Our tchotchkes, ourselves

Design magazines cheat their subject -- and readers -- when they act like catalogues for rich consumers


James Poniewozik
June 24, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

When's the last time you bought a piece of art? Think, now. Two or
three years ago, there was that gallery opening, right? You were trying
to impress your date and those cheese puffs weren't quite enough to soak up
all that free merlot ... well, you woke up with a fuzzy tongue and a square
foot of dog hair glued to a canvas. Otherwise -- does that Kandinsky poster
you haven't gotten around to framing count?

The trick to this question is that you probably bought a piece of art
the last time you bought anything: a Walkman, a desk organizer, a 100-count
bottle of Motrin. That is, you bought a constructed object consciously
designed to elicit an objective-correlative response (e.g., "I bet this
stuff'll take care of my cramps"). You're cradling a computer mouse that
borrows curves from nature to look futuristic but friendly; you're sitting
in a house that draws on psychological principles to welcome guests -- or
maybe an office building that uses the same subtle codes to intimidate
them. Own art? You're soaking in it.

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That we devote so little deep thought to the tchotchkes that make up our
world might be partly because so much popular design and decor writing also fails to do so. Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Metropolitan Home, etc.
-- our glossy little bibles of envy -- are mostly happy to be personal
shopping assistants for a clientele with the urge to splurge. These are
magazines of ideas, all right -- "ideas" as in, "that sage green would look
marvy in the living room."

If Architectural Digest is the most disappointing in this regard, it's
only because it's probably the strongest of the bunch -- in theory. Its
contributors' page bristles with Pulitzer Prize winners and architecture
experts (the magazine is still channeling posthumous articles from Brendan
Gill). But what we get out of these stars, mostly, are tasteful,
courtier-like tributes to the renovation projects of Manhattan |bercouples
establishing their fourth or fifth summer beachheads in picturesque towns;
profiles whose main value seems to be casing which rooms to plunder and
which decorative fixtures would be most useful for garroting the owners
when the revolution comes. (That 19th-century ship's-prow figurehead,
perhaps?)

That in fact might explain the nervous tradition of anonymity among AD
profile subjects, identified variously as "the wife," "the husband," "the
owner," "the client." (Why not just pick apt pseudonyms? "As Thurston and
Lovey guided us across the flagstone courtyard ...") These auteurs
d'argent
thus are reduced to creepy international-symbol stick figures.
It's like reading some heavy-handed '60s New Fiction parable about the
dehumanizing effects of, you know, society: "It was essential to The Wife
that the house have a formal dining room."

This anonymity device captures the blend of exposure and concealment
that is the essence of an AD profile. We see everything -- the great rooms,
the fixtures, the antiques are laid bare in that trademark bright, lucid
photographic style. We see nothing -- instead of architecture criticism, we
get lists of big-ticket furnishings, we learn only surface details about
our hosts' actual lives, and mind you don't track dirt on the sisal
carpeting. The reader is held at bay like a suspect party crasher; those
cautious "The Wifes" and "The Husbands" are quiet, pointed reminders of
class uneasiness, the muffled clunk of the automatic locks on an Acura
rolling into a seedy neighborhood.

(We learn a lot about the hired help, though. The most fun way to read
an AD profile is to parse the architects' and designers' quotes for
diplomatically worded cutdowns of their vulgarian patrons. The Husband
isn't a domineering control freak, for instance: "He likes to know what's
going on all day." The Wife isn't a flighty dilettante, either: rather,
"Trying to combine [their] cutting horses, Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau
was very interesting. ... Part of the joy was watching her taste evolve,
then trying to facilitate it." You could cut a diamond with that "very
interesting.")

AD does do its real-estate-agent-between-covers bit awfully well, as in
the June issue's spread on the templelike farmhouse compound of Allen and
Lynn Turner in rural Michigan, photographed at various times of day to show
how the surreal cluster -- it looks like something out of "Myst" -- admits
and plays with natural light. (And bully for these honest Chicagoans that
they gave their real names! Comrades, I beseech you -- spare the good
Turners whilst you hoist the bloody heads of their neighbors atop the
lampposts of Michigan Avenue!) I love salivating over one of these
unattainable house-poems as much as anyone -- I read the crap out of
Metropolitan Home, pathetically, while I was moving into my apartment --
it's just that these mags shortchange their subject when they treat
themselves as mere catalogs for urban-cum-rural elites.

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Undoubtedly they believe their readers would be bored stiff by anything
more analytical or cultural-minded, and given the longtime ghettoization of
design writing it's hard to blame them: The dull architecture columns deep
within newspaper arts sections have done as much as "The Fountainhead"
to typecast it as the province of grim Ellsworth Tooheys.

And yet much of the best critical writing I've read lately -- not just
on art but on our culture in general -- has been in small design mags. The
May ID, for instance, includes a feature on the business of designing
prescription pills (vivid colors promote brand identification and send
subtle messages about the drug's strength) and a cover story on the
state-of-the-art (and stunning) prostheses biomechanically designed for
track star and below-the-knee amputee Aimee Mullins; either piece could
easily have run in a wide-circ general-interest magazine.

The best and most accessible example is Metropolis, probably one of the
top five magazines you've never heard of. The poster-sized glossy has been
around for years but last year began a project to raise its newsstand
profile, expanding its distribution, jazzing up its covers and adding
departments on the relation of design to contemporary culture. Its features
dissect the way quotidian objects and design choices reflect and shape our
priorities; a column in the July issue, for example, looks at the elaborate
lengths people go to to hide one of the most essential fixtures in the home
-- the TV set. (The mag also thankfully turned over its massive back page
to the cartoonist Ben Katchor, of "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer"
fame, whose oddball insights on urban detritus are in perfect sync with
it.)

In her column "Design This!" in the April issue, Barbara Flanagan takes
apart the modern suburban house's entryway, noting that, in a strange
contradiction, the trend is toward ever more grand formal entrance foyers
while the walkway connecting the entrance to the street has disappeared.
The result: houses with huge maws designed to impress and intimidate
strangers, while close friends shamble in through the garage ("The streets,
dark and without sidewalks, are empty of everyone but drivers rushing home
to their own baronial light fixtures" -- try finding an ace read like that
in House & Garden).

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Metropolis is still largely an insider's magazine, true, and some of its
pieces are a stretch for the layman; Michael Sorkin's recent column on the
competition to design an addition to the MOMA is, for all I know,
brilliant, but it may just have been all the "mock-Meisians" and
"mock-Deleuzians" that scared me into thinking so. But even much of the
design-biz coverage nicely elucidates for the average reader the thinking
behind everyday design. In an interview earlier this year, industrial
designer Richard Sapper (the man responsible for the Tizio lamp and the IBM
Thinkpad's butterfly keyboard) grouchily dismissed the marketing-driven
trend toward making technological products "softer and friendlier": "Why
should IBM products look friendly? It's people who should be friendly. All
cars now look like boom boxes. That's not progress -- it's horrendous."

Reading Elle Decor after the Sapper interview, I came across a sleek
two-page ad for the Mercedes CLK320 -- and in fact it does look like you
could pop the coupe's hood and slide in a CD. The second thing that grabbed
my attention was the ad copy: "You could spend more for an equally
beautiful piece of art. But Rembrandts have lousy pickup."

Even to Mercedes, in other words, suggesting that one of its cars is an
artwork is just a facile punch line. The brilliance of Metropolis is that
it treats the creations of Mercedes, IBM, suburban-home builders and
computer-game designers like serious works deserving of
careful critical thought. That could be just what product designers are
afraid of.

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James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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