Jessica Helfand | Essays

Annals of Ephemera, Part III: Aging 2.0

Aging dye, one of the many materials found in the Making Memories Distressing Kit

When I was little, my mother had an acquaintance who purchased, at considerable expense, a piece of brand-new furniture. Soon afterwards, she paid someone (at even greater expense) to turn it into an antique. The transformation was both rapid and remarkable, begging the question: how did this happen?

“Easy!” replied the acquaintance. “We hired someone to beat it with chains.”

The image of someone being well-compensated for performing what was essentially a hatchet job on a spanking-new table struck me then, as now, as rather strange. (At the time, it also provided a tangible image for my then newly-minted understanding of the word arriviste.) Yet as time went on, I began to notice a slow but steady increase in the public consumption of such things. The civilized world was awash in the faux provenance — from Ralph Lauren’s staging of all things preppie to Pottery Barn’s smooth maneuver of shabby chic — old, it seemed, was the new new.

And then it hit me. Long before the product hits the shelves, way before the manufacturing of a book or a toy or a poster or a package, there are materials that dramatically accelerate premature aging. In an age in which the exactitude of printing enables such things as (pardon the inevitable oxymoron) reproduction ephemera, what is there to say about paints, glues, dyes, brushes, inks and other tools whose purpose it is to intentionally — and archivally — age something new?

Assortment of materials in Distressing Kit

These materials — and the methods they conjure —are a source of absolute fascination to me, and I have been experimenting with them for the last year in my studio. As an ephemera collector and collage maker since childhood, I have always been careful to preserve materials which seem hell-bent on self-destruction: paper is ephemeral, after all, and it’s damned good at it. So you copy something and save the original: but the copy looks like a fake, so you’re screwed, and you work doggedly to fake it back to some semblance of its original incarnation — soak it in tea bags, pray for a miracle — while keeping the original item in a plastic, protected sleeve, lest it decompose before your eyes. Anyone who has ever availed themselves of a rare book library understands that handling original manuscripts basically requires that you hold your breath, manhandle with caution, and say a prayer to the God of the Incunabula that little pieces of paper don’t start flaking, willy-nilly, into your lap. (I’ve always felt that there should be some sort of paper-based Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm.)

The ethical side of all of this is not without its own inherent complexity. Say, for example, I take a new copy of an old photograph and “distress” it to give it the patina of age: I’m helping to preserve the real thing locked away in a temperature-controlled cryogenic holding cell, so that future generations may benefit from witnessing something truly old, and real. On the other hand, such forgery raises questions about reality, about honesty, about the willful deployment of artifice: I’m essentially suspending a kind of temporal disbelief.

Detail from collage based on early twentieth century census maps. Vintage postcards, real and reproduction ephemera and aging dyes

As a maker, have I succeeded because it looks convincing? Or have I failed by creating something so clearly disingenuine?

Old appeals because it offers instant provenance — it’s pedigree by proxy — and it bears saying that such material simulation is hardly restricted to the domain of the two-dimensional. Software programs like iMovie include “aged film” filters, lending your summertime theme-park video clip, say, a palpable sense of Sputnik-era panache. Architecture participates equally in this time-warp masquerade, with phony-Colonial and imitation Georgian arguably among the more preferred styles in new construction. Consider, too, the tony psychological profile promised by suburban residential enclaves identified by bizarrely pretentious namesFox Run, Heathcote's Landing — with developers branding “heritage” one MacMansion at a time. (This, I hasten to add, is a particularly American phenomenon, and I think I speak for many Americans when I say its not something we’re particularly proud of.)

Legacy, it seems, looms large. Curiously, as a consumer society we doggedly retain the handle “New and Improved!” even as we hunger for its opposite: we want antiqued and weathered and yes, distressed. Are we better off for rescuing the old and replacing it with the new-old? Or are we hypocrites, unwilling to let go, wanting to have it all — a place for every thing and every thing in its place? Is it cool if we do it with irony (think Steampunk) or creepy if we don’t (nostalgia = death)? Why, for instance, do we award kudos for re-purposing something, but invect criticism if the thing preserved means duplicating the thing itself — “bad” because we’re undeniably producing more inevitable waste?

Which brings me back to distressing, the verb — not the adverb. Most of us would agree that it is distressing to consider the potential implications of, for example, a photograph of Iranian missiles manipulated to resemble an even more terrifying display of weaponry — while it is not actually distressing to, um, beat a table with chains. (It’s just goofy.) Nevertheless, the art of distressing something — from high-priced denim pants to bespoke digital fonts — serves as a tangible reminder that a significant portion of the public still yearns for a certain age-based authenticity. Meawhile, we reassure ourselves that everything that brings us closer to the model of the paperless office brings us, by conjecture, that much closer to a kind of virtuous state of material independence.

Yet some day soon, will we regret this? Will we regret moving so quickly that our lives were unlogged, recorded only in passing, our diaries comprised of a series of Facebook status updates, now vanished? Will we regret our reliance on push-button mapping, on split-second transmissions, on souped-up speed? Will we regret relegating paper to the trash heap, dismissing it as old-school technology, ignoring its value and intricacy and depth? And along the way, what kind of story will we leave behind through our morphed and manipulated paper trail — provided, of course, there is one?

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History

Comments [16]

Interesting post..
I do not believe in wacking a table with chains. It's daft. Idiotic. And in a way dishonest. Pointless.
It's interesting to see the diffrent approaches to how to conserve things. An example would be the figureheads of old ships.
Some would argue that they should be restored, missing bits replaced and repainted as the day the ship was launched (so you can walk around a maritime museum and look at figurehead that looks like plastic).
Some would leave it as it is; a weathered thing, giving the impression of the seven seas and the bits missing left missing, maybe even when the thing is almost unrecognizable.
Some would say it is best to outline the original, either in paper on the background, or in untreated obviously new wood, to indicate what it was like, but not spelling it out.

As a bookbinder I have a special relationship to paper, and even though I think we should conserve some things, record it's value and passing, I also think we should accept decay. How many ruins in glass bubbles can you enjoy? How much restoration is needed? In many ways, I enjoy admiring a good reproduction of the Book of Kells, than to stand in a long line of pushing tourists, waiting to peer into a glass box to squint at one spread only.

Also, I think this is a diffrent question in the US than in Europe; a yearning to create something old few Europeans can entirely stomach. To me, copying something old and distressing it to look like the original is a little like scrapbooking (I suspect you'll hate me for saying so). Combining new and old, on the other hand, to create something new, is a diffrent thing.

And I cannot manage to get sentimental over the way technology is taking over certain parts of papers' use. It is change. It is diffrent. It is not evil.

Traveling once on the exotic island of Bali, I spotted this sign: "Antiques Made to Order."

It kind of explains all the Asian "antiques" which started flooding the home decor marketplace a number of years back. Antiques Made to Order is a distressing industry all its own in places like Bali, supporting entire villages.
Robert Henning

I actually like the Balinese take on antiques. It makes us question the hunt for old, "genuine" and relics (at one point in history you could buy any number of skulls all said to be John the babtist). Some of the stuff is good regardless, and they make a lot of other beautiful things there.

antiques are ridiculous. i am absolutely perplexed when people tell me about and show me all the antiques they have been able to find, and now fill up their house as furniture litter. for some reason, it's a more acceptable form of materialism. think about it: is buying every new thing you see any different than buying every OLD thing you see? and, should we praise people for their unique antique finds, then condemn the person who never throws anything away? now, before you hate on me, yes, i understand that some things have sentimental value (heirlooms, scrabooks, etc), but what about buying an old end table out of some guy's garage? it means nothing to you! i can understand yearning for the way things used to be and all that nostalgia, but does that mean that we have to surround ourselves with it? and as far as all the non-furniture/non-appliance stuff goes, don't even get me started. i mean, that stuff doesn't even DO anything. what's the point? do we not have enough ridiculous new crap created every day, that we need to find artifacts of old crap and bring it back into the equation? and people will say, "well, the items created today aren't meant to last, aren't meant to be endeared in the same way." my response is, "and this old stuff was?" did some product designer think to himself, "wow, this alarm clock is really going to mean something to somebody in 2008, even long after it stops working." gimme a break. sustainability is one thing, but if it doesn't do anything, and my four-year-old didn't make it, then it's in the frikken garbage. okay, yeah, i'm 27 years old, and maybe i just don't GET IT. well, maybe that's true. or maybe, distressed imagery and type has little or nothing to do with nostalgia, but everything to do with mimicing and/or endearing the consumable, transient, and disposable. maybe it's glorifying the decaying, or appreciating the technological limitations. or maybe it's about finding the pretty in the un-pretty. or maybe it's just one of a million typefaces, and it's no big deal whatsoever. no matter what, we'll look back on all of the printed material we're pumping out today, and we'll laugh at how ridiculous and out-dated it looks, and wonder why we EVER thought THAT was COOL. it's inevitable. and now you have to consider, maybe THAT is why the distresed/aged look is so desirable. it's bound to happen anyway, so let's just do it now while i still think it's cool, cos in ten years (or ten months), i probably won't anymore.
John Mindiola III

Maybe 'the new' requires just as much effort, and is just as much of a fiction, as is a distressed table rendered 'old.' Is it any phonier to distress a table than it is to dress up the oak in the first place and make it look new or modern? Is making the new look older than it is different than making the old look newer than it is? When iPods* feature carefully polished cases, aren't we making the aluminum look newer than it 'really' is?

*I can't wait until the iPod is no longer the design example par excellence.

I really did a double-take upon reading that there's a product called the Making Memories Distressing Kit. My memories are quite distressing already, thank you very much.
Mark Lerner

I used to have to distress books that I freshly bound all the time working on movie props at Brightwork Press with Ross MacDonald. He would get jobs working on movies, designing/building ephemera that recreated historical periods. Besides nailing down the design, we would give each piece a certain amount of "love". Opening and closing newly bound books hundreds of times. Touching each page with a rag and brown shoe polish, folding/smashing corners and softening the pages and printing with sandpaper. The intention was never to make the books look like antiques, it was to make each book look like it was read 10-20 times. I remember trying the teabag method and it being a complete mess. Ink would bleed and the whole thing looked like it was soaked intentionally instead of just looking weathered with age.

It was great building that illusion and completely justified for the project.

There are a bunch of folks making "relic" guitars who are into aging parts and body finishes so your axe looks like it's played 1000's of sweaty sets in a dirty club. Somehow people playing them think the beat up old guitar might make their playing better...one of the more well known practitioners is Nashguitars.

thanks for a thoughtful article Jessica. in school I was pretty much raised on a diet of modernism and experimentation that was always driven to the new next thing. while it certainly had its value, and I think it was a phenomenal education, several years into my career I realized something had been missing. the principal of the firm I where I grew the most was fond of saying, "history is not something in the past, it is all around us."
Ansel Olson

I'm reminded — alas — of the "antiquing" craze in the 1970s, or was it the 1960s? Kits containing a couple of bottles, a brush or rag?
John McVey

The "woodgraining" kits were certainly big in the 1960s: as my very first furniture DIY project, my parents let me buy one of these very kits out of my allowance and turned me loose on a small old chair that was being thrown out at my elementary school.

The most painstaking part was applying the "woodgrain" with just a rag, but I never asked for assistance, and none was volunteered.

Was I ever proud of the result! It was the most beautiful piece of furniture ever, and when I left home to find my way in the world, it stayed in my old bedroom, ready to greet me every time.

When the time came for my parents to downsize into an apartment, they took it with them, and when I finally had to move my mother into a care facility, I gently packed it up and shipped it to my home.

It sits peacefully in our narrow front hall, where it gets daily use when we sit and put on our shoes: I can't imagine stripping it down to trendify it!

"Antiquing" and "woodgrain" kit users of the 1960s, unite! ;-)
L.M. Cunningham

Yeah! It took 35 years for that simple chair to collect its value! Thank you for that charming story.

It's so funny that, as a culture, we are so impatient that we can't wait for things to age at the natural pace. The pace of life as a single young person, renter, worker doesn't afford us the time to develop our own memories and emotions around too many things. (I'm 33. Not nearly antique.)

But I don't think we'll regret our moments of cultural silliness. I'd like to think we'll have the humor to laugh at it when we're old. The things that are made to last will last. What isn't made well won't last, and we'll only have landfills in China and Africa to remind of us of our carelessness.

What I find myself most impatient with is... not knowing what parts of our culture will be still be relevant and interesting in 50-70 years-- and perhaps not knowing what to put our energy into what endures. God willing, we will just have to experience the next 50 years to find out.

That is a sweet story about the chair, yes, but it is not all about some childhood memory and effort, more than an actual admiration for the techniqueand result? Would it not be just as dear if you had sandpapered it lovingly and painted it baby blue..?

I find all this faking-old stuff wallowing in a strange, constructed sentimentality. I think it's generally pathetic, and to a certain extent stupid. And I have worked in restoration.

Kids today have never seen a floppy disk or a telephone with a dial. There is nothing more or less genuine about grandmothers telephone than an iPhone. It is change.

I'm having a sneaking feeling that DO is turning into a soppy remembering club. There where no good old days.

As a young man my grandfather was employed in an "antique" shop in New York City in the 1930's. His job was to "make" antique lamps by beating new lamps with chains and sand as mentioned in the article. I remember him telling me the lamps sold well, and he couldn’t beat them up fast enough!

It seems funny to think that in an era I consider antique now, people were still looking for something old and nostalgic.

On the subject of faux "antiques" being sold as the real thing--another issue we face in a commodity culture:

Years ago, after I had a photography exhibit at a local cafe, a woman telephoned and asked if I had done my own framing. I said yes, and she offered me a job as a "framer" for her import company. I was in college and broke, and the pay was significantly more than my current job as a grocery clerk, so I took it.

Turned out what "framer" meant was that I was given stacks of old, ornate--and broken--gilded mirrors imported (using a a fake tax stamp) and asked to "repair" them by whatever method I could devise. I'd never done any furniture repair in my life, ever, but I did the best I could to patch up broken or missing wood, plaster, and gilding. I took pride in my work, and was extremely diligent in replicating the original patinas, and so on. Then I returned the mirrors to her, and she sold them to various stores around the city. I naively assumed my repairs would be dutifully cataloged.

It wasn't until I wandered into one of these stores that I discovered they were all tagged as "antique in original condition", or, if there was an admission of repair, the tag said "carefully restored by local artisans in [insert country of origin here]."

I confronted her about the misrepresentation, she yelled at me and then fired me, and I went back the following night--a little drunk--and egged her house. (I was 19, my only excuse.)

Buyer beware!

Give please. It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.
I am from Brazil and also am speaking English, please tell me right I wrote the following sentence: "Even, save if there is a group changed cost change, health insurance."

Waiting for a reply :D, Make money ebay.
Make money ebay

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