Pearl Lowe’s Vintage Craft

As a result of teaching my undergraduate module ‘Television, Radio and the Everyday’ for several years, I have developed an intellectual interest in things domestic.  One academic area that addresses domestic ‘stuff’ and in which I have dipped my toe is the fascinating field of material culture (its most famous writer is probably the highly readable Daniel Miller; working in a slightly different area but also worthy of mentioning is Ben Highmore).  Television studies, closer to my home turf, also has sophisticated tools for dealing with the domestic and the everyday.  I find cookery and property programmes especially fascinating, and I tried to express some of this fascination in an article that I wrote entitled ‘Can You See Yourself Living Here? Structures of desire in recent British lifestyle television’.  In that article and in my teaching, I find it illuminating to sometimes place television programmes alongside cookery or fashion books (often books published as programme ‘tie-ins’).  So when my wife, in her capacity as a talented and blogging seamstress, was sent a review copy of Pearl Lowe’s Vintage Craft: Craft products & styling advice for the modern vintage home, we were presented with an ideal opportunity to write a co-authored piece.

The rising popularity of sewing and other domestic crafts, as indicated by television programmes such as Kirstie’s Vintage Home and The Great British Sewing Bee (Rachel Moseley has written a nice review of the latter here), is contributing to a fascinating sub-genre of the lifestyle television which received a spurt of brilliant academic attention at the start of the century (mainly thanks to the work of the Midlands Television Research Group).  Perhaps this new cycle of programmes will prompt a second wave.  (Also brought to my awareness through my reading around matters domestic, I eagerly await the wonderful Nicki Humble’s research project Home Making: The Domestic Arts in Literature and Culture 1750-2010.)

When I write about popular culture, I try to avoid what John Hartley (I think) termed a ‘they’ stance, and try to adopt a ‘we’ stance.  That is, I try not to stand ‘outside’ the thing I am looking at and point a finger of condemnation, but try (also, at least) to approach it on its own terms.  I often think of Robert Warshow’s passing critique, towards the end of his magisterial article on the Western hero, of ‘the criticism of popular culture, where the educated observer is usually under the illusion that he has nothing at stake.’  I try to be constantly vigilant against becoming that kind of observer.  The point of view I try to adopt, in fact, is a large part of the meaning of the title of my blog (which is also part of the title of my PhD thesis): ‘Between sympathy and detachment’.

Sometimes such a stance is hard to maintain.  Treating popular culture seriously and sympathetically does not mean always exonerating it or celebrating it, and should not simply mean holding it to a lower standard, or excusing in the name of populism things that ought to be criticised.  The review below is quite a critical one (and in my contributions to it I found myself revisiting some of the same critical territory I explored in the article mentioned above).  I would want to point out, however, that the main things being criticised are the intentions (and pretensions) of the producer, not the imagined misguided pleasures of an imagined audience, who will often stand in as the intellectual’s bad other in the type of criticism that Warshow alludes to.

Enough caveats and disclaimers, I think!  Onto the piece itself, which is published simultaneously here and on the blog threadcarefully.wordpress.com.

Pearl Lowe’s Vintage Craft: Craft projects and styling advice for the modern vintage home

Ex-singer-turned- designer Pearl Lowe’s new book Pearl Lowe’s Vintage Craft: Craft projects and styling advice for the modern vintage home, due out 9th May 2013, is a book aimed at vintage-loving crafty people who want to create a ‘unique’ and ‘vintage’ look for their home.  The book contains an abundance of projects divided into five main categories: ‘Heavenly Kitchen & Picture Perfect Dining’, ‘Dream Living Space’, ‘Bedroom Delights’, ‘Bathrooms & Small and Special Places’ and ‘Opulent Office’.  The book comes at a time when vintage style is all the rage, Kirstie’s Vintage Home being a good example of its popularity.

As the book’s title suggests, the book is about finding old items (‘vintage’) and modifying or combining them (‘craft’).  The word ‘vintage’, always a slippery one, is especially so here – a catch-all approbatory term for old stuff.  As in Kirstie’s Vintage Home, the word is overused, sometimes to the point of nonsensical concepts such as ‘vintage designer’ (Lowe, born in 1970 – does this mean she herself is vintage?!) and ‘vintage event’ (Allsopp, referring to a vintage-style, or perhaps ‘vintage-inspired’ wedding).  The introduction immediately stretches things yet further: the book is explained to be about the practice of creating a ‘vintage style’ – ie. the appearance of stylish oldness rather than its reality.  The ‘Vintage Christmas’ projects perfectly demonstrate this: lace and satin stockings, vintage wallpaper paper chains, vintage bauble place settings, lace Christmas crackers, lace bunting and lace-covered wooden heart and star baubles.  This is extreme vintage fetishism.  There is nothing ‘vintage’ about a modern Christmas with these items, nor does it hark back to a Christmas in the past where all of these items would be present.  One project in the book, for an ‘Antique ghost mirror’, reassures the reader: ‘you don’t have to wait years or spend lots of money on an antique to get the look.’  The tools required include heavy-duty chemical resistant rubber gloves, a paint stripper, and hydrochloric acid, and the method amounts to damaging a piece of furniture to make it look old (‘distressing’, of course, is nothing new, but the fact that this process involves dangerous chemicals and is at the expense of the item’s practical purpose serves to highlight its silliness).  The tensions between finding and making and between authenticity and appearance are perfectly captured in the blurb on the back of the book, with its perplexing but accurate promise: ‘Vintage designer Pearl Lowe shows you how to create the authentic vintage look in your own home with her expert advice and simple projects’ (italics added).

Lowe is determinedly eclectic in her aesthetic, embracing a range of different identities (‘I think I’ve always been a bit of a gypsy at heart’;  ‘Growing up I was a classic Goth’), and taking a similarly pick-and-mix approach to historical styles (though she favours Art Deco above all others).

The appeal of old things is interesting (and in some ways, a positive counter-current to a much more widespread social fascination with and worship for all things new).  Objects, like people, acquire experience, and often scars, the longer they stay in the world. There is, to quote Susan Sontag’s wonderful words, something enchanting about ‘used things, warm with generations of human touch.’ Unlike people, though, objects can’t tell you much about their lifetimes, and change less across the course of them.  A chair really has only one practical purpose, whether it was made yesterday or fifty years ago.  So on one level, Pearl Lowe’s statement that ‘anything I buy has to have character and history’ is understandable, but on another level it is phony.  It is unlikely that Lowe knows of or cares about the precise details of the history of the artefacts she acquires.  Rather, they are simply redolent with ‘pastness’; they are mute icons upon which one can project personal fantasies (of ‘hippiness’, ‘gothness’, ‘vintageness’, or whatever).  Objects, histories and identities are reduced to style, pure and simple – the question of whether it looks good.  Note, for example, how ‘the hippy gypsy look’ starts out as a tasteful way of decorating a caravan, but quickly moves away from even this minimal relationship to an appropriate place and becomes something that can ‘easily be recreated anywhere in a house’.  Sontag (again), writing about camp, suggested that it offered one solution to ‘the problem of how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture’.  Mass culture gives us all the same stuff to use in our lives, but one way in which we can distinguish ourselves is by taking an interest in older versions of the same stuff.  What Pearl Lowe adds to this is the eye of the designer.   To ‘Look at this old stuff’ is added ‘Look at the way I’ve put it all together.’

So much for the promises and fantasies the book offers in its words.  What about its images?  With very few exceptions, what we are offered is, to borrow Martin Lefebvre’s evocative phrase, ‘space freed from eventhood’.  Nothing is happening, and – with the partial exception of the ‘Entertaining Vintage Style’ section, where the tables of cupcakes (not vintage cupcakes, one hopes) are presumably awaiting guests – it does not look as though anything is about to happen.  Children appear only on a single spread in the book, and there only in their own rooms or the garden.  This sacrificing of functionality, or just plain living, to display, comes through in the impracticality of some of the design suggestions.  In the ‘Opulent Office’ section of the book, Lowe states ‘just because the room is dominated by technology and other modern necessities for work, that doesn’t mean it can’t have a vintage look too.’  The attempt to reconcile ‘technology’ and ‘a vintage look’ in the ‘Office in a wardrobe’ project results in the only piece of communications technology on display in the images being a (‘vintage’) telephone.

One striking thing about the photography in the book is the dullness of it all.  Most pictures seem dark and gloomy, with bold wallpapers, deep coloured lace and floral decorations dominating the spaces pictured.   Lowe has a penchant for mood lighting: tealights, chandeliers, standard lamps, and seems to prefer natural daylight to be filtered through lace panel curtains, which overall gives the impression of dimness, mustiness and dustiness – it’s a world away from the Ikea catalogue aesthetic where everything is clean, bright, organised and easy to keep clean.

Still, the book is all about how things look; as Lowe puts it, ‘aspirational living’.  I would venture that very few of the projects are actually useful or necessary – the focus is overwhelmingly upon making things look pretty: ‘Tailor’s dummies covered in pretty floral fabrics also look gorgeous standing in a dressing room and, if you like, you can even use them for their practical purpose’ (italics added).  Art Deco, Lowe’s preferred style, is ‘an indulgent style that is all about elegance and drama and less about practicality’ – and this love of indulgence, drama, elegance, glamour, grace and femininity – underlies every project in the book.

In her feature on cushions and quilts, Lowe says ‘Some old quilts can be a little marked or smelly […].  If you buy a slightly damaged vintage quilt, display it with its best face out’.  The photography may seem appealing, but it is worth wondering what it would smell like with all these old, mouldering, moth-eaten quilts draped on every available surface: ‘Quilts have traditionally been used as bedspreads, but why stop there?  They look beautiful draped over the ends of beds or over chairs or linen chests […] on the wall, hung up as they are or in frames, or thrown over a banister rail’.  This is one of the main four ideas behind the 60+ craft projects contained within the book: STICK A QUILT ON IT.  The other three are:

  • PAINT IT – ‘painting glass Kilner jars is a quick and simple way to add a touch of vintage to your everyday kitchen items. You can also decorate jam jars, milk bottles or any glass containers you care to lay your paintbrush on’
  • WALLPAPER IT – ‘With its wonderful range of patterns, colours and styles – vintage or new – I never throw away offcuts of wallpaper; they always come in handy.  It’s easy to attach wallpaper to just about any surface with craft glue or wallpaper paste, and it’s a simple and stylish way to transform your furniture.  Whoever said wallpaper was just for walls?’
  • STICK LACE ON IT – ‘That’s the beauty of this fabric [lace]; you can use it anywhere you like; as tablecloths or runners, on furniture, on coffee tables, or draped over curtain poles or bedheads – wherever you think it looks good.  It doesn’t have to be obvious, either, just a fragment here and there adds femininity and grace to a room.’

So what of the projects themselves?  Practical use aside, are they easy to make?  How detailed are the instructions given?  The book contains all sorts of projects requiring a wide range of skills in needlework, re-upholstery, painting, decoupage, flower arranging, candle-making, screen printing… Each project includes written instructions, but no diagrams.  At the back of the book there are a mere five pages devoted to ‘Craft basics’ – two pages covering what a basic craft kit and an essential sewing kit ought to include,  two pages on basic hand sewing stitches (overstitching, running stitch, slip stitch, blanket stitch, back stitch and cross stitch), and half a page on preparing and painting wood.  Having read these five pages I certainly do not feel adequately prepared to tackle a reupholstery project, however, I get the feeling that one doesn’t actually need to be skilled or experienced in any of these areas to give it a go: Lowe appeals to a gung-ho, confident crafter who is willing to give anything a try.  As regards quilt-making – a difficult, time-consuming activity even for an experienced sewer – Lowe reassures the reader ‘If you aren’t the neatest sewer, don’t worry – wobbly stitching adds to the character of the quilt’.  In fact it seems any imperfection in a finished project just serves to tell a story, authenticate the project, make it ‘bespoke’, ‘personal’ and ‘unique’.

All the above could be summarised as ‘This is a book about design, written by a designer.’  It is unfair to criticise a book for being something it does not attempt or claim to be.  And of course, a desire to have a nice-looking house is not something to be scorned in itself, nor is indulgence always a bad thing.  ‘I believe we are all entitled to a bit of glamour in our lives’, Lowe opines in her introduction, and she is right.  But we can still ask whether the particular brand of style we are being offered is a positive one.  There is too much that is pretentious, impractical, false, excessive and, at bottom, illogical in Vintage Craft for it to be worth recommending.

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