If these wabi-sabi walls could whisper . . .

Yesterday I started painting the whitewashed walls in our little bungalow. The plaster walls are 70 years old so bumps and cracks and drips abound. When I helped remodel old houses in Arkansas we would have hand textured the walls to cover up all of the imperfections. This texturing technique was nice, a bit of a stuccoed appearance. It made the place look new on the inside.

Work with the painter I’ve been helping out this year has been slow the past couple weeks, so I’ve busied myself with other things as much as I’ve been able (other things that are somewhat financially advantageous in these lean times, things not necessarily sculpture related as I’d prefer). I spent some time in my dad’s shop, The Milestone Gallery, painting walls, signs and staining furniture.

Our Sand Trap walls with a Marissa Lee Swinghammer print hanging on the chimney chase

Dad has noticed that people even want their antique furniture to look and function like new. Doors that are warped or don’t close all the way, the crazed finish of a tabletop or patina from age on a cabinet can deter people from purchasing the unique objects he collects. “I thought that patina was something people liked,” he said.

Indeed, why do we as Americans so often crave the new? The walls in our little house do just fine at what they were built to do, and as I spread “Sand Trap” — a taupe-y tint with hints of rose or purple in different lights — over the scuffed up old walls I began to appreciate their textures. In fact, I’ve concluded that perfect walls are actually boring in comparison.

By saying this I’m not necessarily advocating any kind of trumped-up aging process, no intentional distressing of new walls or surfaces. When you build a new building you should do it properly, straight studs and square corners. The history of a place must come organically; our little Nebraska bungalow may have more of an overall patina than most places, having been a rental for most of its years according to our neighborhood historian.

And now for an uncomfortable question: Does our dislike for the appearance of age or imperfection in our buildings hearken back to the same aversion we have to age in our own person, or in our American culture of human beauty where maturity is not esteemed as it is in other cultures?

My uncle, whose home also boasts whispering plaster walls, took advantage of the patina by exaggerating it, showing it off. I haven’t seen how he’s done this yet, but the idea is intriguing to me. If I feel like I have the time, I’ll probably try something similar.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

4 Responses to If these wabi-sabi walls could whisper . . .

  1. Hi. Nice to see my piece up there. I keep up with your blog and others but am terrible about commenting these days.

    As for the old that functions like new that is how I would describe our home. Built in 1900 but totally gutted under ten years ago and feels like new. Except made better. I understand it in homes and some items as I could not handle having a door that doesn’t close, partially because I have a small child, but with others not so much. Maybe many people should just give up antiques and admit that they want Restoration Hardware new goods that just look old?

    • pcNielsen says:

      Doors that don’t close are not acceptable. I was speaking specifically of the walls, and tangentially of the floors (with implications of wavy old glass). Doors not closing is not the same as walls that still function, indeed. If the plaster were falling down, as it eventually can, again, not functional.

      And like I said, if you’re going to do it in the first place, do it well.

  2. Sarah says:

    So I live in an old manor in Northern Ireland and have come to adore the ‘character’ that houses and buildings, and really anything can obtain. It makes it special and more personal. I like how things used to be built to last, something that I think has been lost of late. I do think that our cultures desire to be as new as possible is an attempt at staying young and forgetting time passes. I think it is also hardwired into us to want to be as pure as possible, bit the blemish of sin has tarnished that possibility. Until the world finds Christ, and the Lord returns, this striving to stop time will always be prominent.
    Where were you from in AR? I was from NW AR myself.

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