What to Do About the Inexperience of Recognizing Quality

Tristan Butterfield wrote a piece called “The Poetry of Experience” in Contract magazine.

It centers around a common theme today: storytelling.

One compelling and true statement Butterfield made is: “Trends will continue to cycle, but what will not change is our desire to feel something.”

However, he missed an important point: feelings work both ways.

A feeling can be pleasant, or unpleasant. More important, we are feeling all the time, not just some of the time.

Some might argue we feel too much these days.

Butterfield’s first sentence challenges the reader this way: “What do you remember about the last time you were moved by something?” He goes on suggesting an “exquisite meal…a walk along an urban river walk at sunset” and other “moving” experiences.

But as I said, being “moved” isn’t always pleasant.

What Moves You?

I was moved this morning when an enraged driver came speeding by me on the right (I was at a dead stop because of road construction). This driver had been behind me for a quarter mile, as we all crept along because of the construction. I was letting people in from the left lane (which closed up ahead), and this made the guy behind me feel something.

Eventually, when the opportunity permitted, he accelerated and flew by, his mouth moving up and down (I don’t think he was reciting poetry), blew the stop light at the corner ahead of us with a hard right turn, did a u-turn after 30 feet, came back up the street and turned a hard right to continue on the road where the rest of us were waiting for the light to change.

It was an amazing feat of driving since he didn’t stop once during the execution. I was moved in a number of ways, including disbelief, wondering where the law was, a little anger, and a dash of hope that he would eventually not kill anyone through his irresponsible behavior. For a moment, I felt like going after him.

Of course, Butterfield is talking about design experiences, but as we all know who practice in this architectural space, design makes you feel almost automatically: you like it, or you don’t.

I remember speaking to an interior designer at HighPoint Market one time in 2013 about the experience of design, and the feelings around it. Fortunately, I recorded the conversation and would like to share it with you now in light of Butterfield’s essay. This designer practiced out of Savannah, GA. Here is our conversation.

Conversation with a Designer

Q: What has the biggest impact on how you design projects?

A: Making people understand cost in comparison to value.

Q: How do you do that?

A: It’s very difficult because when they see things, sometimes they see things that aren’t real, something the piece is not. Especially with all the imports that look good to a layman’s eye, but when you try to explain to them it is not quality, you get a blank stare. The stare of disbelief.

Q: Do they get it?

A: Some get it, some don’t. That is what makes design very difficult these days.

Q: So is it your skill in explaining quality that finally gets them to get it?

A: Sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t. I think today, people don’t care about quality, all they care about is price.

Q: Why is that?

A: I have no idea. I think it is the foreign market that has done that because they see product that they think is worthwhile. Why does Rooms to Go and Ashley have 17 pieces for $799? And you try to tell a client that a $799 sofa is even not made correctly. When I started in the furniture business 40 some years ago, we sold sofas for $799 that were quality sofas. Well, 40 years ago, if I sold a quality sofa for $799. how can I, 40 years later with inflation cost of goods rising, how could that same sofa still be $799? People don’t understand that the most expensive thing on a sofa is the cushions. And, I see frames that are made out of particle board and stapled together and cardboard. People can’t see that so they don’t understand. It’s a lack of education.

Q: So when they can’t see that, they can’t translate it to value?

A: Exactly.

Q: What can manufacturers do better then? Is there one thing they can do better to help you?

A: I don’t know that the manufacturers are going to do better because obviously they found a way they can make money. I think it’s how we have to educate people.

Q: Does that education fall on you?

A: I think it calls on the designer and the stores to do the educating. A good example – I had a client that wanted a wood frame sofa. I didn’t have a wood frame sofa that they liked. We found one at a Thomasville store. The sofa was supposed to be on sale half off — $4,000 down from $8,000. I walked into the store with the client and none of the cushions matched. I said to the salesman, “Why don’t those cushions match?” He looked confused. He told us it’s the size of the pattern, this or that. He started inventing excuses because he just didn’t know. So now you have an uneducated sales person telling people anything. I said, I sell sofas for $4,000 retail and all the cushions match. So you are telling me that this is an $8,000 sofa that is on sale for $4,000 and the cushions don’t match. He looked even more confused, helpless. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I walked up to the sofa, took off the cushions and put them on correctly so that the patterns ‘matched.’ There, I said. You see, they didn’t even have them displayed on the showroom floor correctly. And the salesman didn’t know anything, and the client looked and said, “What a difference.” Now tell me, what exactly did I do? That’s where we are today.

Q: I understand what you are saying. So it’s part of the lack of education all the way down the line.

A: Yes. There is no customer service any more. No one has interest in what it is they are doing and what it is they are selling. They are just selling stuff. And people are buying, stuff.

Q: So do you think someone who stresses quality and education,that would find a place in this market?

A: You would hope. That is what I try to do. I try to explain to people. I search the market and look for the best values for the price and still have quality. It’s not always that easy.

Q: How is your business?

A: My business is starting to take off again. For the last three or four years since the crash, it was not. But I’m at retirement age, so I don’t care anymore.

Nothing More than Feelings

There was a lot of feeling in that interview.

Butterfield, when he says, “The poetry of experience must instantly affect both a 22-year-old and his grandmother in similar ways” is neglecting the learned ability to recognize “good design.” While he admits a “certain level of sophistication and finesse” are necessary to “pull this off,” and that you should “feel a certain way when you’re in there which goes far beyond the product you come to buy,” he forgets an essential point: education. Feelings, like other things in life, need refinement. And you refine your feelings through practice. And education (i.e., who among us can understand poetry without studying it?).

With respect, grandma and young millennial will NOT feel the same way when they walk into the Apple store or read a poem. They will feel differently. That is the nature of feelings: they are individual, unique to each of us. And words have always been inadequate in expressing a feeling. Actions do it much better.

The good news is, feelings (fortunately) haven’t been commoditized yet. If feelings ever do become a commodity, we’re probably all in trouble. Because the fact of the matter is, if you keep feeling the same thing over and over and over, you eventually get numb. You end up feeling nothing (what did the philosopher say – that the biggest insult to anyone isn’t hate, it’s indifference?).

I think Butterfield was really driving at being “moved” by experiences. But all experience moves us to a degree, doesn’t it? To be moved by poetry, you have to study it. The same way you have to study architecture to be moved by it. You don’t have to study hunger to feel hungry. Your stomach tells you what to feel.

On the other hand, someone is bound to invent an App to tell us how to feel about a building or a poem at in a given moment in the future.

But then, woe is us.


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