The 1990s will no doubt be remembered as a decade in which everything American got big. There were record levels of M&A activity, of course, but the trend to bigness was hardly confined to the business arena. All over the country, Americans were bulking up, from their SUVs to their waistlines.
But as someone once said -- I think it was either an economist or a folksinger -- for every trend there's a countertrend. These days, small is making a comeback. You may not have heard about it yet because, well, this particular countertrend is still small. But it's out there, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the homes we're building for ourselves.
Now, I have to confess to having a lifelong fascination with home design. I once spent several years trying to launch a magazine devoted to the subject. My personal passions aside, however, I've come to believe that trends in residential architecture are harbingers of cultural changes. After all, designing our living space is a way of ordering the most personal, intimate details of our day-to-day existence. As a result, trends in home design are an expression of what our society values and where we're headed.
And, sure enough, in recent years we've valued bigness. While the size of the average American family shrank by one-third over the past four decades, the size of the average new house in this country grew by 50%. As time went along, moreover, houses increasingly were designed to make statements. Coziness was out; residential branding was in.
You probably haven't seen the new Prada store in Manhattan, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, but it reminds me of some showcase houses built in the 1990s. When I visited it, I had the sense that I was in a retail museum. One fellow customer told me that she was afraid to touch the clothing because of the museum-like displays. The store is really more of a branding statement than a place to shop, and something similar can be said of a lot of trophy houses: they're designed more to make a statement about the owners than to ensure that the residents feel at home. (Not that personal statements are all bad. See "Edifice Complex.")
Lately, however, the tide has begun to turn. Books about cottage homes and little houses are selling briskly. First-rate architects now specialize in working on small-scale houses for clients who, in many cases, could easily afford to build bigger. What's driving the trend? In two words, quality and comfort. People are willing to trade size for better materials and workmanship and for thoughtful, economical layouts -- all for the purpose of winding up with a place that's a pleasure to live in. You can still find the McMansions, but more and more people are rejecting them in favor of smaller houses that are designed to be real homes.
There's a similar countertrend in the business world. Wherever I go these days I run into founders who say that getting big fast isn't part of their business plan. They care about financial performance, but they're equally interested in building a company that promotes their own and their employees' personal and professional development, that fosters close relationships with their community, and that gives them the pride and satisfaction they haven't been able to find elsewhere. Just as their small-home counterparts focus on creating houses they want to live in, these small-company founders focus on creating businesses they want to own and work in.
What they lack is business legitimacy. There's absolutely no reinforcement for such thinking in the mainstream culture, and there are precious few role models for founders who choose such a path. That's why we introduced our department Main Street in the Incubator section. It's also why we're launching " America's Favorite Hometown Businesses," a new annual feature that debuts this month. The companies in the story are testaments to the determination of their founders to build businesses that they find pleasing. It's worth noting, however, that the owners aren't the only ones being pleased. While their businesses transcend the limitations we usually associate with mom-and-pop operations, they've also captured the hearts and minds of customers in ways that perhaps can happen only when you're small and local -- which suggests that this particular countertrend may be here to stay.
You can write to George Gendron at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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