Paramount importance

Style over substance is a clich&#233 in design circles. But David Bernstein finds the maxim fits for New York, before finding its antidote in Santa Fe, of all places

Times Square cleaned up its act for the Millennium. On West 46th Street an old hotel got a makeover by Ian Schrager and has become a mecca for the young who appreciate its “cheap chic” positioning.

The Paramount was the venue for this year’s judging of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America Awards. I checked in as a juror. The effect of the lobby is impressive. A sweeping and asymmetrical staircase forms the background to an eclectic assembly of upright chairs and long benches. The whole effect resembles a white box dotted with figures in black. The staff wear Armani-esque black suits. So do most of the guests, framed in open rectangles, eating, drinking, conversing. That was the guests’ role: to act like those wooden figures architects place strategically in their three- dimensional models.

There is minimal signage. Outside, you will struggle to find the words Paramount and Hotel. Inside, nothing indicates what service the people behind identical desks provide. Receptionist, cashier, concierge? Elevators are dimly lit in orange, blue or green – the lamps barely illuminate the buttons. Restroom doors are unmarked, but the words MEN and WOMEN are fetchingly tiled on the floor .

The rooms are also discreet and minimalist. A huge reproduction of a Flemish painting occupies virtually the entire rear wall. The effect of the room is spoiled, alas, by your presence in it. There is no place to store luggage – or its contents, unless inside the former. There is a doll’s house cupboard with three twee drawers.

The judging over – and before ten days in New Mexico – Sue and I walked the few blocks uptown to the Crafts Museum opposite the Museum of Modern Art, attracting a fraction of the business and arguably more intense interest per visitor head.

The current exhibition is called Defining Craft. Exhibits confound the barrier between art and craft, liberally captioned: “Objects that address our dual need for beauty and usefulness have been created by craftspeople since the dawn of human culture.”

Does the Paramount satisfy those dual needs? Simplicity it has, but study Frank Lloyd Wright’s definition: “Something with a graceful sense of beauty, from which discord and all that is meaningless has been eliminated.” The Paramount, in its relentless search for simplicity, also eliminates the meaningful.

Defining Craft calls on artists, craftspeople, critics and its visitors to define “craft” and to distinguish it from art. From the wall radiates the golden rule of William Morris. “Have nothing in your home you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” That dual need again.

Many miles from Manhattan two Santa Fe museums are honouring the work of a follower of Morris, Arthur Wesley Dow, painter, photographer and teacher of many, including Georgia O’Keefe. With a mission to “create objects that were well made, finely crafted and beautifully rendered”, Dow never considered crafts inferior to fine arts.

We read the comment of a visitor to the US in 1882. “Let the pitcher by the well be beautiful and surely the labour of the day will be lightened.” Whether all US labourers agreed then or agree now with Oscar Wilde is debatable, but in Santa Fe there is ample evidence, especially in museums devoted to Indian crafts, of the fusion of beauty and utility.

The word “art” does not exist in the Indian language. “But”, asks Michael Lacopa, an Apache/ Hopi craftsman, “what will we call that piece which embraces the life of its creator? We make pieces of life to see, touch, feel. Shall we call it ‘art’? I hope not. It may lose its soul. Its life. Its people.”

Rhetoric? Not really – if the universality of that thought is any guide. “Art is a symbolic representation of experience,” asserts the curator of the New Mexican Museum of Arts and Crafts. And as his name is Bruce Bernstein, who am I to cavil? One belief unites all their exhibits and comments: the idea that handmade things forge a link between maker and user.

Recently, American scientists have declared that clay is a living substance. In other words, that it replicates itself over time. But the Pueblan Indian has known this for six centuries at least. One Hopi potter tells us, “The clay is a living being. When you put it in your hand you know. We converse every step of the way, the clay and I.”

With whom did Philippe Starck, designer of the Paramount, converse with? A little conversation might have forged that link between maker and user.

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