutting – fewer walls and no doors might be cheaper to build but it makes for more ambient noise and a less liveable environment. So maybe quality is a room with a door.
- The quality of good design – like the Braun calculator that looked beautiful (it inspired the first iPhone) and did everything it was meant to in a pleasing way – nice buttons, clear display, good to hold. It’s what drew people to Apple, after all, because things looked beautiful and worked seamlessly most of the time. I remember changing a headlamp globe on my old Saab and how simple and easy it was. I did the same on a Ford and cut my hand to ribbons. The idea of good design extending beyond what is visible is a clear sign of quality. I admit some of it does tend to add cost. But not always. And that’s the thing that baffles me. When something is popular then it becomes cheaper to manufacture. IKEA used to do it, using proper wood instead of plastic veneers, but even that has changed.
- The emoji – pick a symbol that sums up a mood or a comment. Quick and easy. But drawn by someone else and therefore de-personalised. Are actual words going to become out-dated?
The list goes on. Don’t you think it’s time for a revival in the quality of quality?
So what does quality mean to you?