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“It is only shallow people,” declared Oscar Wilde in a provocation calculated to please graphic designers everywhere, “who do not judge by appearances.”
I’m not about to argue with Wilde’s stance—and particularly not in AIGA Voice.
But I will note that his witticism draws its comic power from the
insolent way it flips conventional logic on its head. And that more than
a century later, this type of conventional logic is still the default,
the status quo. Appearances are still, in many cases, considered
suspect, superficial, distracting, irrelevant, peripheral, effeminate or
Casting around for proof of this prejudice against the visual, we
can seize on that “in many cases” and take it ultra-literally. The
prejudice against appearance is there in many bookcases.
If we look at technologies for storing and displaying books, we see a
clear divide between solutions proposed for shops and those for homes. A
book in a bookstore lives or dies by its ability to seduce us, and an
important part of this seduction lies in its beauty as an object. But
why shouldn’t a book still be a beautiful object when we get it home? If
a book has a lovely cover, why should we condemn it to spend most of
its life as a mere spine on a shelf?
When I was 20, I was lucky enough to find a rotating Picador
bookstand, brand new and still rapped in plastic, on a skip outside a
bookstore. I hailed a hatchback taxi and took it home. The carousel was
surprisingly roomy; I could tuck all my paperback books neatly into its
clear plastic niches, and choose to display the cover of about one in
five of the books in my collection. The carousel had a small footprint
and didn't require me to drill holes in the wall—important
considerations for a student renting a series of small rooms. And it was
much admired as a curiosity by visitors; after all, you couldn’t buy
anything like this in stores, although you could spin them in every
bookstore as you browsed.
Googling on “rotating book carousel,” I discover that, 20 years later, you can now buy products like the Whitney Bros Three Shelf Multimedia carousel
($205, with free shipping). They appear, though, in the category of
“children’s furniture,” confirming the suspicion that an emphasis on the
visual is still considered “effeminate or childish.” The assumption
seems to be that only pre-literates—kids for whom books mean big
colorful things with lots of pictures—would want display units that
foreground the visual by showing books with their covers, rather than
just their spines, facing out into the room.
Retail environments, it seems, are about desire. Home environments
are supposed to be practical. But I wonder whether desire—and with it an
emphasis on the visual, and on the incarnation, or seductive objecthood
of things—isn’t increasingly being seen as something we’d want to have
at home too. Are we, in other words, transitioning towards a society in
which desire is allowed to exist beyond the point of sale?
When I was thinking about this essay, I happened to visit a Japanese
deli here in Berlin. I noticed that the fridge had a glass door and was
permanently lit inside. As a result, the attractively exotic packaging
of the Japanese drinks inside—cold green tea and milky, mysterious
Calpis water—became a part of the cluttered, pleasing aesthetic of the
room. The repetitive forms and colors were entirely commercial, and yet
aesthetically pleasing too, like Andy Warhol multiples.
So why are all consumer fridges designed like white coffins? Why
can’t they, too, have transparent walls that let the blaze of lit color
inside stream forth into our kitchens? Is it for practical, ecological
reasons because thicker doors retain the cold better, and lights only
click on when needed? Or is it some kind of Puritanism built into our
culture the idea that, once we get stuff home, we should no longer care
what it looks like?
After the Japanese deli, I moved to a nearby cafe specializing in
chocolate. Two walls were covered with a dense, floor-to-ceiling
honeycomb of white storage units, each nook filled with gorgeously
wrapped chocolate bars. The colors lifted the bland, white room and took
it, visually, somewhere much more interesting. And yet these open-faced
storage units, designed for display, would be hard to find in domestic
versions. Kitchen cupboards tend to come with doors.
Things may be moving in the direction of what we could call “the
longevity of desire.” Home environments, in other words, may at last be
adopting the more open, visually oriented display systems used in the
more imaginative parts of the retail sector. After all, you can now get
all sorts of lighting systems for the home that, once, were only seen in
stores. And it's easier to get store-style clothes rails these
days—clothes have bust free from the coffin-like wardrobes which were
once their sole domestic option.
But, although they may throng art school degree shows, trade fairs
and stores, most desire-friendly storage devices still fail to make it
beyond prototype stage. A year or so ago I blogged
excitedly about the “mediapod” designed by Japanese architects Atelier
Bow Wow. Having researched Tokyo’s “pet architecture” (the ingenious
commercial use of tiny, irregular spaces in the city), Yoshiharu
Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima designed a free-standing, wrap-around
all-in-one book storage, display, seating and lighting system.
This year I saw the Atelier Bow Wow mediapod in the flesh. It was in
a show called “Berlin—Tokyo,” but there was no price tag attached. This
was, after all, an international art exhibition, not a furniture store.
It seems there just isn't enough domestic demand for IKEA to carry
this sort of display-oriented design. Though I may have missed a tiny
one in the children’s department.
Alexander Isley is recognized with a 2014 AIGA Medal for decades of design that engages the imagination through wit, surprise, intelligence and delight, no matter how complex the story.
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