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Cleaning is Savoring

Learning to see quality.

May 15, 2018

There is no better way to understand the quality of a thing than to clean it. Being a lazy bum with high tolerance for mess, it took me a while to realize this. One of my favorite designers/thinkers, Kenya Hara used the phrase, "the house worth cleaning" in describing what he looks for in his ideal home (Dialogue in Design). I thought this was a very satisfying standard for choosing which objects to surround ourselves with. Are they worth cleaning? Can you savor the process of cleaning them?

Dish washing. The task most people dread as their least favorite house chore. It still is mine, until I actually do it. You don't interact with your dishes, silverware and glasses more intimately than when you are washing them with your hands. Even eating and drinking with them doesn’t get us so close. As you run your fingers over a plate checking if you got the oil off, you understand the surface quality of ceramics. Scouring a rice paddle to get those dried rice bits off, you appreciate the forgiving-ness of bamboo as material. When I'm rinsing our nicer wine glasses, I feel as if I'm actually feeling the rim flexing with the weight of the water. The first time I washed mixing bowls designed by my design god, Sori Yanagi, my breath was taken by the shimmer of the brushed stainless steel under running water. I kept shaking my head, there's something, something so special about these bowls! Its weight, its polish, its contour... Washing them you brings you a step closer their magic.

Laundry. Until I first decided to iron some of my thrift-store-bought clothes while I was in college, I felt pretty proud of them - for finding clothes that I liked the style of for such little money! - then, as I spread the garment over my ironing board and running the iron over it, I was encountered by an entirely different sensation. I felt slightly offended. The seams didn’t line up symmetrically, rolled hem was twisted with puckered stitches, the fabric didn’t lay flat from being stretched out, some threads had come loose... Most of the clothes in my closet didn't even deserve ironing. That was my first lesson in appreciating garment construction.

Cleaning the house. We humans get easily complacent about things that surround us. The longer you're around them, the less you see. If you go without cleaning your home as long as I do, you really don't see. Until you pick up the broom, or a vacuum cleaner. All of a sudden, your eyes start licking every surface, every corner you've been ignoring. You start noticing all the gaps between the floor and the sideboard, the spot on the floor that was poorly glazed and can never get clean, the little hair that got trapped under the paint... Unless your home is freshly constructed and flawless, I think you know what I'm talking about. When I'm not cleaning, I loosely consider the built up layers of windowsill paint and worn out hardwood floor a part of the charm of our apartment, not flaws. When I am cleaning, however, they are the obstacles that keep me from the satisfaction of making the room thoroughly and perfectly clean. My standards are raised.

Dorothea Lange's famous quote goes "A camera teaches you how to see without a camera." Cleaning tools - a broom, a sponge, an ironing board, etc, etc - they teach us how to see quality.

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