Desire Wants to Come Home

“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 childish.

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.