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Figuring out the 'Q Quotient'

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  • Balance key when determining value of a purchase
  • Cost can reflect quality, but it doesn't always
  • Some objects have a story, but do you want to explain everything?
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By Martha Beck
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( -- When it comes to decorating my house, I consider myself a "qualitative methodologist" -- someone who believes in considering many factors before judging the real value of an item. The most important considerations are what I call the three Cs: cost, conceptual value, and corporeal sensation.


Cost, of course, is the actual price of an object. Conceptual value refers to facts about an item, such as its being the work of a famous designer or having been owned by the Queen of Siam. Corporeal sensation is your body's purely physical reaction to seeing, feeling, hearing, touching or tasting something.

Most of us focus too heavily on one or two of these Cs, and that's like sitting on a stool with fewer than three legs.

Common errors ... and how to start emphasizing true quality.

Error Mode 1: Overemphasizing cost

"Ask me where I've been," my friend Linda commanded one day.

"Where've you been, Linda?" I asked, though the rustle of tissue being unwrapped from newly purchased goods was unmistakable, even over the phone.

"I've been shopping," Linda said. "Ask me what I bought."

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"What did you buy, Linda?"

"Three hand towels. Ask me how much I spent."

"How much did you spend, Linda?"

"Six hundred dollars."

Since this conversation, I actually have used Linda's $200 hand towels. They're nice. Are they $200 worth of nice? Maybe I'm betraying my lowly origins here -- I could sleep on a mattress stuffed entirely with peas -- but I'd have to say no. Linda's towels feel no better to my untrained epidermis than towels that cost a tenth as much. I can't help wishing she'd bought $20 towels and sent the other $180 per towel to the good folks in Darfur.

But Linda is proud of her towels, as she is of everything in her home, for the sole reason that everything in it costs a mint. Her definition of high quality is synonymous with high price. Now, this can be a useful calculus: Often the most expensive item really is the best. But people like Linda spend vast amounts on cons and crap, too -- and as a result, they can end up in a heap of financial trouble.

Error Mode 2: Overemphasizing conceptual value

Bruce has a dazzling apartment, but no one wants to be in it.

While the stark modernism of his furniture is striking, sitting on it is about as comfortable as being repeatedly struck in the backside. Bruce's art collection (enormous full-body photographs of an elderly man wearing only a hat) is dreamlike, but not in a good way. Even Bruce feels uneasy in the space.

However, because the concept came from a designer he respects, Bruce grits his teeth, keeps his eyes off the full Monty, and thinks he is living well.

Conceptual value comes from what we know about an object rather than what we experience with our senses. It's what makes Grandma's wedding ring more precious to us than an identical ring owned by someone else's grandmother, or what turns snapshots of loved ones into precious treasures. It also makes many of us stretch our budgets to buy designer-name items or shop from high-end suppliers, since a lowlier design or store tag makes us fear being déclassé.

If everything in your home has to be explained or identified to impress you or your social circle, then get out of your mind and into your body. What does your skin feel when you touch a certain fabric? What about it makes your eyes widen? What scents and flavors make you sigh? If such things happen to have historic significance or designer labels& well, that's fine. But don't make choices based only on concepts in your head -- it's your whole body that lives in your home.

Error Mode 3: Overemphasizing corporeal sensation

To my way of thinking, it's hard to overemphasize the physical experience of the things you put in your home. If something is beautiful to the eyes and ears, sensual to the touch, or delicious to the nose and tongue, then I'm sold. But when I focus only on how an item makes me feel, then I'm not connecting with the broader social context around me.

That's why I remind myself to pay attention to other characteristics such as quality. Considering what the object means, where it comes from, and how other people value it are factors that help me feel proud of my home and excited to let others experience it.

Finding your quality sweet spot

Achieving a balance between the three Cs ensures that you'll get maximum enjoyment from the things in your home -- and that your possessions will retain their beauty and usefulness. You can strike this balance by seeking one more C: financial, conceptual, and corporeal comfort.

Before buying anything for your home, whether paper cups or roofing, ask yourself three questions:

Am I spending enough to feel that I'm treating myself well, but not so much that I feel the manic panic of the compulsive shopper?

Do I like the things my mind associates with this object, or do the concepts feel shallow and soulless?

Am I striking a balance between what my body enjoys and the need to connect with culture and fashion?

If you can answer yes to all three questions, then you've got a winner. You've defined high quality for yourself -- a very valuable skill.

By Martha Beck from "O at Home" magazine, Summer 2007 E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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