Quality vs. Quantity

It’s an old saying, usually coming straight from the lips of the slightly insecure or self confident: ‘I do quality, not quantity!’. It’s a very appealing idea, the concept that skill and ability can mark one out from pure brawn and throwing vast amounts of resources at a problem. But sometimes quality is not the answer. Sometimes quantity is the way forward: and to illustrate this, I’m going to tell a story.

The Industrial Revolution was the biggest, most tumultuous and most difficult period of transition that the western world has ever been put through, and design was no exception. Objects once made individually and by hand, the work of skilled craftsmen, were now produced using vast steam-powered machinery owned and directed by rich businessmen. And being businessmen is the key here; they wanted their products to sell to the general public, and the only real way they knew how to do that back then was to make the things cheap. This generally manifested itself in making products as simple to produce as possible using the machinery of the day, and the idea of ingratiating design elements into these processes didn’t register on their conciousness; perhaps rightly, since the majority of the populace being sold to were rather poor and may not have been able to afford the prettier, more expensive item. What this did mean was that the products ordinary people filled their homes with were usually large, since Victorian machinery couldn’t handle high tolerances too well, decorated in a rather gaudy, ‘tacked on’ fashion rather than having beauty as part of the design, and were often of a very poor quality as manufacturers skimped on materials and good processing. We must remember that this was the golden age of deregulated industry, companies having no responsibility to either adhere to standards or treat their low-paid, overworked and awfully treated workers with any degree of respect.

This state of affairs was deplored by John Ruskin, an art critic and thinker of the time. He argued for a return to the old ways of doing things, with small-scale industry taking the place of big business and simple, good-quality, hand-crafted products replacing the mass-produced goods of the Victorian age. Since he actually had other things to do with his time, he didn’t expand on this plan to any great degree; but a man named William Morris did. Morris was a designer whose textiles designs would make him rich and whose poetry would make him famous, but he latched on to Ruskin’s ideas whilst at university, and they turned him into an early socialist. Indeed, he spent a decent chunk of time in later life standing on street corners distributing socialist pamphlets, but that’s another story. Morris took Ruskin’s ideas and, with a group of like-minded friends, founded a new design movement based on Ruskin’s philosophy. They wanted a return to craftsmanship, to put skill back into design and for workers to ’empower’ themselves through the making of good-quality, appropriately sized, simply designed products, putting them in charge of their own lives rather than acting as slaves to the corporation. More than that, they wanted to reinstate the role of design as a fine art, putting beauty into everyday products for everyday people, and to advance the art of design in general. This movement would later become known as the Arts and Crafts movement.

This movement was around between around 1860 and 1900, and enjoyed some success in revitalising design as an art form. Various universities and other intellectual establishments began founding schools of design, and as the Industrial Revolution wore on even the capitalists began to take notice of these new ideas, realising that the common people could be persuaded to buy their products because they were designed well rather than just because they were cheap. And what about the Arts & Crafts philosophy? Well, a few organisations were set up promoting just that idea, trying to bring together skilled craftspeople into a setup styled as a medieval guild. And they totally bombed; the production of individual, hand crafted items took so many more man-hours than the industrial mass-production process that simple economics (then a rather under-developed field) dictated its price was far beyond the price point of the ordinary people Morris’ philosophy aimed to serve. Whilst the products they produced were undoubtedly beautiful, and advanced the art of design considerably through their use of unusual materials and craft techniques, producing such quality products was simply not a viable solution to providing for the common man.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1920s that a design movement finally managed to make itself felt among the common people. In Germany, the Bauhaus school was set up in Weimar (home of the titular new republic that would be replaced by the Nazis in 1933) and began educating designers in all aspects of craftsmanship and fine arts, something that William Morris would doubtless have agreed with. However, the reason that the Bauhaus style proved so internationally successful, and continues to be relevant today, is for its acceptance of the machine age, and for experimenting with techniques from an industrial, rather than crafts, background. A good example is tubular steel; in the 1920s, extruded tubular steel (without joints in it) was a new innovation that was much stronger than previous efforts. Bauhaus designers immediately began experimenting with it, and when Marcel Breuer designed his Model B3 chair (later known as the Wassily chair) based around a tubular steel frame it put the material, and the chair, on the map. Here was a style whose products could be produced on a large scale, making them globally famous, and the style flourished because of it. Even today, products can be bought based on Bauhaus designs or in the Bauhaus style, and whilst many of William Morris’ wallpaper prints are still available, they are all now mass-printed in factories. He must be turning in his grave.

This is just an example, but it successfully illustrates a point; that, on a large scale, going too far into the quality side of things simply isn’t sustainable if it comes at the expense of quantity. It just comes down to the economics of the problem; the consumer culture gets blamed for a lot of things, but the extent to which mass-production has made ‘luxury’ goods affordable to the common people and made all our lives more comfortable is frequently neglected. Quality at the expense of quantity is rarely the answer; best, of course, is trying to find a way to do both.

Questionably Moral

We human beings tend to set a lot of store by the idea of morality (well, most of us anyway), and it is generally accepted that having a strong code of morals is a good thing. Even if many of us have never exactly qualified what we consider to be right or wrong, the majority of people have at least a basic idea of what they consider morally acceptable and a significant number are willing to make their moral standpoint on various issues very well known to anyone who doesn’t want to listen (internet, I’m looking at you again). One of the key features considered to be integral to such a moral code is the idea of rigidity and having fixed rules. Much like law, morality should ideally be inflexible, passing equal judgement on the same situation regardless of who is involved, how you’re feeling at the time and other outside factors. If only to avoid being accused of hypocrisy, social law dictates that one ‘should’ pass equal moral judgement on both your worst enemy and your spouse, and such a stringent dedication to ‘justice’ is a prized concept among those with strong moral codes.

However, human beings are nothing if not inconsistent, and even the strongest and most vehemently held ideas have a habit of withering in the face of context. One’s moral code is no exception, and with that in mind, let’s talk about cats.

Consider a person- call him a socialist, if you like that sort of description. Somebody who basically believes that we should be doing our bit to help our fellow man. Someone who buys The Big Issue, donates to charity, and gives their change to the homeless. They take the view that those in a more disadvantaged position should be offered help, and they live and share this view on a daily basis.

Now, consider what happens when, one day, said person is having a barbecue and a stray cat comes into the garden. Such strays are, nowadays, uncommon in suburban Britain, but across Europe (the Mediterranean especially), there may be hundreds of them in a town (maybe the person’s on holiday). Picture one such cat- skinny, with visible ribs, unkempt and patchy fur, perhaps a few open sores. A mangy, quite pathetic creature, clinging onto life through a mixture of tenacity and grubbing for scraps, it enters the garden and makes its way towards the man and his barbecue.

Human beings, especially modern-day ones, leave quite a wasteful and indulgent existence. We certainly do not need the vast majority of the food we produce and consume, and could quite happily do without a fair bit of it. A small cat, by contrast, can survive quite happily for at least day on just one small bowl of food, or a few scraps of meat. From a neutral, logical standpoint, therefore, the correct and generous thing to do according to this person’s moral standpoint, would be to throw the cat a few scraps and sleep comfortably with a satisfied conscience that evening. But, all our person sees is a mangy street cat, a dirty horrible stray that they don’t want anywhere near them or their food, so they do all they can to kick, scream, shout, throw water and generally drive a starving life form after just a few scraps away from a huge pile of pristine meat, much of which is likely to go to waste.

Now, you could argue that if the cat had been given food, it would have kept on coming back, quite insatiably, for more, and could possibly have got bolder and more aggressive. An aggressive, confident cat is more likely to try and steal food, and letting a possibly diseased and flea-ridden animal near food you are due to eat is probably not in the best interests of hygiene. You could argue that offering food is just going to encourage other cats to come to you for food, until you become a feeding station for all those in the area and are thus promoting the survival and growth of a feline population that nobody really likes to see around and would be unsustainable to keep. You could argue, if you were particularly harsh and probably not of the same viewpoint as the person in question, that a cat is not ‘worth’ as much as a human, if only because we should stick to looking after our own for starters and, in any case, it would be better for the world anyway if there weren’t stray cats around to cause such freak out-ness and moral dilemmas. But all of this does not change the fact that this person has, from an objective standpoint, violated their moral code by refusing a creature less fortunate than themselves a mere scrap that could, potentially, represent the difference between their living and dying.

There are other such examples of such moral inconsistency in the world around us. Animals are a common connecting factor (pacifists and people who generally don’t like murder will quite happily swat flies and such ‘because they’re annoying’), but there are other, more human examples (those who say we should be feeding the world’s poor whilst simultaneously both eating and wasting vast amounts of food and donating a mere pittance to help those in need). Now, does this mean that all of these moral standpoints are stupid? Of course not, if we all decided not to help and be nice to one another then the world would be an absolute mess. Does it mean that we’re all just bad, hypocritical people, as the violently forceful charity collectors would have you believe? Again, no- this ‘hypocrisy’ is something that all humans do to some extent, so either the entire human race is fundamentally flawed (in which case the point is not worth arguing) or we feel that looking after ourselves first and foremost before helping others is simply more practical. Should we all turn to communist leadership to try and redress some of these imbalances and remove the moral dilemmas? I won’t even go there.

It’s a little hard to identify a clear moral or conclusion to all of this, except to highlight that moral inconsistency is a natural and very human trait. Some might deplore this state of affairs, but we’ve always known humans are imperfect creatures; not that that gives us a right to give up on being the best we can be.