Monday, 5 March 2007

We live in a giant spider web

I'm reading a book called Modern Antiquities for the Table. Leaving behind the obvious oxymoron in the title, it's a very good book for anyone who's interested in looking at beautiful tables settings, serving pieces and furnishings from 1900 through the modern era.

But it's also a great reminder about how intertwined everything is in life. Yeah, I know, leave it to the crazy blogger to find a Zen lesson in a book about dishes.

But trust me, it's there. Let me explain...

Around the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. experienced a period of unprecedented wealth. More millionaires were created then than ever before, and (adjusting for inflation), ever since. The cities of Europe were a cultural magnet for the world's greatest contemporary poets, writers, artists and thinkers. The result was an American population far more able to travel to (and even beyond) Europe ever before, and a culture of art in Europe which both mined the depths of classical design and broke free from the past to create ideas and designs all their own. And this combination determined what dishes someone in Salt Lake City, Utah registers for today when they select their fine china.

You see, the decisions made back then by the Vanderbilts and the Smythes and the rest of western society back then determined what we think of as an acceptable look for fine china today. What they accepted and what they rejected and even what they just plain missed, set the standard. They defined the colors and shapes and textures and images that are still looked at today as fine china. And their decisions were based on what designs from previous eras survived...

The hand-drawn shapes from a 4th century Chinese craftsman. The stonework of an early Egyptian mason. The jewelry created by a 16th century Russian peasant. The weaving designs of a rural Indian woman. Each bit and piece pulled out and repeated and refined and altered and combined by the artists and designers of late 19th and early 20th century.

In this melting pot of inspiration, the artists influenced the architects who influenced the travelers who influenced the artists who influenced the potters who influenced the furniture makers who influenced the architects, and so on in a web of interaction that stretched over several continents and countless years to make the choices for the future Mr. and Mrs. Petersen in a Rocky Mountain city in 2007.

So even in something as simple as the choice of a plate, we are carrying forth the web of influence from places we may never have been and people we certainly have never met, and artists whose names may be lost for all time.

As I read about how inventions and innovations such as luxury steamship travel and agricultural trends and the economy and influxes of immigrants and changes in industrial standards and wars and truces with various countries affected what sits on our tables, I could not help but be amazed at the complexity of it all. Like a carefully choreographed dance, each seemingly unrelated factor shaped the choices made in dining rooms and kitchens nationwide.

This book is just about tables and dishes and flatware and such. But the same complexity pulls the strings on almost every aspect of our daily lives, as we go about our business, completely unaware of the web that surrounds us all

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