Don't buy it!

Mega-buzzed magazines like Lucky, Cargo and the brand-new Domino reduce readers to consumers without brains or a sense of style.

Published April 26, 2005 9:09PM (EDT)

"What business have we with art at all, unless we all can share it?"
       -- 19th century craftsman, designer, writer and Socialist William Morris

"Design for all."
       -- advertising slogan for Target

"Don't just show me a nice console table; suggest unexpected mirrors that might look great hanging above it. Don't just offer me a selection of gorgeous wallpapers; give me ideas about where to hang them."
       -- Deborah Needleman, editor in chief of new Condé Nast magazine Domino

Not so long ago, when Americans wanted to shop at home, they picked up a catalog or hit the Internet. But shopping magazines -- or magalogs, a concept first introduced by Condé Nast several years ago with the women's shopping magazine-turned-juggernaut Lucky -- have changed all that. Like catalogs, magalogs allow us to shop vicariously, to spend our money a hundred times over in our minds without forking over a penny. But unlike catalogs, which are simply good old-fashioned pleas on the part of a given company to get us to buy its goods, shopping magazines are allegedly on our side: Seeing how puzzled and bewildered we are by the ever-increasing array of stuff to buy, these magazines, staffed by a host of hip, with-it editors, take us by the hand to offer guidance, insight and wisdom -- they're a kind of Consumer Reports for the shopping-mall set.

On the market for a pair of jeweled flip-flops? Lucky will scour the market to assemble the jeweled-flip-flop hall of fame, offering a selection of every type available for the given season, in a range of prices for all pocketbooks. The editors of Lucky appear on the magazine's pages like mini-celebrities, conspiratorially sharing their favorite finds of the month: "Just a touch of macrami trim is a smart spin on the easiest trend of the season." Before you've expressed even the vaguest interest in jeweled flip-flops, the shopping magazine knows just what you want (macrami -- but of course!) and clamors to be the first to tell you where you can get it.

On the surface, at least, the shopping magazine doesn't seem to be a particularly heinous invention: What harm can there be in a magazine filled with bunches of little pictures accented with helpful little text blips (to call them captions would be an overstatement)? Consumers have certainly taken the bait: Last year Condé Nast rolled out Cargo, a sort of Lucky for boys, offering guy-guidance on clothing, grooming products and gadgets. Other magazine-publishing empires have scrambled to produce their own portable mini-malls, among them Hearst's Lucky-alike Shop. And now Condé Nast reveals the third jewel in its tiara of shopaholism: Domino, billed as "the shopping magazine for your home," officially goes on sale Tuesday.

At first, one or two shopping magazines didn't seem to be too many: The universe of magazine publishing could certainly support them. But with the arrival of Domino, what used to be a refreshing novelty is now that ineffably dull thing known as a trend. And maybe now it's time to ask ourselves what we're shopping for when we pick up a shopping magazine: Are we really slaking a thirst to find out just how many kinds of garden benches there are out there? Do we really need a "smart chart" to learn how to layer the linens on our bed? When we spend 80 seconds scrutinizing a page full of door knockers, are we really shopping for door knockers -- or are we shopping for taste?

Now that Domino has dropped, the insidiousness of the shopping magazine takes a clear form: Why spend years building a personal aesthetic when you can just buy one?

Just in case you think this is one of those diatribes against our consumer culture, written by a person whose possessions total two pairs of shoes, a grass mat and a yogurt-making machine, I need to come clean right now: I love shopping, and I love stuff. I have way more stuff than most New Yorkers I know. New stuff, other people's old stuff: It doesn't really matter. If I see beauty in it, if it thrills or amuses me to look at it, then I want to have it around me. If it's also made with care and attention to detail, showing some evidence of the human touch (or at least human thought), then I'm definitely a goner. Department store, flea market, specialty boutique, eBay -- when I have the money (and sometimes when I don't), I'm out there buying.

I was an early Lucky fan, partly because in the early days, it was a very different magazine: Looking at Lucky today, I find it nearly impossible to imagine that it once featured an article about collecting LP covers (the piece was written by Peter Zaremba of the much-beloved '70s and '80s band the Fleshtones, who is also a writer). Offbeat little fillips like that article -- or another one I recall, on collecting vintage Vera scarves -- disappeared early on, for obvious reasons: The only advertiser you could possibly attract with features like those is eBay. Before long, Lucky was stuffed largely with merchandise you could buy at your local mall. And while the magazine still manages to scrounge up some interesting items from smaller boutiques across the country (and I confess that I continue to buy it, though I'm increasingly exhausted by its boundless enthusiasm for stuff that's really pretty mediocre, like a recent pedestrian lineup of ho-hum kerchief tops), it no longer views its target audience as someone who just might be as interested in old LP covers as she is in 1,001 jeweled flip-flops.

Maybe that's the crux of the problem. Ask any shopping-magazine editor what her target audience is like, and you'll probably hear words like "savvy," "informed" and "intelligent." The editors of most magazines need to believe that their audience has at least a few active brain cells -- otherwise, how could they sleep at night? But their real M.O. is something else again. Shopping magazines know what you want before you even want it; they also think you're stupid.

Stupid in a well-informed sort of way, that is. For instance, Domino knows you're cool enough to know who Sienna Miller is. One feature in its premiere issue -- its headline is "Can This Outfit Be Turned Into a Room?" -- features a photograph of a nouvelle-boho babe draped in necklaces made of giant wooden beads, her hair a careless tousle of blond waves. The caption next to this trendoid cutie reads "Oversized necklaces, patterned dress and pink cords -- so Sienna Miller." Turn the page, and the key details of this outfit have been transmuted into a dicor scheme, a dining area replete with vanilla-colored Eames chairs, a '60s-style mod citrus print tablecloth, and burnt-orange and avocado dishes.

The spread is clever, in a way. Particularly if the notion of resuscitating '60s-era design has never occurred to you. But the voice of Domino -- the friendly but authoritative tone that permeates every picture and detail -- suggests that mining the past for ideas is a thrillingly novel concept, not the sort of thing you could ever come up with on your own. (Tell that to any of the millions of Americans out there who, by necessity or by choice, have furnished entire homes, beautifully, from thrift-shop discards or oddball junk picked up off the street.)

Domino knows we have choices -- too many choices. We're living in a golden age of design, in terms of having access to a great number of affordable, fabulous-looking things for our homes. But this is a comfortable golden age, not a revolution: It's not as if we've just had our senses jolted by a significant design movement, like art nouveau or art deco. Instead, we're simply surrounded by lots of well-designed stuff, plenty of it within the reach of just about anyone: We can buy a Philippe Starck tissue-box cover or Michael Graves bottle opener at Target. Even a bottle of liquid soap, like the dispenser Karim Rashid designed for Method hand wash, is a small, teardrop-shaped wonder of functional beauty.

With all this thoughtful, interesting design around us, how much hand-holding do we -- or should we -- really need when it comes to deciding what we like and don't like? Domino assumes we need a lot: Feeling a sudden hankering for a chartreuse vase? Domino gives you two whole pages of them, lined up in a row. You might scrutinize them for 30 seconds, and lust after one in particular for about three seconds, but before you know it, you've turned the page and you're onto the next obsession. That might be wallpaper, or a selection of hooks and bowls to help you arrange your jewelry on a dresser, or a panoply of cool TV sets. Domino manages to increase our anxieties about having too many options even as, supposedly, it attempts to ease them.

So much of modern American life seems to be a struggle against ambivalence, and having too many design choices doesn't help: "I like this couch, a lot! Oh wait -- maybe I like this one better. No, this one is the best. Forget it -- I hate all of them." It's little wonder that a magazine like Domino could so easily squeeze into the cracks of our uncertainty. Instead of fostering an appreciation of things that are beautiful, functional and all-around pleasing, Domino keeps us whirring in a constant state of doubt: If you're going to show me a console table, you had better make damned sure you show me a mirror to go with it, because I'm not entirely sure I need a console table in the first place, so having to choose a mirror, too, is likely to push me over the edge. That's not shopping -- it's hostage-taking.

There's a lot to look at in Domino, and yet not a lot to see. Every designer knows that the eye doesn't just see -- it also has a way of thinking, and it's completely capable of falling in love. The tried-and-true way of deciding what we like and don't like, in terms of design, has been to spend time looking. Does Scandinavian modern look cold and uninviting to you, or does it warm your soul? Do the curves and tendrils of art nouveau soothe you, or make you crazy? If you don't already know what you like, the chopped-and-diced world of Domino -- where the advertising is usually indistinguishable from the editorial features -- isn't the place to figure it out. There's no peace and quiet there; your eye can't hear itself think.

That's particularly interesting given that before former Condé Nast editorial director James Truman left his post, last January, he'd had an idea for a fine-arts magazine: The proposal was nixed by his boss, Si Newhouse. "I needed to be engaged in something that was meaningful and would excite me," Truman said in a February interview with the (U.K.) Independent. In the interview, Truman was unapologetic about the whorish nature of the shopping magazines -- Lucky, Cargo and Domino -- that were his brainchildren: "They have a kind of punk-rock quality of rebellion to them," he said, "and I felt they were a truthful reflection of what was going on in the culture. Everything is for sale. There is no point in pretending otherwise." But the shopping magazines Truman helped build aren't a "meaningful reflection" on consumerism; they're riding consumerism all the way to the bank. He's fooling himself when he calls them punk; they're more like art rock masquerading as art.

And while Domino pretends to offer its readers the personal touch, purporting to have an informed, friendly point of view on what's cool and interesting, its editorial voice is numbingly unoriginal. Domino makes the buying of things seem like a mere diversion rather than a way of exercising our own creativity. A month ago in the New York Times House and Home section, "Cad" author Rick Marin wrote a piece about buying a chandelier for his newly redecorated digs. Marin gave away bits of the reasoning behind wanting a chandelier in the first place: He was making a switch from his "historically severe minimalist bachelor digs" to a "feminized family abode." It wasn't necessarily a great piece of writing ("As Dr. Seuss might have written, if he'd done a book on decorating, the pad was going from cad to dad"), but unlike anything in the first issue of Domino, it got to the heart of the idea that sometimes a thing is more than just a thing. Some objects are beautiful, some are useful, some are both and some are neither. But Domino's police lineups of manufactured goods to the contrary, there's no one dictatorial voice that can help you decide what an object is worth, visually or otherwise. Objects aren't interesting in and of themselves: Our subjective responses to them are what make them so.

Sometimes we don't know why we want the things we do, or why certain things appeal to us so strongly. But inanimate objects can and do speak to us, and not just to say "Buy me!" When I look up from my writing table, the first objects I see are a black-ocean globe from the '50s (picked up at a flea market for $15); a circa-1930s Nick-and-Nora style cocktail cabinet; and a wooden cigarette box that, at the push of a button, plays "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" as a carved wooden dog rises from a secret panel in the back (his job is to proffer a cigarette, in this case, a chocolate one). My husband and I have had these things for years now, and I've looked at them thousands of times, so many times that I don't always actually see them. But their visual language is always a part of the room: The cocktail cabinet and cigarette holder harbor secrets of old-style glamour and whimsy; the globe, its land masses a patchwork of muted golds, pinks and blues against the blackness of the world's oceans and seas, is a mix of color and noncolor that I just love. All of us live with things like that, things that have been chosen with care and love. Occasionally, some of those things might have gotten our attention by shouting at us from a magazine page -- but even then, wasn't it the object, and not the shouting, that we responded to? Throwing hundreds of pictures at us in a crazily cluttered format, as the shopping magazines do, doesn't begin to explain why inanimate objects speak to us. Sometimes 1,000 words are worth more than a picture.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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