Malleable effects brought about by direct human influence do not lose significance at the end of childhood, but remain vital to adults of every age, for their essential motive, in the words of psychologist Karl Groos, is to find ‘joy in being a cause’, exploring the latent mutation of things plastic with change and revealing that we are producers of those effects.44 If man ‘experienced himself as entirely passive, a mere object’, echoes Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, ‘he would lack a sense of his own will, of his identity. To compensate for this, he must acquire a sense of being able to do something’, Fromm continues, ‘or to use the most adequate English word, to be “effective” … To be able to effect something is the assertion that one is not impotent, but that one is an alive, functioning, human being. To be able to effect means to be active and not only to be affected, to be active and not only passive. It is, in the last analysis, the proof that one is. The principle can be formulated thus: I am, because I effect.’45
I would argue that the immediately mobile elements of decorating, those we are able to transform directly through the force of our hands and imagination, can carry a trace of toy-like play that transcends their otherwise useful functions and satisfies a fundamental human need to be a source of action. But these pliable elements, including doors and windows, can only engender true human action when they are not reduced, as they generally are today, to dull and characterless things whose motions are habitual, predictable and merely pragmatic, or when their mutations have been disembodied by diverting operational power to electrical current and on-off switches. Real powers of self- affirmation can only come from mobile elements whose operation retains a trace of mystery, whose effects are not fully decided or even evident beforehand, and, most importantly, whose kinetics are able to elicit fascination and wonder.
Metamorphic building parts that can be guided by the human body – ranging in size from cabinets to entire walls and ceilings, with components that may slide or swing, move up or down or rotate about pivots – allow people to personally impact and transmute their world. They are able to assess and envision possible motions in advance, and continue to do so while directing and testing, finely adjusting or readjusting, the course of movement. When the outcome is uncertain and puzzling, and the transformation stimulates not only our skin, but also carries into our fingers and hands and further into shoulders and back, underpinned by pressure in the feet and legs, we experience a deep inner power to act upon and reshape the environment. In doing so, we are given a chance to reanimate the world around us as well as our own existence, for each modulation recreates itself and us anew.
It is important to keep in mind that the creative range of transformative elements can extend beyond the things themselves, for they have the potential to alter or govern the atmosphere within a space, modifying its ambience of light or shade, temperature, sound or smell, not to mention its relation to surroundings and often the universe beyond. A splendid example is the skylit Picture Room of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. On three walls are large hinged panels containing paintings, each of which can swing open to display hidden pictures behind. These panels, Soane himself noted, enable the room to hold as many paintings as a gallery over four times as large, and for the pictures to be seen at varying angles and under differing light conditions.
The panels on the south side of the room are especially impactful, for they can be swung open 90°, one by one, to expose an array of watercolours of Soane’s own work. In doing so, they transform not only themselves and the room they enclose, but also open a huge window onto a skylit recess beyond – crammed with additional pictures and sculpture, beyond which is the window to an outdoor court; at closer range is an overlook to the Monk’s Parlour below – with the added effect of mixing side light into the raining light from above. Manipulating these huge shutters can elicit surprise while completely altering the lighting and acoustics of this rather small room, including its ties to the outer world.
The importance of equipping decorating with kinetically indeterminate parts, which people can ponder and set into motion, bears heavily on the value and necessity of play for people at every stage of life. It is no wonder that play forms the innermost core of the human condition, and has been a central theme of existential philosophy for, according to Sartre, it ‘releases subjectivity’.46 As a consequence of our inherent need for causal awareness, ‘as soon as man apprehends himself as free and wishes to use his freedom … then his activity is play’, and in playing is ‘bent on discovering himself as free in his very action’.47 Indeed, it is only in play, when released from goal-directed tasks and involuntary behaviour, that we are able to transcend our utility and know that life itself has intrinsic value. In this regard we should also remember the celebrated statement of poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller: