Hidden in a corner of the Westland Antiques warehouse in East London (truly a museum to the history of design) sit some fragments of a grand Flemish Mannerist chimneypiece. Though incomplete, it is a piece of great magnetism. Its' unsubdued explosion of colour and energy refuses to be suppressed by the rather dingy and cluttered temporary home it inhabits; and this far-from-inanimate lump of stone has been shouting quite irreverently at me since our first encounter a few years ago.
Seemingly executed with headlong abandon, when you look at this piece, you experience a direct encounter with the marble masons who executed its details some 400-or so years ago. You smell the sweat. You hear the curses. And you even feel the crunch of stone-dust on the workshop floor - to be swept up later once the urge of creativity subsides, you might imagine. (By the way, yes, stone masons did curse in the 17th century, I hear it every time I come within earshot of this warehouse.)
The masons' curses are not the only affront to our senses, though: there really is nothing that is polite in the beauty of these magnificent corbel-jamb chimneypiece concoctions. Symmetry is sacrificed to sheer visceral energy in the seemingly un-measured, hand-sketched forms. Joints don't even attempt to make anything more than a suggestion that their contours are intended to match - there is too much urgency in the carving for the distractions of such detail. But the mason has given us enough clues that our own imagination can do the rest. We have to do some work here too!
We are always taught that good design should look effortless. But great design can break the rules, and this is certainly a case in point. The success of this piece of Mannerist marble work is the way that it opens up to us, and invites us to feel the emotional and physical struggle of creativity. It is like a portal through time, which has kept its creators alive and cursing for more than four centuries.
And I am quite sure that their curses will continue to echo for centuries to come.