Art in everyday life

A crumbling book, published by the Macmillan Company of New York in 1925, written by Harriet and Vetta Goldstein, and intitulated Art in Everyday Life, can now command a splendidly pretty penny on the Internet, as will several of its subsequent printings. This is one of the achievements of the Internet: to make second-hand books impossibly expensive, so that only specialized collectors may afford them; or else worthless, until all but a few of their owners have had them pulped.

Harriet was the elder of these two spinster sisters, and the book was in its time the “Emily Post” of art and design. The authoresses were twinned fixtures of the home economics department, in the University of Minnesota, before exactly gauging what the mass market would bear. My father obtained his copy as a boy of fourteen or so, and was inspired by it to become an industrial designer (though a Spitfire pilot first). He said this to me, sans ironie, while feeding the book to me as a child.

While in subsequent editions the book’s advice, especially on women’s fashions, was watered down towards inoffensiveness, the first had just enough edge to awaken the curious reader. It was the age of Picasso, and the Bauhaus. Yet the advice is not now entirely out of date, nor has it receded into flea-market camp.

Most important, the book contained moral-aesthetic reasoning against ludicrously costly clothes and furnishings, assuring the young lady that a tasteful cloth coat could outshine a cumbersome fur, and the young gentleman that his devices should be useful. It explained how to be artful, in line and volume, without the conspicuous consumption that had been condemned in Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class.

John Ruskin (also from papa), and then Bernard Leach, confirmed my own attachment to simplicity, an “ideal” that is not always simple to comprehend. This is because it is pre-modern.

But the Goldstein ladies retain their place of honour. ¬†For, they were the occasion of a delightful argument I was able to pick with my father. For the first time, perhaps, I was myself inspired — to the observation that modernity is prim.