Can something be beautiful and useless?

I’m back from Orkney – a fabulous place. It has colours and vistas all its own and is teeming with artistic endeavours. From jewellery to rugs and paintings, it’s clearly a creative environment populated by a lot of creative people. I looked as usual for clever recycling ideas but apart from using shells and driftwood, most things were made from new. Admittedly, they were beautiful all the same.

This got me thinking – everything I sell is “new to you”, which means it is not brand new but recycled, up-cycled, restored or rescued. This is the fundamental principle of the business – we don’t sell new.

Beautiful and useful chair
A beautiful and useful chair.

This in no way indicates that we don’t value art for art’s sake. The challenge is whether it is right to appreciate art that is made from all-new materials in a time of environmental crisis. Or should we be encouraging only art that uses waste products and reuses things?

I struggle with this idea because I believe the ability to create and appreciate the beautiful – even if one person’s beauty is another person’s ugly – is a key part of what makes us human. I also struggle because I know that glue and paint and lots of other things are difficult to source second-hand. Lastly, I love the amazing things people create whether they’re made from waste / reuse, or from new materials.

“Can’t we do both?” I hear you cry. Yes, fortunately we still can – whatever your definition of art (films, gardens, paintings, etc.) We can’t ban the use of new materials in art, partly because much art is a political expression and response to an ever-changing world. So perhaps the most we can do is encourage those artists that can upcycle to upcycle!

I’ve always felt I would be happy to walk to work but if I needed an ambulance I would like one with new bandages and medicines to go to hospital in. And I suppose this is what it’s really about: setting priorities. I would, in general, rather buy art that is made out of something that already existed than art that uses new materials, but most of all I would like a world where there was both – which means we will need to reduce our consumption elsewhere.

Beautiful, and useful items
Beautiful and useful objects.

The link to my business is interesting – I often theme spaces by colour, period or country of origin. I wondered (while in wonderful Orkney) whether I should make a distinction between useful (a jug that works with liquid) and not useful but beautiful (a jug that cannot hold liquid)? Our golden rule, courtesy of William Morris, is to “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” We aim to help people move their unwanted beauties on – even if one person’s beauty is another’s ugly. So old paintings will still be sold side-by-side with working jugs from the 60s, but for the moment I won’t be selling art made from new materials!

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