What Is Good Taste?
And How Can You Develop Some?
"Good Taste" sounds a little quaint nowadays, conjuring up images of ladies with hats and gloves tut-tutting over some neighbor's choice of new davenport or dinner-dance frock, whispering to each other, "Such poor taste, my dear, such poor taste!"
Thank goodness those days are gone!
It's now understood that different people like different things - your ugly davenport may be my handsome sofa. Taste is relative!
Well... Maybe not.
"Good" taste is more broadly defined than it used to be, but it still exists. And people judge you on your taste... So, naturally, we get a little nervous when the boss comes over for dinner.
The good news is that, though you can't easily make yourself younger, taller, richer, or (very much) smarter, you CAN develop your taste!
So far we've only made the what-will-they-think-of-me argument for developing "good" taste: it's natural to want to do justice to ourselves in public. Nothing wrong with design as self-defense. But here's the REAL reason to want to develop a sense of good style and an eye for good design... It makes your life better every day. It makes life more satisfying and beautiful.
Don't you deserve a beautiful life?
Having a well practiced sense of good taste is a huge advantage whenever you are presented with choices. (As we all are daily.) It just flat makes life EASIER, by making the choice between this object and that one simpler. Choosing well-designed products makes everything in your life more useful and more pleasing. Good design is good for you!
"Good" taste helps you spot good design.
And good design is available even on a budget. Money has little to do with taste: in fact, isn't it a standard joke that people with new money spend it tastelessly on very expensive "bad" design? (Isn't half the fun of celebrity fashion gaffes the fact that the ugly Oscar dress cost a fortune?) Yet, at the same time that there are jokes about the tackiness of millionaires, there are dueling jokes about the tastelessness of life in a trailer park.
So what is "good" design... at any price? How can you learn to recognize it?
This Lens will help you develop your own, personal designer's-eye. Spot the good stuff! Learn to recognize good design. (Like bird watching - design-spotting can become a fun hobby!)
Read on and develop exquisite taste...
(BTW More illustrations to come as I find, um, tasteful ones.)
"De gustibus non est disputandum"
(There's no arguing taste.)
What Defines Good Taste?
"Taste" in our context here means "preference."
We all have some things we like, some we dislike - personal preferences. Many preferences are quirky and individual: I like blue, you like red; he likes chocolate, she hates it. There is no right or wrong to these kinds of subjective judgments. Chocolate is not "better" than strawberry flavor. (Unless perhaps there are hidden health benefits: go, dark chocolate! Then again, fresh fruit, yay!)
Personal preferences are almost impossible to argue anyone into or out of.
However, we can each, if we want to, cultivate a new taste. For instance, I might decide to learn about opera, visit the opera, and listen to operas hoping that, as I learn to better appreciate this art, I'll also learn to love it. In the same way, it's common for couples to share enthusiasms with each other and to find or create a few tastes in common.
But there is a vague territory called "good taste" that can be agreed upon by larger groups, even whole societies, and some "good taste" that seems to be almost universal.
In visual design, styles may go in and out of fashion, but a person with good taste can choose well-designed objects in any style, objects that most people would view as "in good taste."
So what elements are important in good taste?
Good Taste is Appropriate to the Task:
A well-cut, well-fitting tuxedo, for instance, is in good taste... unless worn to play baseball. Formal-wear just doesn't allow the stretching and exertion required to play the game, would be sweaty and uncomfortable to wear, and wouldn't clean up well either. Anything that hinders the activity or use it's meant to help is badly designed (for that use). Bad design is automatically in poor taste.
Good Taste Respects its Context:
Appropriateness includes a lot of factors - not just functionality, but also context.
VISUAL CONTEXT: Imagine a room with a low ceiling and horizontal lines, where all the furniture is low and covered with comfortable squashy pillows - then add a tall, thin, hard, wooden chair. A nicely designed chair, but not the right chair for this room. For this context. Such strong contrast in design can be witty or tasteless or even funny. (I once designed a theater show with a tall thin wing chair, a short squatty wing chair, and a mini doll-sized wing chair all in a row... that show was funny before actors even showed up!)
SOCIAL CONTEXT: Another problem with that tux. Because playing baseball is not a formal-wear event.
If the What is important, so is the Who. Even on an occasion as socially important as Ascot Races, it's only the society beauties who wear the fancy hats - not the horses. (Which is why paintings with dressed-up dogs playing poker are always so darn funny.)
Good taste often translates into "socially expected." Social context flavors a lot of good/bad taste decisions. Certainly it takes social judgement to know when a silver fork is needed or when that should instead be a stainless steel fork or a plastic one or perhaps chopsticks. Any of those varieties of servers can be well designed.
"Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
Good Taste is Well-Designed:
It's possible to choose things in socially-judged "good taste" which are just ordinary in quality and appearance, but truly good "in the best taste" requires beautifully designed things. Fortunately, you can find almost anything at any budget in both ugly and good versions. And beauty can sometimes be found for free.
Exercising your personal good taste makes life more beautiful and satisfying.
Defining good design is a big topic (perhaps that will lead to another Lens someday) but the short version is that a well-designed object of any kind - clothing, building, chair, or toaster - makes the job it's supposed to help you with easier, more attractive, more efficient, even safer, and always more satisfying.
A well-designed raincoat looks good on you, makes you look good, feels comfortable, is well made, durable, and keeps you dry. A well-designed toaster makes great toast! And looks good doing it... while never setting fire to the kitchen. Good design makes you smile. It makes it easier to staple papers together, to drive your car, to sleep well, or to make tea.
QUALITIES OF GOOD DESIGN:
1) Suitability of a well-designed object for its job
2) Ease of use
3) Honesty in materials and form and construction
4) Pleasing aesthetics... a handsome shape, attractive color and texture, nice feel and heft
5) Timelessness. Fads can be fun, but fashions pass... yet well-designed objects remain. Perhaps a design may become quaint or historic, but it's still valid.
6) Simplicity. Often the best design seems the simplest.
In a simple design there is nothing added, nothing that obscures the real point. The best explanation comes from that classic writing book The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White: "Vigorous writing [or design] is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."
Simplicity does not mean always plain or austere, but any decoration tends to be integral to the object's nature, its materials, and its method of construction.
For instance, a traditional room usually has a baseboard where the floor meets the wall and a crown-molding where the wall meets the ceiling. This tends to look "fancy" and thus un-simple, but it's actually good design, in its way, because adding moldings at these joints hides any flaws in the construction. (Corners and edges are tricky.) Elaborating on these cover-up pieces of wood with carving is a natural thing to do and, if done well, adds to the beauty of the room. A modern style room, however, with no baseboard or crown-mold looks very simple and clean - austerely beautiful - but can be devilishly hard to build well. That bare modern room can cost more than one with moldings! (Then again, really complicated molding costs a bomb.) Simplicity is often very hard to pull off.
Another frequent characteristic of good design is a certain lightness or humor. There can be something odd or charming or even funny in a well-designed object. We get used to this fast, of course, but go stare at the grace and delight of a paperclip... What a quirky yet lovely shape! Now bent and kink it a little. Still holds paper, but so ugly! (Bet you throw it away.)
Part of developing good taste is becoming aware of the characteristics of the stuff we see and buy and use. Become conscious of color and form and function. Learn to spot the designer's hard work in simplifying things. It's the big reason Apple products are so loved and coveted: good, simple, elegant design.
If you mention taste nowadays, a lot of people will tell you that “taste is subjective.” They believe this because it really feels that way to them. When they like something, they have no idea why. It could be because it’s beautiful, or because their mother had one, or because they saw a movie star with one in a magazine, or because they know it’s expensive. Their thoughts are a tangle of unexamined impulses. "
- Paul Graham
History and Theory of Good Taste
There is some interesting and deep reading here on the idea of good taste.
This book is an absolute classic of interior design. Times may have changed (and certainly fashion has!), but much of this advice holds true.
Same book, more photos.
Critical essays... I love essays.
This sounds fascinating - like one of those personality quizzes in the magazines, but with added sofas!
We're All Nuts! - Home Psych by Joan Kron
This book is a little dated - mid '80s - but fascinating. (Out of print, so no picture, rats!)
I own this book.
I love this book so much that, when I'm lucky enough to find a cheap copy, I buy it to give to friends interested in home decoration.
Home Psych talks about the social aspects of decorating. Why do we redecorate our living rooms so often - so expensively - but so seldom spend a buck on the back bedroom? Why is getting a house into Architectural Digest so important... and then why sometimes does that ruin the owners lives? How often is purple fashionable? Is home remodeling linked to divorce?
There are historical tidbits too: in the 1930s, a visitor could spot your social class by whether you had a living room rug. U. S. census takers were actually given a checklist, "piano? check! books? check. telephone..." (What would the tell-tale items be today, I wonder?)
I just gave this book to a friend starting interior design school.
Ten Tips on Good Taste
LESS BUT BETTER: It's always more successful in any kind of design to use few, but well-chosen, or just enough, rather than too much. For example, it's in better taste to wear one handsome, well-fitted, warm coat than to have several inadequate flashy-trendy jackets. Likewise, it's more tasteful to provide plenty of good, simple, tasty food for your picnic rather than ostentatiously too much of too fancy refreshments.
QUALITY: The best of its kind is usually good. For example, a beautiful silver pen may be tasteful when signing that Peace Treaty, but for jotting notes a classic yellow #2 pencil is classic.
DETAILS MATTER: Pay attention to them. Is that yellow pencil all chewed looking?
FORGET FASHION: Trends and fads are fun, but have nothing to do with good taste. Imagine this choice (clothing, furnishings, book, or whatever) ten years from now... would you be embarrassed to admit to it? Probably not tasteful.
TASTES DIFFER: There are - thank goodness! - no Taste Police. If you're really really happy with it... does anyone else's opinion matter?
UNSEEN THINGS MATTER: In the fashion world this might be underwear - it's understood that a good "foundation" makes everything else look better. Usually true! Pay attention to the basics, to the foundations. It's always in better taste to settle for solid worth over flash. Polish that beautiful oak floor before buying that rug.
ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE: It's okay to subtly emphasize your best points. It's great taste to choose to present your best (and happiest) face to the world. Good manners, politeness, helpfulness, cheerfulness - especially under adversity - are all in the very best taste.
EXQUISITENESS: Perfection - of its kind - is tasteful. (If you let it speak for itself.) And if this perfection involves, say, chocolate it's good taste of the tastiest kind! Be sure to share round, right?
FITNESS: There it is again, the idea that something is in good taste when it's appropriate. It IS.
HARMONY WITH YOURSELF: Whatever this tasteful thing is... it needs to suit YOU. Otherwise it's not good taste - it's camouflage. Be tasteful while being sincere, that's the goal.
“Good taste is the excuse I've always given for leading such a bad life”
- Oscar Wilde
Can You Have Too Much Good Taste?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!
Because "good" taste is supposed to be so darn appropriate all the time, there is a terrible temptation to over-do the caution.
For fear of being IN-appropriate, the timid among us make the tame "correct" choice: the navy blue coat, not the red one; the oatmeal colored sofa, not the striped one; vanilla low-fat yogurt instead of pistachio gelato. (And aren't we all timid sometimes... as when that boss IS coming home to dinner?) When unsure of ourselves we tend to choose the unarguably correct, the bland, the boring, the unutterably dull and humorless.
Well, we know better.
You can have good taste AND gusto. Design and wit. Solid virtue without solemnity. Fun! Color! Taste!
And still "good" taste.
"Good taste is the first refuge of the non-creative. It is the last-ditch stand of the artist."
- Marshall McLuhan
Taste for Creative People
If having good taste is helpful for those of us choosing and buying stuff, imagine how useful an educated eye for good taste and good design would be to the people who MAKE all the objects that fill our lives.
An essay on good taste - and good design - by Paul Graham. Worth reading for designer or anyone interested in design.
Prof. Laurie Fendrich says: "Some of my artist friends argue that good taste has never been more than a fancy cover for who's got the power and money in art. I can't but smile when I hear this argument, because one of the worst manifestations of taste on the planet is ostentatiousness - precisely the taste brought on when only power and money are the driving forces."
The second link sends you to an interesting article by Susan Sontag on that witty style that plays with matters of taste: Camp.
- Yes, Virginia, There is Good Taste.
A Brainstorm essay by professor of fine arts Laurie Fendrich about how there is too! such a thing as taste and about teaching it to art students.
- Susan Sontag - Notes on "Camp"
Camp is a particularly clever and self-aware style that plays with wit, taste, and most joyfully with tastelessness. Great fun.
- Interior Design Quotes
A collection of interesting comments on taste, style, and flair in interior design.
- Big Think: Understanding Good Taste in Design
A video essay by interior designer Thom Filicia on good taste and taste-makers.
- Fashion Incubator "What is good taste, good design, and how to be creative"
A lively blog post on the topic.
A Thoughtful Essay on Design and Life
A book about architecture, but also all design that impacts our lives.
Alain de Botton is a wonderful writer on any subject from philosophy to a Week at the Airport. This is an inspirational book for designers and an enlightening and engaging one for all the rest of us. Very thoughtful. Very articulate.
I keep returning to this book.
It otta be embroidered and hung over every designer's desk as a motto: Do Good Design.
Sounds like a thought-provoking book.
"Tacky is not the worst thing in the world—it’s better to have bad taste than to have no taste at all."
- Thom Filicia
Enjoy the Tasteless and Tacky - (Or the only reputedly so)
Kitsch can be a lot of fun - full of energy and enthusiasm.
Kitsch is... kinda fun.
This fantastic trailer park high-rise is at the Openluchttheater in Amsterdam (a summer-time, outdoor theater) for their production of Ivanov. Wish I knew the set designer!
Here's a perfect example of humor, joy, color, and arguable tastelessness ("trailer trash" is not usually a complement after all) used in perfect taste for the purpose at hand - to delight an audience.
(Click the pic for more photos.)
"Sometimes it's more important to be human, than to have good taste."
- Bertolt Brecht
Personal Taste and Style
As you develop your knowledge of and sensitivity to design, as you discover "good" and "bad" taste, and as you start to define what exactly you yourself really like and dislike, you will start to develop a personal style. You can't help it.
If you love the color red... then that's in good taste. (Maybe not at a funeral, remember appropriate, right?) But by all means paint your dining room rich, vibrant red. Red is in just as tasteful as the more usual beige and much more fun. Some famous and beautiful rooms have been red and it's reputed to be perfect for dinner parties. Pick a shade of red you want to live with - then live with it.
You are your own arbiter of taste.
Now, if you want a little support and confidence in going red instead of beige, you can always do a little research. Collect photos of red dining rooms. Find one you especially like and use that as a guide. Or maybe your inspiration will be a terrific Matisse painting. Or an apple.
"Be faithful to your own taste because nothing you really like is ever out of style."
- Billy Baldwin
Good Taste in Behavior
"Good taste" also famously applies to behavior!
I can highly recommend any Miss Manners book. Not only does she know her etiquette-y stuff, but she explains it well and in such a wryly amusing tone that one might be tempted - if she were not such an exceedingly well-manner lady - to suspect Miss Manners herself of perpetrating... satire. Or snarkiness!
I read her books for fun. Seriously. (It's not in good taste to doubt a lady's word, you know.)
I useful book... and amazingly fun to read.
Aaaah! Domestic tranquility. Read on...
More Taste-y Links
- The Good Taste Guide
A web magazine with posts on decorating, fashion, cooking...
After All This Tasteful Talk...
How about a blog on white gloves?
Or maybe not-so-white gloves. Here's a fun blog post by Jenny Taylor at the Huffington Post on what she calls "graffiti gloves."
This is individual taste in action!