broadsideblog

The allure of patina

In aging, antiques, art, beauty, culture, design, History, life on November 23, 2013 at 12:34 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

In our time, we try to be a bit slick. I think there’s value in the roughness of things

- Marcel Wanders, contemporary Dutch designer

Are you familiar with the Japanese esthetic ideal of wabi-sabi?

Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It’s a richly mellow beauty that’s striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time-Katherine Hepburn versus Marilyn Monroe. For the Japanese, it’s the difference between kirei-merely “pretty”-and omoshiroi, the interestingness that kicks something into the realm of beautiful.

An antiques term for the wear and tear you find on old silver or wood is patina.

I love the terms used in the trade for the things that are worn and weathered — pottery is crazed, paintings have craqelure and works on paper end up with foxing.

All these evidences of aging and wear can ruin the monetary value of an object, although — depending on your budget and the item’s rarity — much can be repaired by conservationists.

The Japanese tradition of kintsugi is described well here on this blog, with some lovely photos of cracked pottery repaired with gold.

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I found this early 20th-century (late 19th?) jam pot in a small town in France at an antiques shop. Felix Potin still exists today as a major grocery store chain in France.

Everywhere I go, I seek out things with an overlay of use. I find them in thrift and consignment shops, in antique stores and flea markets, at auction and outdoors fairs. I’ll never be the person living in a super-modern, all-glass/plastic/marble/metal home. I want to see and feel the evidence of the people who made things and who owned and enjoyed them before me.

Here are some items I’ve acquired over the years precisely because their patina, roughness or wabi-sabi add to their beauty for me:

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This small green-painted chair, with a rush seat, probably mid 19th century, is so cracked the finish is now called “alligatored.” I found it at a country auction in Nova Scotia in the mid 1980s; I bought four of them for $200.

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I can’t remember where I found this oval, battered wooden stool, which has three wooden legs. I’m guessing it might have been a milking stool, as it’s so low and very comfortable. We use it as a table in the bathroom.

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I found this old mixing bowl at a small-town Ontario auction for about $10. It’s the perfect size for popcorn!

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This is the weathered gilt frame for a beveled mirror, itself with some discoloration from age, I found in New York City in an antiques shop for $300.

Do you like or prefer old things?

Why?

  1. Caitlin, loved seeing your aged things. Mark Doty wrote a book titled “Still Life With Lemons” about an old painting he loved to look at in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is about 300 years old. He wrote about the objects in old paintings, that they have a history and will live on because the artist painted them. I was glad to read that someone recognized that and that still lifes are a type of portrait of the object and the owner. I have collected many old things over the years and never tire of looking at them. They don’t have to be terribly valuable at all; their appeal does lie in that patina and the mystery of their travels and ownership.

    • Thanks!

      I grew up in homes with this sort of thing as well. I think your eye has to be accustomed to it…and there’s a big difference between worn and worn out!

  2. In my case, if it still works I’ll use it. That’s not any aesthetic taste though, that’s just me being practical, especially since I’m not made of money.

  3. i completely am drawn to the wabi sabi, always have been. my favorite piece is a table, simple, 1 piece of wood for the top, 4 legs equally simple, well worn, with grooves and marks of all kinds. the only piece i would miss if it were gone. i love this philosophy and approach to things and to people and to life in general. hopefully, the man i end up with can appreciate my wabi wabi )

  4. In northern New Mexico, where I live, there is a distinct love of distressed, weathered, battered things. Furniture, doors, cabinets, etc. are often repurposed, built from old wood and metal, or carefully crafted to look imperfect and worn. Personally, I love it. It adds a very earthy, comfortable feel to things.

    Flipping it around, I’ve often felt that, though I admire modern design and architecture, I could never live comfortably for a long time among it. It’s a little too clean and perfect, a little too unreal.

    I wonder why the old and imperfect appeals to us so strongly. Is it a gut reaction to having so much that is new, smooth, modern, and technological around us?

    • My husband grew up in Santa Fe and we have been to Las Cruces, Taos and T or C…we love your state and that weathered aesthetic. I miss NM!

      There is indeed something deeply comforting to feel the presence of others’ hands. I try hard to like modern things, and I appreciate some of them, but I think the old and imperfect allows for us to be a part of it (if that makes any sense?) while slick, smooth, impermeable surfaces offer no points of entry and no evidence of their makers or former users.

      I like the feeling of continuity — wondering who sat there before us and who will use it after us.

  5. I like old things which evidence use and care and love. They offer a connectedness to things and people past as we move forward with things to come.

  6. I love old things – cars, furniture, but especially books. I owned shelves of old books as a kid, and prefer library books than the brand new bookshop equivalent. Coming from a fad driven, society where the quest for newer-shinier-better-prestige-er is ceaseless, I think this may have been my silent (powerless) revolt.

  7. Sometimes an old piece gives us one of the few tangible links to one we love. In 8th grade, my older brother, my only sibling, made a very small pine bench in wood shop. At 23, his death in a car crash broke my family’s heart. To this day his first handcrafted effort has a prominent place next to our bedroom fireplace and brings warm memories of our childhood together. The patina on aged wood glows in a way newly built furniture simply can’t duplicate. It’s especially fun to imagine earlier conversations around antique dining tables. We’ve also collected beautiful antique Bolivian weavings, often worn by Quechua women to carry everything from babies to bushels of vegetables. Oh, the stories these 75-year-old fabrics could tell! But I enjoy mixing the old with splashes of contemporary design. Thanks for sharing my blog photographs of antique bowls.

    • So sorry for your loss…It’s amazing what emotional power some objects have for us because of such associations.

      Those old textiles have such a beauty to them. I also collect paisley shawls and love to wear them as mufflers in the winter.

  8. I saw your comment about the right man being wabi-sabi, so I told my that to husband. He thought I said he was Kimo-sabi… ;) So maybe not wabi-sabi, maybe just hard of hearing- but I’ll keep him!

    I completely agree with you on the allure of patina. I would much rather have a few things that have history and meaning than a whole house full of new. I worked with a young lady once who came into the office one day and announced she had just bought the entire bedroom on the back cover of the JCP catalog- every single piece down to the lamps and accessories. I had to work hard to sound wowed like others, but in my mind I kept thinking, “Why?”

    • It’s true…for some people, all new is much more appealing. I love hunting out old things and adding them to the mix. I do like new stuff, too, but not all at once.

  9. It must be too early… if my words came out like my typing, maybe it wasn’t my husband after all. That should have said, *so I told that to my husband*. (Just washed my hands and can’t do a thing with them!)

  10. I think there are possibly two lines here, there is the old that you have knowledge of, the item you have had, gift or bought. That you know and use constantly, it holds the memories of all the time you have had it, Perhaps the person who gave it to you as well. Then the items you find, with that missing story you can imagine in its history. The knocks and cracks that give life to the thing you hold in your hand.

    I love both, and the Brocante, or Vide-grenier in France are full of these things, I love trying to find presents for people there. Things with links to the person I am buying for a book or picture. Ricard glasses, old hiking and walking gear, ice axes, walking sticks. There are amazing things out there.

    Happy days,

    Jim

    • Ice axes! That’s a very cool gift, indeed.

      I have a number of things I’ve found and brought home from French flea markets and they all give me such pleasure. One of my favorites is a small Art Deco era perpetual calendar, so every day is en francais.

  11. Kindred spirit. The domestic CEO started me ‘antiquing’ 30+ years ago. I believe cracks and wrinkle improve the visual quality of both objects and human. My one of my collected pieces is an Italian armor breastplate with an armorer’s mark showing 1736.

  12. I don’t own many antiques. I have two that are extraordinarily important to me. Both come from my grandparents. The first is a cream pitcher that’s about 130 years old. The lacquer on it has an effect much like your “alligatored” chairs. There’s a note card inside it that tells where it came from and how it was used by the family. I use it once a year at Thanksgiving or Christmas as a gravy boat. Children aren’t allowed to touch it, and I’m pretty sure my friends and family know that I would nearly die if it broke, so they’re very cautious with it. The other is my grandmother’s tea pot, which is a beautiful green color and fills me with memories every time I look at it. It too has that alligatored appearance, and I still use it to make the occasional pot of Earl Gray. It sits in the kitchen on top of the microwave where I can see it and enjoy it. It isn’t nearly so delicate as the cream pitcher.

    • They sound lovely! My family being….my family…I have almost nothing from them. I buy all my own stuff so there are few things with any emotional attachment to family, sorry to say.

  13. Very Epic! From the way where did you get that picture?

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