Thursday, April 13, 2006

Prefab post-mortems

You know, I feel bad for making fun of Martha Stewart yesterday. First, there's no sport in it. Skewering her requires little to no imagination and certainly no special insight. Second, a few hours later, I read this in the Spring issue of Modernism:

"[Raymond Loewy] designed Leisurama, an early 1960s community of affordable prefabricated beach houses in Montauk that could be purchased complete from Macy's department store with every necessity -- down to the toothbrushes."

Leisurama is now considered such an important moment in consumer design that a documentary has been made and symposia have been held. And you can see why scholars love talking about this. It's a chance to hold forth on pop culture, art criticism and, to a very small degree, marketing principles. Like Volkswagen without the associated fascism.

But I don't think Leisurama was an exercise in central planning or even enlightened design. Like Martha's houses, it's about brand power. The intended consumer is someone who's confident that Loewy or Macy's or Stewart inherently means good taste. I think this is what Virginia Postrel calls "'Mediated shopping' -- experts and tools that narrow down the possibilities to a manageable number." Some of us want to do it ourselves; some of us don't. Either way, we don't want friends making fun of our paneling. I just never realized our grandparents had these exact same worries.

Also, while everyone talks about "design for all," the people who seem least interested in that may be designers. Why else would this year's Milan Furniture Show feature so many "goods brought out to appeal to collectors, ...'made to be sold for a lot of money?" Who'd have guessed it? Designers don't care about Target shoppers! Martha really IS concerned about you and me!

Now I really feel bad.

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