Simulated Wood Grain is Holy

I was riding a Golden Gate Transit ferry dubbed “Marin” (though a tourist was performing a portside re-christening of the vessel as “One Margarita Too Many”) when I noticed a beverage tray fixed between a pair of seats. What struck me as interesting about it, beyond its chic utilitarian profile, was the fact that the designer bothered to finish it with a simulated-woodgrain veneer.
In itself, this is not extraordinary but it got me thinking:

Back in the late 80s, there was an outbreak of “ordained” ministers at the junior college thanks to the Universal Life Church and its open door policy regarding ordination. Mind you, this was decades before the Internet and the apparent ubiquity of “online ordinations,” so aspiring ministers had to send a buck to a post office box listed in some back-of-the-book magazine advertisement.

Beyond licking a stamp, the most difficult part the procedure was divining what religious order to say you would be doing all your licensed ministering – including legal marriages, working as a chaplain in a hospital or presiding over funerals (which can be a fairly stable revenue until they find a cure for death).

This is where my chum Eric W. became inspired. And also why these licenses are a joke. Eric founded the Church of Simulated Wood Grain. Eric’s masterstroke was declaring that any location decorated with simulated wood grain was a holy place and a suitable location for worship. You have to remember that Eric’s antics seemed particularly inspired coming, as they were, not long after the televangelism scandals earlier in the decade. It also serves to remember that we had less entertainment options back then and ordering away for anything advertised in a matchbook, say, had its own novelty – especially something that “messed with the system, man” and frankly, conferred some sort of power, which is particularly attractive to those in late adolescents who have none.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the genesis of simulated wood grain, though most art historians tend to agree it first started appearing in decor around the 1700s. Since then, it’s production, either by hand (a skill that has resulted in an entire genre of YouTube video dedicated to its techniques and traditions) or on a mass consumer scale (simulated wood grain remains a popular feature in the interior of some cars, for example) has continued unabated by taste or trend.

Simulated Wood Grain in the work of Patrick Caulfield
Simulated Wood Grain in the work of Patrick Caulfield

In A History of British Art scholar Andrew Graham-Dixon lauds painter Patrick Caulfield’s replication of simulated woodgrain throughout his oeuvre, which substantially consists of depictions of the mundane. Caulfield’s painting “Town and Country” features a salad bar festooned with, as Graham-Dixon writes, “fake woodgrain effect vinyl surfaces” as his art “consistently patrolled the boundary of the real and its representations.” So, technically, Caulfield simulated simulated woodgrain. The mind boggles.

So, the tray that caught my eye on the ferry is, according to the then 19-year-old Eric, holy. For that matter, the oil-painted simulated woodgrain door jams of my former Mission apartment were holy places (and painted by hand no less). Part of the dash of my wife’s old Subaru was holy as well (though she contends it’s simulated tortoise shell — the heretic).

Consider: Simulated wood grain has an aspirant quality – though I don’t think it aspires to be authentic woodgrain. Its designers seek to create the randomness, the uniqueness of wood grain — not as a simulacrum but as an homage, not to woodgrain but to “creation” itself. Perhaps.

So how does one commune with the spirit represented by simulated woodgrain if the holy place is a beverage tray? With a beverage, surely. Or several. I believe the starboard side of the ferry still needs christening (and not by simulated wood grain alcohol) . I propose a toast to Eric W., wherever he is – the Pope of Simulated Wood Grain.