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Aliens and how to defend against them

01 of March '23

The column is from issue 02|2023 A&B

Design is a difficult craft—most of those reading these words will probably agree with me. The hardest part is designing for specific people, as those who design individual homes and interiors in particular will agree. Leaning on another person, especially a couple of people who need advice, because they are planning their dream home for the first time in their lives, because they have never had to deal with an architect, because they want to squeeze as much as they can out of the presence of someone guiding them by the hand, so they call at night that they had a dream that they would move that wall more to the left after all.

The matter is a little easier if within the framework of our craft and, what to say, primarily service business, and, if it goes well, also creative, we come across people similar to us. With our background, education, horizons. But what if we end up with aliens? On annoying ladies with nappy hair, kerfuffled husbands with first money, twenty-year-old trophy wives in leopard spots or on pairs of capricious gentlemen intube pants, who agonize over galleries from Pinterest and in conversation with friends call the architect working for them "our decorator"?

The hardest thing is to work for non-us. A colleague of mine, a former interior designer, now owner of a vegan bar, who once confessed to me, "Jesus, I would have killed all those womanizers who argued about my fees, and it was money on the level of the price of a sink in our project," will agree. Agrees a colleague, who designs a lot of villas, which has already divorced more than one couple in the course of her desperate rescue of a sinking marriage with the commissioning of a design for their last home together. „They should teach us in college to conduct psychotherapy for couples, and then we should cash in extra money for spending hours trying to cure our clients' ailments,” he said, adding, „I envy you that you do prefabrication, because you don't have to deal with all those people.” Well, I do in prefabrication because I „turned a spring” on people and their peculiarities. Something I once found arch-interesting has become unbearable torture. Perhaps as I age, I am running out of patience for human beings as such?

Well, that's exactly it. My professor at the now-defunct Paris la Défense university, François Gruson, once told me that I would never be an architect in my own right unless I learned how to „throw a client down the stairs.” To my surprise, he explained: „First of all, you have to get a sense right away that you want to work with a given client at all. If the client looks hesitant, or you suspect that he doesn't have money, or that he's a puller, or anything at all that lights up red lights for you at the first meeting, then get rid of him right away. After that, it's harder, but that's also why we're chopping our service into small pieces, so that we lose less money if he tries to scam us.” And here comes an observation from conversations with architectural and interior design colleagues: the process of professional maturation is, among other things, the buildup of defense mechanisms that protect us not only from the dysfunctional Polish law, the stupidity of tax law and the armageddon of contacts with our offices. It's also developing protections for ourselves against our clients, whether they are interesting, like us, or painfully banal or downright pathetic.

We're getting assertive, we're casing the practice with better and better structured contracts and relevant addenda, we're making agendas and meeting notes for the client to sign, we're eagerly collecting all the emails andreports, remembering what, who, when they said at coordination meetings, at which, by the way, we learned to play ping-pong with how many players at once. Not to mention ruthlessly bouncing calls from order takers after seven o'clock, and in a flurry of good feelings after eighteen. And what is all this for? First of all, so that in as much mental health we can return from work in the afternoon, having picked up the kids from school, and spend the rest of the evening not thinking about our customers, their aspirations, problems and whims. So that when evening falls, we can sit down quietly to read an interesting book or sketch something abstract for the time being, from which someday, when we are financially independent (here I laugh in spirit), a book, a painting or our dream house overlooking the ocean will grow. As long as we have enough strength.

And this is where the paradox comes in. We don't live in a vacuum, and for the creative part of our activity we need inspiration, which is provided not only by photos of what are more characteristic buildings and interiors abstracted from the context of users, but also by animated elements—a dog with a lampshade around its neck, a poplar tree overgrown with strange tubers and... people. I won't deceive myself by saying that I'm most interested in architecture, because the truth is that it interests me less and less. Radiolaria, forms of exotic plants, karst funnels or Isamu Noguchi's sculptures are winning out. But also will be Third Degree Encounters with representatives of homo sapiens, whose otherness makes them almost aliens in my own eyes. Some of such encounters have led to the conclusion that even though someone may be very distant from me, he or she is up to the same business as me. Like that farmer who once approached me, then a teenager, when I was painting with watercolors the view from his field. A guy like from a drawing by Czeczot: a strapless undershirt, jacks, a big nose. He asked if I painted a lot. I replied that I did, because what's there to answer when those in such an art high school throw in x pictures to paint over the vacations. „It's with art like with gymnastics,” he stated. „To be good at it, you have to do it all the time.” A conclusion perhaps trivial, but for me at the time surprisingly accurate.

On other occasions, the alien manifested no traits in common with me, other than the general peculiarity of belonging to the primate group. For the sake of example, I will recall a scene from PKP. So I'm sitting in Wars with a randomly met journalist of „High Heels” and the director of a certain comedy club. All the seats are taken. Suddenly, with a bang, a blonde lady in a pink angora sweater with a large logo of an Italian brand embroidered with artificial diamonds and sexily curved on the curve of a sizeable bust enters the compartment. Heels high though hidden in quasi sneakers with tassels. Face altered by the creative gestures of a surgeon, eyelashes superhumanly long, lips protecting from a frontal collision with a truck. Behind her tromps a decadent husband overwhelmed by a wheeled suitcase and a weekend bag patterned with repetitive serif letters el and halyard against a background of brown leather. She with a falcon's eye mirrors the interior, he sweaty and slightly resigned. Behind both of them drags the scent of „Animus” perfume, as my uncle calls it, or strong alcohol. They find the only free seats at a table occupied by a lone traveler behind us. The table is separated by high headrests, so the rest of the scene is all listening.

When asked by a lady, the traveler politely, in the modulated voice of an educated man, invites you to the table. After a short shurum-burum and ordering a Polish breakfast, the lady suddenly says in a „coarse and bawdy” voice, to the newcomer: „You, I know you.” The journalist, the director and I freeze in anticipation. „Excuse me?” the traveler asks. The lady pushes on: „I have an eye for people. I know you from somewhere.” The man, however, does not lose his resonance and replies: „Then why don't I introduce myself: Sebastian. And how could we know each other?” The lady introduced herself, revealing a hitherto hidden sensual hoarseness: „Janet.” It didn't take long, however, for her to return to the fractious question: „You, well, Sebastian, but tell me, you're not some kind of celebrity, are you? I might have seen you on some wall?”. The traveler apparently understood on the fly that she was not talking about a climbing wall. „But where else, I'm a real estate operator, I specialize in leasing office space in new developments.” "Okay, okay, you're not fooling me. I know you!", says the undaunted grahdian. „By golly, I've never worked in the shoestring!”, vouchsafes, stifling Sebastian's laughter from behind the headrests. The director, the journalist and I, meanwhile, follow the situation in suspense: eyebrows raised, eyes bulging. „If I get on TikTok you're sure to jump out at me, admit it!”, bristles Janet. The director of the comedy club could not stand it. He stood up and approached Sebastian, who turned out to be an affable man with a slightly overweight and greasy ponytail. „Mr. Sebastian, I've been following your profile on OnlyFans for years, and I'm normally so happy to have met you that I couldn't deny myself the pleasure of not asking you for an autograph!” he said excitedly, slipping the hapless fellow passenger a ticket with a pen. I could not deny myself this pleasure and joined the situation, sticking my head out from behind the seat, all beaming, adding: „Jeju, it's you Sebastian! Gee, my seal will go crazy if I tell her I met you!”. „Ha!”, parroted the blonde triumphantly, pointing at the hapless Sebastian with a finger armed with a clawed tip: „I know you!”. The rest of the trip was spent resuscitating the journalist, who choked on a Prince Polo from laughter.

And why do I mention this crotchety situation? For several reasons. First, although I keep telling my students that the real challenge is to design for non-us, that is, people radically different from us, at the same time I want to make it clear that there are limits to this exercise. They show themselves at the slightest interaction, not to mention the relationship between the client and the contractor. In this regard, I want to let it be known that I hope never to be a provider of project documentation or any other service to similar ladies and their husbands, nor do I wish this for my students. Only that the alien doesn't have to have the persona of a PKP lady—he can, for example, pretend to be a cultured attorney or a regular at a contemporary art gallery, who will only turn out to be centus or paranoid in three-quarters of the project. A regular aborigine, on the other hand, and I know what I'm writing because I once did a project in Western Australia, may have more in common with us than the lawyer in question.

Secondly, I mention this to show that even an encounter with an alien radically different from us can bring some benefits, although in this case it's not about barter in the form of drippings for gold, as in the immortal French comedy with Louis de Funès titled „Drippings.” Meeting Janet has greatly enriched my home life. Whenever our children hide any of their misdeeds, we extend a finger to them, calling out in Cruella De Vil's voice: „I know you!”.

PS The author of the text would like to emphasize that he is in no way associated with PKP, the manufacturer of Prince Polo, the owners of TikTok, or the OnlyFans adult portal.

Jakub Szczęsny

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