Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The History of Luxury

Whenever people and civilizations get degenerate and materialistic, they always point at the outward beauty and riches and say that if what they were doing was bad, they wouldn’t being doing so well, being so rich and beautiful. -Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

Luxury is as old as civilization, in that it can be anything that is given high and exceptional regard from ordinary things. Christopher Berry starts his discussion on luxury with the Romans, describing their perception of luxury as the disruptive power of desire. Despite their initial reservations about luxury, the Romans eventually began to conquer places like Greece which highly valued luxury. Slowly the Romans became the most cultivated and decadent people of their time. Daily life became increasingly driven by pleasure and extravagance, especially in dining and leisure. Below the luxurious Baths of Caracalla, from 200's AD, included heated water, bronze panels for sun reflection and a library for leisure reading. The Heart Castle pool at right was modeled after the baths, 1919-47.

The Romans openly debated the ethics of luxury and believed that there is a natural limit to luxury. They created the first
laws on luxury, limiting excessive shows of wealth by restricting how much could be spent on banquets and adornment. Below a contemporary chart indicates that there a point at which we are satisfied, after which we cannot be further satisfied and simply have too much, which fails to please. But like physical needs, the point of "enough" differs person to person.

With luxury, the Romans saw a decline in virtue and rise of vice. To the Romans, virtue was aligned with heroism and wholesome values similar to those represented in the Wizard of Oz below (reason, courage, family and love).

Vice by contrast, was something the Romans aligned with destruction, demonstrated through ambition, greed, pleasure and perversion.

The Romans also regulated luxury consumption through financial tactics. Today non-essential goods are still the first and most
aggressively taxed.

The Romans also speculated that luxury was an omen, both a symptom and a cause of problems, a downward spiral toward decline that has no rest.

Luxury continued with the move toward Christianity. Roman emperor Constantine had a dream about the Chi Rho symbol for Christ which he used on battle shields for a victory, then legalized Christianity. The Roman power and luxury suddenly transitioned to the church, below right a Holy Roman Emperor crown from 1300's AD.

Following the tradition of Solomon's glorious temple, the Romans built extravagant places of worship, featuring marble and gold taken from former pagan temples. But the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century opposed this luxury. Below left St. Peter's Rome, 1626 and right St. Peter's Geneva stripped down by the Protestants in the 1540s, removing its altars, statues, paintings and furniture.

Below the stripped walls.

Christians still debate displays of wealth. "You have chosen poorly," said the monk to the man who chose the luxury goblet but "you have chosen wisely," said the monk to Indiana Jones who recognizes that the authentic Holy Grail of Christ was a humble unadorned goblet. From Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The Roman Catholic Church has expressed different positions on luxury. They created the concept of the 7 deadly sins (lust, envy, greed, sloth, wrath, pride, gluttony). Throughout the years, the specific 7 have changed and luxury was at one time on the list. Below the 7 Deadly Sins by Visionaire.

Berry describes that during the rise of Christianity luxury changed meaning to be tied with lust and sexuality. The rose windows at Notre Dame depict the sin of luxury as a naked couple embracing. In many ways luxury is still tied to sexuality, seduction and the nude or partially dressed female.

By the 17th century, attitudes about luxury began to loosen and change across Europe due to the increase in trade. Luxury began to be seen as simply an economic advantage. The East India Trading Company regulated prices on valuable luxury goods. Below the Taj Mahal, 1631 is one of India's most significant luxury sites of this era.

The Dutch were consistently strong in trading but exported more than imported, restricting citizens from too much of a good thing. "Silks, sugar, and spices" were called unnecessary wants. Sugar is still tied to luxury and indulgence today. The Caribbean trades of the 17th century of coffee and tobacco, were called the vice trades because they were addictive and sugar, which was also included, is also considered to have similar addictive properties.

Massimo Gammacurta, 2008

Venice was a prime site of trade and luxury from the 16th-18th century. The canals were a gateway to the Mediterranean, Turkey and the East

Many of the grand palazzos of Venice now stand in ruins or have become cultural sites like the most prestigious Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti below from 1565 on the main canal.

In Florence, the contemporary Palazzo Pucci of the fashion family uses 18th century Venetian glass and luxuries above in one room with 18th century English Wedgwood and luxuries below.

Extreme luxury environments emerged in France with the two major chateaus above, Château de Maisons, 1630-51 and Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, 1658-61. These were visited by Louis XIV who aimed for bigger and better with Versailles below, 1661-78.

Excessive architecture called for excessive appearances. Above a dress of Marie Antoinette’s court, 1770’s and below dress of Queen Sofia Magdelena of Sweden.

The popular gilded clocks of the 18th century "Triumph of Love over Time," were common marriage gifts, above from the MET. The gold gilding common to the period was functional to hold panels and mirrors in place, but over embellished. Below two French luxury time capsules, Hôtel de Crillon, 1758 & Le Meurice, 1771.

Above American furniture company Restoration Hardware's Domed Versailles Chair, 2010 depends on a pre-existing idea of French luxury. Even though the product is in no way authentic, it attracts customers to the appearance of historic luxury.

The Biltmore Estate, completed in 1895, marked the establishment of American luxury

After the industrial boom of the 19th century, a new era of luxury and extravagance emerged in the United States, peaking with the roaring twenties. Many extreme luxury architectural sites were modeled after the old world of Europe and given ultimate attention to the luxury floor to ceiling to hosting elaborate events. Most of these homes were found too elaborate to be maintained and have since become cultural sites as those below.

Above Vizcaya, of James Deering, completed in 1916 and below the Hearst Castle begun in 1919 with additions through the 1940s. Both represent utter attention to luxury details and both require institutional support.

After the world wars, mass production increased access to goods and luxury became more widely produced. The Eames Lounge was a leather chair offered at a slightly above average price point, creating a new upper middle class sense of luxury.  Later in the 20th century, the factory production of the previously handmade Louis Vuitton bags, brought new doubts about the integrity of mass luxury.

The Eames Lounge was released in 1956 as an upper middle class luxury and has become an icon of mid-century design.

Louis Vuitton was forced to discontinue the above ad suggesting their leather was still hand sewn, as it is actually made through foreign factories.

Is opulence out of fashion? The Six Senses Eco Resort in Vietnam is a luxury hotel in minimalist design and sustainable operations. Luxury is no longer just quality and price point, but now must deliver many more consumer expectations.

In the 21st century, luxury is expected to have added value, such a re-purposed or re-claimed materials, safely hunted furs from animals in abundance or non-conflict diamonds. The integrity of a luxury good is now not only it provenance and history, or its inherent quality, but also its ability to be sustainable and continue on to the next generation. Read more on the 21st century here and here.


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