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How do you know the real thing when you encounter it? We are now, all of us, so steeped in the inauthentic, the marvelously faked, the deceptively worded and presented, the bait and switch of artificial flavors, computer-generated movie magic, the sneaky, the disingenuous and the unreliable….one learns not to trust one’s own senses. How do you maintain your own sense of truthfulness, surrounded by subterfuge? I reviewed the past year, looking for signposts of the fine and the genuine….

*The aesthetic history of Japan makes nearly everything that has emerged from that culture beautiful and often surprisingly functional, a comb, a dish, a sword, a bit of cloth. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art I attended a show this year on the kimono, an object always guaranteed to take one’s breath away: delicate fabrics and designs on garments that are at once structured and soft, romantic and elegant. There is sometimes a tension between the inside and outside of the garment, for in an exceedingly formal society such as pre-modern Japan, clothes really did make the man, or woman. Some severe or intimidating kimono have linings that tell a different story, just as the inner person is hidden from the eyes of strangers. Only in an intimate setting could one have had the privilege of viewing the exquisite interior of some of these garments. What impressed me most, though, were the firemen’s jackets….heavily padded or quilted garments made of cotton, adorned on the outside with a company designation, and inside with ferocious images of thunder, fire gods, and dragons. They were meant to be soaked in water prior to entering a fire. It was astounding: the firemen were protected by wet cotton, and gods.

*Looking for fabric to recover a chair, I must have viewed hundreds of swatches of all kinds of fibers and colors and patterns. Some were meant to evoke 18th century France, some imperial China, some hand wrought Ikat and some Scots tartan, but most seemed fake to me, either from the feel of the synthetic blends or the overwrought colors, or the trite composition. I wasn’t always able to pinpoint why I did not like them, but it was something about phoniness…. or maybe I was just unaccountably picky. Not that I wanted a formal piece of court design for a modest chair, but I kept thinking of a Gobelin tapestry I had seen in Vienna, of Don Quixote tilting at the windmill. What was compelling to me was not the figure of the Don or the windmill, but of a jolly plump serving woman, holding a tray and smiling at him. It was a small composition in the center of a huge, ornate and decorative tapestry, and yet my eyes went to it immediately. The depth of the scene, the glow of her skin tones, it seemed to me that at any moment the woman might start to laugh; and this was achieved with wool and silk and someone’s inordinate skill….again, astounding. It stuck with me.

*And then there was Arne and Carlos. I had the good fortune to hear a lecture by these two Norwegian designers at the recent VK Live event. Their work uses traditional Norwegian knitting designs and techniques, evoked and reinterpreted in surprisingly modern ways. Their respect for and belief in the folk heritage of their country is impressive, but what was most wonderful was the fresh, charming and utterly honest approach to their own design lives. The slides shown during the lecture, of their home and studio in the far north country, the surrounding landscape, the grandmothers and the skiers, doll sweaters and gardens and chickens…somehow the vigor and integrity of that life translated directly into their work. I left that lecture feeling as if I had inhaled clean mountain air, knowing that in the world there are those who esteem the fine work of human hands and minds, treasure it and carry it forward.

One can find the authentic in other aspects of life, enjoying a favorite family recipe, singing together with others, holding the hand of a loved one. It helps to turn off the little machines, though, and pay attention: look slowly, listen with patience, touch, and breathe, and above all, appreciate.

©Poets Sinews, 2015. Reuse with permission.fireman's coat