In Praise of TV Dinners, Naugahyde, and Tupperware
BY Rob Walker
Will today's cutting-edge design trends -- from Apple's iPod to IKEA sofas -- be considered tomorrow's laughingstock?
Never before had so many consumers been so savvy and sophisticated, and never before had so many people had such access to so much luxury, so much substantial style. It was a time of progress, good design for the masses, and the democratization of taste.
This sounds an awful lot like the way many gurus and trend-watchers describe the present moment. But, this is actually a summation of what the gurus and trend-watchers thought in the late 1950s and early 1960s -- a time of TV dinners, Naugahyde, Formica, huge tailfins, Tupperware, and Con-Tact paper. Which raises an interesting question: Could it be that today's celebrated evidence of our collective good taste is destined to be laughed off as mere kitsch in the future?
We all have a tendency to think that whatever is happening right now is unprecedented, and of greater significance than anything that has happened before. It's a tendency that infuses much of what we now hear the democratization of taste and the availability of luxury to all (or as one observer has called it, "Luxe Populi"). It's also exactly what people thought 40 or 50 years ago.
Thomas Hine wrote a fine book about that period from 1956 to 1965, when there was a great deal of excitement about the way that design was remaking commodity items into meaningful style markers for the masses. It was an earlier incarnation of "Luxe Populi" -- in fact, his book, published in 1986, was called Populuxe.
Hine did not resort to the word "kitsch" to describe such objects in his definitive volume on that memorable chapter of American consumer history: He came up with the word "Populuxe" to describe a style, a mood, and a moment, and his coinage captures the decade's spirit perfectly. He had enough perspective to judge the sometimes-breathless optimism of the age, without simply making fun of it -- an approach that might be a good model for thinking about another age of sometimes-breathless optimism about design and luxury and American consumer behavior: the one we're in right now.
"Never before," Hine observed, was practically "the slogan of the age." He quotes a slew of examples, but Life magazine's 1954 declaration sums it up: "Never before, so much for so few." That was a year after House Beautiful announced to its readers: "You will have a greater chance to be yourself than any people in the history of civilization." Then as now, this was a constant refrain. "Individual citizens had, they were told, freedom to express themselves and live on a level of comfort of which all mankind, up to that moment, could scarcely have dared to dream," Hine wrote. Sound familiar?
No wonder so many of the things we now dismiss as mere kitsch were, at the time, seen as markers of modernity, proof of a new, smarter, and more tasteful age. But the point here is not that we are re-living the 1950s, but rather that the changing behavior and tastes of today's consumers is simply the latest chapter in a very long story. Nineteenth century French novelist Emile Zola believed that the department stores of Paris in the 1870s had "democratized luxury, and made the phenomenon the backdrop of his novel The Ladies' Paradise.
What really matters, of course, is not when this story began, but the fact that, however stylish and well-designed today's consumer objects may seem, it is unlikely that it has reached its climax. Which raises an interesting question about the things that are successful for basically the same reasons right now: Which ones will look rather different to the consumers of the future?
That's the question we had in mind when we asked some smart people -- experts on style, design, and the vagaries of consumer taste who have the ability to think beyond the present moment -- to offer their nominations for "Tomorrow's Kitsch Today." Our purpose is not to insult a given item by labeling it future-kitsch (given kitsch's paradoxically so-bad-it's good qualities, it's not clear that would be an insult anyway). Instead, we wanted to challenge these experts -- and ourselves, and you -- to look at the modern consumer marketplace in a different way. The answers we got are all over the map, and that's just what we were hoping for.
My own nomination is the Starbucks latte. Today, Starbucks seems like the quintessential "new luxury" emblem of a "mass class," trading-up, taste-democratized world -- a business that has made entry to "the java leisure class," as one observer put it recently, but one that is available on every other corner. Never before, such a complicated menu for so many. How modern it makes us feel -- and how dated it will look to the consumers of the future.
Check out our list and see what the experts have to say.