Working with architects and interior designers I am often confronted with the party line “we don’t use fake materials.” I am a design historian and a materials specialist and I have studied the materials of civilization over the course of my more than twenty-year career. I find “fake” to be a fascinating and little understood subject.
When I presented the nomination of the Ralph Wilson Sr. House to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, one of the board members later took me aside and asked me “How could you have spent so many years of your life studying a material that is so fake?” He was referencing, of course, my work with Wilsonart® Laminate, in which the Wilson House is adorned from top to bottom. Having such a personal respect and appreciation for the material, this question shocked me and I realized that we, as a profession, have a polarizing view on the topic.
Here are the facts.
You are faking all the time.
Whether you are conscious of it or not, in your work you imitate all the time. Consider this: how do you work with your clients? If you are a residential designer or architect, more than likely your client brought you pictures of what they liked and you started your design process from there. If your client is a corporation, then surely you began the project by creating a visual, a rendering or a model, which you then brought to life. These practices are mimicry in action!
Fashion is a form of copying.
The word fashion literally means “prevailing custom; mode of dress and adornment prevailing in a place and time.” One person wants to look similarly, or the same, to another. The same applies to design: literally “to be in style,” “to be fashionable” is to copy, imitate or be influenced by preexisting design.
“Tradition” is actually a form of mimicry.
The word “tradition” means “to hand down from generation to generation” and in design, it applies to customs, forms and motifs. We replicate design elements that are considered time honored, classic or traditional. Each generation borrows from the first.
To fake is natural.
Humans, and all primates, have mirror neurons in their brains. This means that we are hard wired to imitate; we observe and then replicate the experience. The word “mirror” comes from the Middle English verb mirouren (early 15c.), which means, “to be a model.” We are constantly imitating everything we encounter, ranging from accents and human behaviors to fashion of all sorts.
We only fake the things we value.
Notice that people only fake things that we like or that are highly prized or respected. We don’t imitate things we don’t care about. Conversely, when we imitate things of little or no value, we find it amusing. Marzipan is fancifully shaped into fruits, toys and little animals. Why? Because it’s delightful!
Not all fakes are forgeries.
There is a difference between a fake and a forgery. A fake is a form of imitation and man has been imitating nature and each other from the beginning of civilization. It is important to consider the importance of fashion, tradition and creativity. Consider this scenario: you are a pastry chef. You are able to make frosting look indistinguishable from real flowers. That delights everyone! No one looks at a wedding cake ad scoffs “Oh, fake flowers!” Here imitation is an expression of human creativity. We need to consider the celebratory aspect a little bit more.
In design, we are increasingly presented with man-made materials that imitate materials found in nature, but many of these man-made materials have availability, consistency, ease of maintenance and durability, and perhaps even affordability beyond the natural. Wilsonart® Laminate, for example, in addition to the bright colors and retro patterns found in the Wilson House, has a number of patterns able to mirror the look of natural stone and wood. Perhaps we should look at our material world with new understanding, and perhaps even compassion for why we, as a species, fake.
About the Author
Grace Jeffers is an esteemed design historian, materials expert and writer focusing on the 20th century, whose approach blends art history, social history, material science and the practice of design. A graduate of the prestigious Bard Graduate Center for the Decorative Arts, she is a pioneer in her industry because of her focus on actual materials, rather than the objects they become. As a curator, Jeffers is best known for her work restoring and preserving the Ralph and Sunny Wilson House in Temple, Texas, for which she received the prestigious Merit Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.