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The Substance of Style
It's the style, stupid
By Jackson Murphy
"The age of aesthetics, in all its pervasiveness and plentitude," writes Virginia Postrel in her new book The Substance of Style. "Has come to bathroom cleaning. Every day, all over the world, designers are working to make a better, prettier, more expressive toilet brush for every taste and every budget. The lowliest household tool has become an object of color, texture, personality, whimsy, even elegance. Dozens, probably hundred, of distinctively designed toilet-brush sets are available – functional, flamboyant, modern, mahogany."
This is just one of the many interesting passages in Postrel's book. Thoughts like that are probably enough to make the anti-capitalist, anti-globalization crowd boil over with anger and despair. Designer toilet brushes? What about the workers? She names Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and fervent anti-globalization guru, by name for rallying against 'logos'. And logos are important indicators and forms of aesthetics.
"A world of undifferentiated products and places would not only be less pleasant; it would be more alienating and more confusing. Without aesthetic signals, it would be harder to find what we wanted or to complement our own personalities," writes Postrel.
One theme that underscores this book is how democratizing and liberating style is. And that is not as Naomi Klein would have you believe. She and those who protest globalization would have you believe that style is simply a dreaded tool of capitalism fooling people through advertising and dirty tricks. Thankfully, as Postrel writes, it isn't true.
What she does, so successfully, in The Substance of Style is to break down and understand why style matters, increasingly so, even for products that perform purely menial or functional roles and nothing else, like those toilet brushes. And if style and aesthetics matter for these seemingly trivial things, then it must go likewise for everything from politics to business, from naming your children to hair colors and styles.
And thankfully it is why the future isn't anything like what people used to imagine. "We citizens of the future don't wear conformist jumpsuits, live in utilitarian high-rises; or get our food in pills. To the contrary, we are demanding and creating an enticing, stimulating, diverse, and beautiful world. We want our vacuum cleaners and mobile phones to sparkle, our bathroom faucets and desk accessories to express our personalities. We expect every strip mall and city block to offer designer coffees, several different cuisines, a copy shop with do-it-yourself graphics workstations, and a nail salon for manicures on demand."
Style is the reason why Starbuck's can charge so much for a Latte or Mocha. Put simply, you aren't just paying for the coffee. It goes well beyond that. As Postrel investigates further, she finds that Starbuck's is about the artwork, music, layout, design, even the smell, and general feeling you get when you walk in. As Starbuck's CEO Howard Schultz explains all those factors, "have to send the same subliminal message as the flavor of the coffee: Everything here is best-of-class."
So the Mocha may be $4, but you also get music, comfy chairs, and new perks like wireless internet. More important, those aesthetic imperatives might be the only difference between two products or two businesses. That is why it is so important.
The cool thing about Postrel and this book in particular is that she digs into the popular culture of today and finds a vibrant, dynamic, and interesting landscape. It is one that is easy to navigate as people have choices between styles and brands.
More importantly, these ideas, that aesthetics matter is coupled with the proposal that this new world is not one burdened or overtaken by idle superficiality, far from it. They are a part of other values and not just stand-ins for those values. These ideas and examples of style and aesthetics are best seen as vehicles to enhance our enjoyment of other things and places, from restaurants to business reports.
It's not as easy as thinking of things as simply 'style over substance' or even 'substance over style'. Instead they both must be seen as a wonderful one-two punch in perfect harmony. The exceptionally good thing about Postrel is that her writing is heavy on example, long on interesting ideas, and completely absent of the typical gut reaction against frivolousness of style.
The fact that there are more toilet brush styles than you can count isn't a misallocation of resources. No one's been duped into buying them. If you have to buy something you might as well be happy with it. It's the style, stupid.
Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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