Leonard Koren and the Art of Arranging Things
By Leigh Patterson
Photographed by Hanna Tveite
How do we display our belongings? What do arrangements of objects say about the arranger? What makes one arrangement more attractive or interesting than another? Broad questions such as these are a specialty of Leonard Koren, who supplies nuanced answers in thought-provoking books such as Arranging Things: A Rhetoric of Object Placement, published in 2003 by Stone Bridge Press. Revisiting the illustrated treatise, and recreating its original paintings by Natalie Du Pasquier in photographic form, is an opportunity to logically dissect an intuitive act while considering the subtleties of stuff.
“This started out as an attempt to understand what made the arrangements I saw so extraordinary,” writes Koren in Arranging Things. Referencing a unique, particularly appealing assemblage of ceramics, rocks, and found organic materials on display at a Japanese gallery in San Francisco, he notes, “[I] wondered what it was that gave them their imaginative vitality.”
A provenance: Koren’s work embodies a very specific—if hard to define—lexicon. An artist by birth and an architect by training, he is a writer, philosopher, and design scholar whose books have made him an authority on topics ranging from tea ceremonies and sand gardens to concrete and the word “aesthetics.” In the 1970s, he founded the cult magazine Wet, dedicated to the art of “gourmet bathing.” In the ‘90s, his book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers introduced the Japanese aesthetic sensibility to Western readers, an idea he revisited in last year’s Further Thoughts. At once self-aware and earnest, his work hints at a world of meaning waiting to be discovered.
Most arrangements are little noticed, yet some stop you in your tracks. A ‘successful’ arrangement, that is, an effective arrangement, is one that powerfully engages your attention and sustains your interest. Leonard Koren
For Koren, object placement is a communicational act: its own “language-like” form of aesthetic expression. In Arranging Things, he proposes a “rhetoric of arranging” comprised of eight principles:
1. Hierarchy: Establishing variations in height, shape, and depth as they relate to their surroundings. The more conspicuous the object, the more important it is in the arrangement’s context.
2. Alignment: Orientation of objects relative to each other, such as perpendicular and parallel lines, symmetry, and stacking.
3. Sensorality: Qualities that appeal to the senses, including, color, texture, pattern, and tactility.
4. Metaphor: Abstract connotations connecting the objects to a place or mood. For example, “When a smooth rock, a shell, a bottle of sunscreen, and a large towel sitting on a beige surface cease to be merely four objects on the floor but instead are transformed into a symbol for the seashore.”
5. Mystification: A wild card, be it purposeful or absentmindedness that pairs unexpected objects. “When aspects of an arrangement don’t make sense, but seem like they should.”
6. Narrative: What story the combination of objects communicates, whether linear, abstract, or just the description of a scene.
7. Coherence: How physicality and story come together, forming a unified idea, shape, or palette.
8. Resonance: Personal meaning, unique significance; how the objects together “reverberate the mind.”
It might be most helpful, Koren says, to go through the principles in order to dissect the objects around you. Or move back and forth out of order, searching to unearth variety, subtlety, and complexity. “Making and seeing are intimately connected, so the more you can ‘see,’ the more you can ‘make,’” he explains.
Admittedly, the topic of objectively analyzing objects and their “thingness” is quite niche. “At times it may seem that this entire analytical process merely fosters imaginative excess,” Koren writes. However, the principles he introduces start a conversation that is especially relevant at a time when it is normal to share a glimpse into one’s personal life, and where object arrangement and a candid still life can carry an odd sort of public commodity. It’s a reason to look a little closer at our daily choices and surroundings, to try and make sense of things. To describe the way you see the world. Or as Koren puts it, to help “foster a greater appreciation of the reality of reality.”
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