Style, set and match

Why are sets of things so much more soothing than hodge-podges that don’t match? Sometimes it seems that anything is better in identical sets, from crockery to triplets to Christmas tree decorations.  It’s so fundamental it seems odd to ask ‘why’?

We discussed this as I decorated the tree last week with my very un-matched collection of decorations acquired a few at a time.  It’s been one of my pre-Christmas tasks to buy attractive or unusual tree decorations each year since the mid 1980s.

Some of my very un-matched decorations

If you read decorating magazines, then you’d think that Christmas trees had to have a theme. Thus:

Winter Frost Collection

Winter Frost Collection – follow link to Christmas Central

That makes perfect sense for corporate trees, but I have a friend whose tree is always that coherent. She’s the sort of gal – she’ll paint her nails on Thursday so it will match the shoes she’s going to wear on Saturday. There is no denying that Christmas trees like hers look much better than ones like mine, which is full of random stuff bought on my travels from Sainsburys to China and back. Mine’s not stylish: it’s barely in focus. But that’s phone cameras for you.

The question I’m asking though, is WHY do we find my mish-mash disquieting? What is it that makes us prefer sets and themes? We do, oh we do; it’s infuriating for example when a publisher changes the style of an author’s book covers when we are half way through buying their books.

At the far end of the un-matched aesthetic there lurks surrealism.

Q: How many surrealists does it take to decorate a Christmas tree?


If this effect of liking things matching and orderly is not limited to the visual, then it is presumably the underlying reason why Mozart and Vaughan Williams are more sweetly accessible than Stockhausen and Penderecki.

When you stop to think about it, it is peculiar, this preference for things to match, and the almost physical disquiet when they don’t is really odd.  Every answer I’ve arrived at so far has been circular: we dislike it because it’s unsettling, it’s unsettling because it unsettles us, it unsettles us because we dislike it.  And so on. It’s intrigued me for years.  Ants and bees have a strong sense of orderliness of course, but when we consider primates do we find that chimps and orang outangs prefer their fruit the same size and arranged in straight lines? Maybe we do. I’d like to know.

Ach, I could draw unsustainable parallels between this desire for homogeneity and the drive for standards, this being a business-related blog and all, but they’d be tenuous.

Instead I’ll leave the question open, and take the opportunity to note the turn of the year with the solstice today, and wish you a happy break and a better, more prosperous and more peaceful 2010.

9 responses to “Style, set and match

  1. There are times and places for things to match (and book cover style is one of them – why, oh, why, do publishers change them?), but Christmas trees should not match and coordinate. They should reflect personal taste and history, be happy and muddled things which reflect the season’s somewhat chaotic feel. Or maybe that’s just me.

  2. Ohhhhhh, I hear you loud and clear on the publishers with the artistic attention span of a toddler. It Displeases Me Mightily.

    I… don’t like themed Christmas trees much. I have compromised this year, and let Harry have a simple gold one that he has pulled over 3>. MY Christmas tree is much like your own, with antiquey family decorations and an ancient robin that, frankly, is the stuff of nightmares.

    Here’s to shorter nights!

  3. I’ll join the chorus in that Christmas trees should absolutely be exempt from any theming, orderly orderlies and the like. History and passion for the decorations is what matter there.

    We traditionally get one or two new things for ours every year – the Mrs usually sneaks them home and the rest of us try to spot them. Takes some time nowadays 😉

    As to why we prefer order in other things (except on my desk, apparently) – I’m rather blank, atually…

    But a Merry Christmas / Solstice to you, too!

  4. Definitely in agreement that Xmas trees should reflect ones personality and experiences.

    As to the matchingness of other things? Oh yes – and preferably symmetrical too.

    Seasons Greetings

  5. I was extremely annoyed when Josh Kirby had the temerity to die before he’d finished drawing the covers for all of Terry Pratchett’s novels.

    Similarly, I bought a collection of Percy Shelley’s poetry and one of Burns’s, and then HAD to buy half a dozen other poetry collections, including one by Byron who I cannot STAND, simply because they matched the first two.

    I guess we all have mild OCD.

    How many people with OCD does it take to change a lightbulb?

    One. Me. Because nobody else does it right, you have to twist it exactly thirty degrees to the left until it clicks and then test it and take it out and put it back in and test it again… etc.

    One more, my favourite…

    How many people with ADHD does it take to

  6. If you’re OCD and you know it, wash your hands.

  7. Do you know how long it takes to spell “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” using alphabetti spaghetti?

    I do.

  8. I don’t have OCD.

    I have CDO. Same thing, but with the letters in alphabetical order, the way THEY MUST BE.

  9. I am glad it’s not just me being petty about the book covers, Singing Librarian.

    HFF – does your ancient robin have real robin feathers? If so, then my parents had it’s evil twin. Nightmares indeed.

    I like the idea of trying to spot the new things, Santra.

    Hah! I prefer a pleasing off-centred balance to symmetry, Teuchter. Went out with a mathematician once, and my predeliction for odd ear-rings and random nail-varnish drove him quietly mad. 😀

    Now, without wishing the man ill, I was glad to see the back of the Josh Kirby covers SORB. What annoyed me is the various sized that the hardbacks were published in.

    Thanks for the jokes.


    They are jokes, aren’t they?

    Thanks all for taking the time to read and comment.



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