A Matter of Taste

My husband and I were talking the other night about the dreadful old couch he bought circa 2006. I asked him how he could have purchased this ugly, poofy, leather three-seater that looked as though it had been transported straight out of the ’80s. (There’s this great commercial for ING bank, with the punchline, “stop banking in the past”. His couch made me think of that commercial.) He responded that, back then, he just never thought about how stuff looked and he just let his ex pick it out. It was only after countless – countless – shopping trips with me that he started to develop his own sense of style, and to trust his gut when it comes to making aesthetic decisions.

But all this got me to thinking: are some of these things inborn, or is taste something we learn?

One of my earliest memories was going shopping with my dad, back in grade one. I remember I needed something to bring for show and tell, and I had recently become obsessed with prisms (oh yes, I was all about the bling, even then). Luckily, this was 1970s, and we found a little bohemian shop filled with crystals hanging in the front window. The shopkeeper picked out one, then another, presenting them to us. Finally, one caught my eye and I said “that one!” Of course, I had picked out the sparkliest, most faceted prism in the set; it was 60 dollars. The lady behind the counter turned to my dad, let out a low whistle, and said, “she’s got expensive taste…”

That wasn’t the last time I heard those words. Over the years, I seemed to develop a knack for being able to pick out the priciest item in a jewelry store. Not only that; I became especially good at telling whether something was fake – whether a stone was color treated, an opal was manufactured, or a piece was sterling silver when sitting in a rack full of white gold. In his book “Gut Feelings”, Gerd Gigerenzer attributes this skill to increased practice and expertise. All those years of visiting local rock shops and reading through gemstone books “just for fun” as a kid. He notes that, for individuals with a high level of experience with a subject, extensive time and analysis does not produce better decision making; in fact “in contrast, the gut reaction was, on average, better than the action chosen after reflection”. I knew in a moment’s glance whether a piece was valuable, I didn’t have to think about it. This suggests that good taste isn’t something you can think your way through; it needs to come from the gut.

So growing up, I prided myself on having a good sense of taste, just like my fashionable, European dad. Every year I would buy him a sweater, or a tie, or some other token that highlighted our shared aesthetic. He would nod appreciatively, and turn to my mom, saying something like, “see, now this is a pair of cufflinks!” Yeah sure, some of that was probably for my benefit. But I saw genuine appreciation and pride in his eyes when he talked about my sense of style – it was one of the few ways the two of us were alike. And I was likewise proud of his sense of style: tailored, classic, timeless. My mum? Not so much…

My mom liked to rock the printed shift dress. For my entire life, she wore the same heavy, horn-rimmed glasses. This was okay when they started to come back ‘in’ sometime post-2000, but in the mid-80’s? Not a chance. So I always found myself thinking, “thank God I inherited his sense of taste!”

Which brings us back to the question at hand.

A preliminary internet search of ‘Is good taste inherited?’ turns up… well, not much. On the Art and Life blog (Feb 25, 2011), Simony Silva writes “even though sense and sensibility for design and good taste is believed to be an inherited talent, or borne with quality, it can also be acquired through much time spent reading, studying, and observing other peoples’ good taste”. In other words, it can go either way.

It turns out, the actual scientific research is pretty spotty. Really, this shouldn’t be surprising. Think about it: in order to look at differences between individuals who have good taste vs. those who don’t, you first have to come up with some sort of objective, measurable indicator for what’s really attractive. It turns out, that’s not so easy. Because, while those of us who believe we have good taste think we know just exactly what that means, it turns out that others, frustratingly, think the same about the things they love. In other words, something that you believe to be “just right” can look totally “off” to your next door neighbour. Also, it seems as though some delicacies (e.g., blue cheese, or caviar) are an “acquired taste” – sensual experiences that get better with time. Finally, there is the issue of fashion. This month’s MISC magazine notes that: “If aesthetic experience is a summation of stimuli, it is not only about the immediate senses working at the moment of exposure, but also the accumulated senses – one’s sense of the times, of history, of a social and cultural context – all of which inform one’s sense of aesthetic taste.” And so the mid-century modern sofa that everyone adores right now was virtually snubbed back in the ’80s, when everyone was looking for… well, you know. So, how can the scientists examine patterns of inheritance, or changes in brain activation, with criteria that no one can agree upon?

Thus, the question becomes: If nothing else, can good taste be nurtured?

Happily, I think it’s relatively safe to say “yes”. Like my husband, the more time spent in evaluating, comparing and really thinking about the world around you, the better you become at noticing and discerning quality. Like Gigerenzer’s experts, you develop the skills to make quicker, more accurate judgements about the aesthetic. What’s the best way to do this?

To put it simply… stop and smell the roses. Take the time to snap pictures of beautiful things that inspire you. Roam around Pinterest looking for beauty, and share it with your friends. Allow yourself the opportunity to indulge in sensual experiences – massages, bubble baths, long walks in the woods – and yes, give yourself permission to buy beautiful things that make you happy. At the same time, pitch the stuff that doesn’t. Hone in on those things that lift your spirit. As Henry Miller noted, “the moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself”.

And let his ex keep the couch.

What Constitutes a Collection?

Funny story: I remember a Christmas, long ago, when I received a long-awaited watch as a gift. I remember giggling triumphantly with glee. Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, my mom was shaking her head. “What?” I asked. “Nothing,” she replied, “other than the fact that you only have 16 watches…” I shrugged. “It’s a collection!” It only got funnier when she asked my dad – who hadn’t been paying any attention – how many of something constituted a collection and he replied, in all sincerity, “I dunno… 200?”

It got me to thinking, though, about my longtime obsession with jewelry. My penchant for design began very early on, out of a desire to find the perfect… what? Well, everything. The perfect hoop earring. The perfect charm bracelet. The perfect diamond pendant. You get the idea.

I realize now that what I was trying to do, in my own naive grade school way, was to curate a collection. It seemed there was so much junk to be had, that I wanted to be the person who could pull out my “set” of pieces – even when that set only constituted 5 or 6 items – and point to a pin that had just the right proportions, or the ring that had just the right color rhodolite. It wasn’t about amassing a huge collection, or even a complete collection, but about finding the perfect piece and giving it a home. 

Back in the 80’s, when I first scouring the local shops, the selection wasn’t nearly what it is today – particularly in Canada. Heck, “back in the day” white gold wasn’t even available! But more than that, what the stores seemed inundated with was… bad design. The idea that everyone wanted the same yellow heart pendant, or solitaire ring. Oh, to be sure, they were to someone’s taste. Just not mine!

So when my dad offered, the following year, to kick-start my collection of “real” jewelry with a specially designed sapphire ring, I jumped on the chance. For months, he visited the local jeweler and gave orders, approved details, and made sure it met his exact specifications. Then, that Christmas, it arrived under the tree.

And I didn’t like it.

I didn’t like it, and what’s more, he could tell. I smiled weakly, and tried to enthuse, but he saw through it. He looked at me indignantly, threw his hands up in the air, and turned and walked away. I felt horrible; don’t get me wrong, I really, really wanted to like it, and usually the two of us had very similar taste. But for whatever reason, that particular ring, to me, looked a little… cheap. Fake, maybe, given it was the first time I’d ever seen in white gold (so much like silver!). At any rate, I gulped hard, and swore to myself to wear it every day anyway. Maybe it would grow on me.

But the story gets worse. Some six weeks later I was invited to go swimming with some friends. So, to ensure no harm came to it (I don’t know why I’d worry that a couple hours exposure to pool water might hurt it, but I did) – I made the fatal mistake of leaving it, buried in my sock, in an open locker. I’d forgotten change. And when I came back, predictably, it was gone. I arrived home stricken. It took days to finally come clean about what had happened. …I was never quite able to make up for it with my dad, who just said, “just don’t expect me to buy you another piece of jewelry”    :(

Anyway, take from these family stories a couple lessons, if you will:

First, a collection has no predefined size; it can be however large or small you think is reasonable, manageable, affordable and makes you happy. But it should definitely include statement pieces and items with sentimental value. Second, if you’re going to give someone something special for their collection… maybe just check that it’s their style first. Or at least, don’t be insulted when they don’t. Third, always – always – bring change for the locker.