The beauty of patina
Materiality and aesthetic effect.
Since the industrial revolution, goods have for the most part been mass-produced at factories and craftspeople have been superseded by designers.
When it all got going, new forms were enthusiastically conceived and ongoingly improved, the quality of products initially being inferior to those from traditional workshops. But that’s history. Nowadays, markets and technology allow virtually any form to be produced in almost all conceivable finishes. Perfection can induce aesthetic coldness, though, which explains the growing yearning for materials that document the passing of time.
In the mid-1990s, the Dutch trend prophetess Li Edelkoort declared that “metals will melt into our lives” and, truly, our lives were soon to be permeated by aluminium and stainless steel.
The entire twentieth century was marked by the aesthetics of industrial materials that no longer had anything to do with the craftsperson’s forging and hammering: heating pipes in steel signalled serial production in Mart Stam’s cantilever models, the sparkling chrome limousines of the Fifties drove into a radiant future, and Andy Warhol’s “Silver Factory” likewise celebrated the promise of a new age that was to witness trips to the moon in silver space capsules.
The Nineties were veritably awash with silver – from kitchen gadgets through laptops to washing machines – and even cheap plastic products were given a “stainless steel look” so as to appear hi-tech, rugged and high-precision. Anything intended to earn the accolade of “design” was now supplied in matt silver, which – like denim blue – became so all-pervasive as to be virtually invisible and random.
For some years now, therefore, we have been rediscovering the beauty of all the materials that have accompanied humanity for millennia: gold, copper and alloys such as brass or bronze bear witness to mankind’s craft aspirations and inventiveness. With their wrought grace they stand out in a highly technologised age in which tolerances are no longer measured in finger widths but in nanometres and pixels.
And thus it is that they are now being taken up by numerous avantgarde designers at fairs in Cologne, Milan, London or New York: the Briton Tom Dixon celebrates lambent materials with clusters of spherical copper luminaires, lampshades in brass or contemporary forms in roughly cast iron. In his concept kitchen for Schiffini, Swiss designer Alfredo Häberli transplants copper, a traditional cooking-pot material, to kitchen fronts which he boldly allows to betray fingerprints. FSB, too, has augmented its unfussy, restrained stainless steel handles with bronze counterparts that patinate in the course of time and grow steadily more beautiful in the process.
Like brass, bronze is not a natural product but the upshot of human invention. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin.
Whereas pure copper is comparatively soft, the tin in bronze lends it great strength and hardness. Bronze is also very resistant to corrosion and wear, moreover. The alloys worked by FSB contain 8% tin. When used, these fittings form a patina and their colour darkens. FSB polishes and waxes their surfaces to give them a fine sheen. Pre-patinated variants in light and dark finishes are also supplied.
As our world turns digital, things are beginning to disappear and designers are starting to appreciate the value of materiality and craft traditions. They are embracing knitted, woven, mould-cast and hand-polished elements, having recourse to archetypal forms or routine ornamentation, making consciously planned elements of ageing, oxidation and patina. Traces of use and patina tell the stories that, in the age of the virtual, constitute a link to the threatened world of the figurative, to authenticity and honesty.
The retro trend of recent years has afforded a new view on design history too: what was long considered stuffy and old-fashioned has suddenly – in a process kicked off by the British “Wallpaper” magazine – become stylistically formative, as evidenced by design classics like the “Artichoke” light designed in 1958 by Poul Henningsen, the lounge chair by Charles and Ray Eames from 1956, the tree tables and brass work by Austrian Carl Auböck or Arne Jacobsen’s “Egg” Chair from 1958, which has been issued as a limited edition with bronze base and dark brown leather on its 50th anniversary, fittingly enough.
Even gold, which up until recently would not have been tolerated in any household laying store by taste now figures in the code of coolness. It is to be found in rappers’ “bling-bling”, in the golden Milanese restaurant Dolce & Gabbana or in gold taps that were long only to be found in romantic European hotels or showy Oriental castles. Woods such as teak, palisander or wenge and metals such as brass, copper and bronze reflect a re-evaluation of the past.
They are materials for an age in which perfect function is taken as given and hence no longer needs to be pointed up with the aid of industrial aesthetics and hi-tech allure. They consign modernism to a place in history and reveal an appreciation of craft traditions. They embody the search for values such as constancy, reliability, warmth and cosiness that had been deemed lost. The charm of patina and traces of use cause them to melt into our lives with time – something Li Edelkoort knew long ago.