“Enough is as good as a feast” Mary Poppins
Okay, so most people probably don’t write serious commentary based on words of wisdom from a children’s story character, especially one reeking with tricky magic and barely controlled self-importance. Mary judges herself as “practically perfect in every way”. “Practically” could mean that in practical pursuits she is perfect, or “practically” can more colloquially mean “nearly”. In the latter case, even Mary seems to understand that she is only nearly perfect. This gives me some hope, because “perfect” is a ridiculous goal, really.
Anyway, I digress, as I often do. The point is to understand how powerful the statement “Enough is as good as a feast” is. It applies to so much in our lives from the quite simple application of yes, we’ve eaten enough and should push away from the table, to wow, isn’t it silly that we are demanding still more heating in the room when it would be even faster and more comfortable to put on some wool socks on this frigid winter day.
Do any of us realize how much too much we have? I think of myself as greener, yet I open my closet to find a blouse and need to pick through 20+ poorly stored blouses I nearly never wear to get to the one I want, which is one of the five or so I wear often. This wastes my time and is so frustrating. What would happen if I said “enough” and simplified down to the items of clothing I actually looked good and felt good in? The ones I wear most often. Why, I’d have plenty of room…and then likely I’d be tempted to buy more stuff I then wouldn’t wear. Hmmm.
So the real goal is getting to a place in my life where I understand that “enough is AS GOOD as a feast”. Not just a nice compromise, but actually significantly the same. A balanced state. Some people understand this more readily. I have had a couple of interns in the past years, and one said to me one day “Don’t settle for more when less is the right answer”. Wow. That blew me away. I hereby claim that saying for continued reference and future use, and thank William Rowe for sharing it with me.
Think about that phrase – how does it make you feel? It totally twists our perception of language in a very good way. We have been trained to think that “more” is always a good thing, and this has led to many serious problems in our world. One of the first examples that pops into my mind is plastics. They make sense in applications where we need to control breakage and sanitary state, such as blood bags and packaging for sterile tools. They don’t make sense in most of where we use them: in single use bottles and throw-away foam containers. The simple reason they are used in these excessive and unreasonable applications is because they are easy and light and more convenient in the short term. But more plastics in more uses causes HUGE waste issues as well as uncontrollable increases in bio accumulative toxins that are adversely affecting every human on the planet. We should be designing to achieve the optimal use of plastics.
We also need to reassess some words. Words can so quickly trip us up, and they do it with glee. I used the word compromise earlier in a way that implies accepting a lesser achievement. Powerful words such as compromise and collaboration and consensus all basically mean an agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side granting things, even giving preferential allowances. Nowhere does “compromise” actually mean a lack of achievement. In fact, we can look at compromise as seeking the win/win/win and finding the preferred outcome for all. If we accept the idea that mutual agreement is a higher level of success than one person getting what they think they want, then we will open up some amazing possibilities in design problems of all sorts. I say “what they think they want” because often it is in the process of discussion that people find an avenue to explore that achieves things beyond their initial comprehension of what can be achieved – this is brilliant and part of the processes of true compromise, collaboration and consensus.
So when is “less” the right answer? Quite often. Sarah Susanka writes many books about the “not so big” house concept. In nearly all of her books, the process includes identifying the real needs and wants, not the stuff that looks good in a magazine or that works well for the Jones’ across the street. Usually, a hoe-out is part of designing a new addition or a reconfiguring of spaces. Sometimes a re-assessment of “stuff” to decide if it is something that should remain as a feature of the home, or be relegated to a closet or boxes, or sent for re-use with someone else. Things that can shine become part of the design – books can become part of the decor, or a cherished set of china can be made accessible for use more often and to be decorative when not in use. How would your home change if you could show off the things you cherish. Would you cherish fewer things? Would you rediscover something? In some cases, it’s also a matter of designing how to use the space you already have, so that a dining room becomes usable most of the year as a good family working space hub, easily dressed up for special gatherings – much more effective than a new room at high cost that is only used part of the year.
So, in the case of needing more space the answer might well be that less is the right answer. Less stuff (and a re-understanding of that stuff) or less wasted space (more used more often space).
The factor of fear in this is letting go the stuff you’ve always had, or letting go of particular rituals you grew up with for certain spaces.
Okay, back to the quotes. How about the oft’ quoted “less is more”. This was originally from a poem by Robert Browning, but adopted by Mies van der Rohe as the precept for minimalist architectural and furniture design. The quote seeks to express the notion that simplicity and clarity lead to good design. I will write more in the future about simple not being easy, but here let’s just talk about “less” and that this word refers to well-chosen and well-crafted approaches. In no way does “less” intend to imply something not as desirable. It is the ultimate in what is desired.
And that is what we must learn. In fact, “Enough is AS GOOD AS a feast.” So often we go back for one more serving or one last bite and our experience of the whole meal is ruined because we are overstuffed and uncomfortable. We can also be overstuffed and uncomfortable with space, with stuff and with excess of resources that in turn are just wasted through lack of appreciation.
I mean, really, “Why settle for more when less is the right answer”?