Is luxury really someplace else?

Aaron Paterson and Sarosh Mulla, of Paterson Collective Architecture, reflect on a new form of luxury that says less about size or bling, and more about true value.

St Jerome in his Study by Antonello da Massina

Bill Toomath based his study design on the Renaissance painting

When you consult the digital oracle that is Google about ‘luxury’ you are consumed by images from a Donald Trump wet dream: superyachts, jets, fast cars and surgically enhanced body parts. Add ‘NZ’ into the search and you get infinity pools disappearing into the sublime landscape. What does this say about our collective consciousness? For most people it says they would rather be somewhere else.

We want to extract the dollar bill from the definition of luxury, and instead offer a definition which acknowledges that the true essence of luxury deals with the real and personal. It is the ability to choose and craft one’s own space with personal specificity. Luxury is the ability to choose.

When Bill Toomath extended his house, he didn’t chuck on an extra bedroom or add an infinity pool for resale value. These items weren’t personal to him and as such held no allure. Instead, he created a replica of a study from a fifteenth-century painting, St Jerome in his Study, an artwork that depicted a space he had always admired. He understood that luxury is the ability to personalise your space and inhabit a version of life that is of specific interest to you. In the process of constructing his micro dream, he lived out his personal fascination with crafted detailing and contemplation.

Sadly, clients don’t often reveal their foibles for architects to indulge their creative impulses. Given the cost of building any form of architecture, defaulting to the dictates of the real estate market seems a rational response. However, if you are truly trying to achieve a luxurious experience in the spaces you inhabit, the generic needs of the market won’t fulfil your dreams. Our advice to clients is this: be open to unconventional propositions, believe that others will share your dream, and, in the immortal words of Tom Haverford from Parks and Recreation, ‘treat yo’self’.

Instead of aiming for the second spa bath, you could consider a different version of luxury which aims to deliver a richness of ideas that draw on your personal experience, but also describe the way in which you want to live. This is a definition of luxury that knows the truth behind Shakespeare’s adage ‘all that glisters is not gold’, and often emphasises craft, sustainability and materiality. The richness of the engagement with these ideas constitutes a new form of luxury.

Quality craftsmanship has always been associated with luxury, but now more than ever before craft is not being deployed solely in the service of preposterous excess. Instead, traditional crafts are being rediscovered and applied in the manufacturing of bespoke, but restrained, touches within a home. The application of craft delivers a level of quality that is missing from the mass-produced. The visual traces of the manufacturer’s hand are prized as marks of authenticity and care.

While the rediscovery of traditional crafts has involved a retrospective lens, the focus on sustainability has emerged from a concern over our collective future. Increasingly what marks luxurious experiences apart is their commitment to a more sustainable future. Whether it be organic coffee or ethically sourced timber flooring, sustainability is important to consumers looking for premium products – architecture included.

Quality of materials also speaks to ideas of contemporary luxury. Particularly in architecture, where there have been such misadventures in material technology through recent decades, there is a return to the honesty and reliability of simple materials treated with respect.

Architects are like miners, digging deep into each brief in search of what is unique and valuable. But this value is judged on the specificity and personality it can bring to the project, not on its glitz or glamour quotient. By mining the brief of each project, architects can help produce a more meaningful form of comfort and quality and a new form of luxury and value specific to our era.

Aaron Paterson and Sarosh Mulla

Paterson Architecture Collective