What's Your Take on Luxury, Opulence, and Necessity?

What's Your Take on Luxury, Opulence, and Necessity?

Carolyn Purnell
Aug 6, 2015

In a recent post on rococo, some commenters expressed discomfort with the idea of luxury. It got me thinking about the terms "luxury," "opulence," and "necessity," and what these mean when it comes to designing a home. Here are some thoughts, as well as your chance to chime in on issues such as budgeting, ethics, and simplicity in design.

I'm going to just lay out some basic ideas and questions in the hope that you guys get the bulk of the conversation going in the comments below or, at least, that they will serve as food for thought.

(Image credit: Brittany Purlee)

Sam & Linsey's Thoughtful Chicago Home

Necessity: This is probably the easiest category to address, although I think that it's probably more complex than our gut reaction tells us. Things that were considered luxurious conveniences in eras past (like plumbing) are now considered virtual necessities to most people in the U.S. Ideally, a home should contain all the necessities of life, but how do you determine what, precisely, is necessary?

Luxury: In some contexts, luxury takes on connotations of exorbitance, "money worship," or over-the-top indulgence. When I brought up Marie-Antoinette in my rococo post, for instance, some commenters felt that her level of luxurious living was ethically wrong, given the fact that so many other people lacked the necessities of life.

But in other contexts, luxury has become the new watchword for marketing as it attaches to small experiences rather than large price tags. You can take a "luxurious" bath for the price of a few dollars, thanks to essential oils, or you can have the "luxury" of comfort, thanks to an especially soft bathrobe. Many people equate comfort or relaxation with luxury these days, and while they can certainly be expensive, luxuries need not always be. Rather than loathsome, luxury is often seen, in this context, as something desirable, and while a life of luxury may not be possible on a tight budget, certain luxuries can still be obtained.

Furthermore, with certain ecological ideas, luxury might actually be seen as a good thing. Even if you have a limited budget, buying fewer, more expensive, well-made items might still be preferable to buying cheaper goods. Certainly, there are many people who can't afford to do so, but in general, we're seeing a rise in socially conscious companies featuring artisanal goods that may cost more but that will also last. Do these types of goods count as luxuries, or do they just embody a different approach to budgeting and ethical living?

In other words, do you think that luxury is about experience, price, or a way of thinking about the world?

Opulence: Thanks to the internet, I can now gaze at the architectural marvel of a house perched high above the sea, and I can appreciate ornate millwork and plasterwork in palaces that I will never visit. I will never be able to afford opulent things, and because they tend to carry such high price tags, these items often seem (to onlookers) imprudent, socially irresponsible, or shameful. Is it a "good" thing to spend $2 million dollars on a bathroom remodel, even if you can afford it, and even if you will end up with the most glorious, opulent, amazing bathroom afterward? Many would say no.

To offer a countervailing view, though, is it possible to argue that it is precisely in opulence that we see the capacity for human imagination and skill? Think of the marvels of the Palace of Versailles. Opulent it certainly is, but it's also splendid and magnificent, and it demonstrates the immense skills of the architects and artisans who worked on it. (For a great story about kidnapping, poisoning, and mirrors, read the chapter in Joan DeJean's The Essence of Style on the creation of mirrors for Louis XIV.) More money potentially allows time, effort, and precision; it allows handiwork and human labor, rather than the efficiency of machines. Many economists have claimed that desire is what pushes human innovation, and don't we have to admit that opulence is often related to desire, frivolous though it may sometimes seem?

What do you think about luxury, opulence, and necessity? I've offered a number of different perspectives, but what's your take? And how do you manage these categories when it comes to your own approach to budgeting, designing, and ethics?

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