Not long ago if someone told you that the hardware store would be a trendy place to hang out, you might have looked at them with a skeptical eye. If someone had told you that the top programs on television wouldn’t be sitcoms or dramas, but instead those that feature drab dwellings being refurbished and stylistically challenged people getting makeovers, you probably would have laughed.
But that probably meant that you missed the dawn of the age of aesthetics. Today if you walk into a Home Depot on a Saturday morning you will see a lot more than stacks of lumber and rows of lighting fixtures. If you are watching carefully you will see throngs of people participating in workshops on painting, tiling, and building backyard ponds. Walk through a new shopping area and the architecture looks more like an Italian villa than a strip mall in Davenport, Iowa. These are just the kind of strange happenings The Substance of Style explains in vivid detail.
Postrel begins The Substance of Style with a few examples to illustrate how “aesthetics is the way we communicate through the senses.” After all, human beings are visual, tactile, and emotional creatures and we are drawn towards people, places, and things that give us sensory pleasure. Postrel points out that “’form follows emotion’ has supplanted ‘form follows function’.” How else do you explain the success of the iMac, Volkswagen Beetle, and the Michael Graves Toaster at Target?
The Substance of Style goes on to explain how the age of mass production gave way to the age of mass customization. The futurists who predicted we would all be walking around in the same monotone tunics were dead wrong. For most of the 20th Century “the broad public enjoyed the expanding benefits of standardization, convenience, and mass distribution” and “the big story was not the rise of aesthetics but the spread of predictable standards of minimum quality.” This was the “age of Wonder Bread and Holiday Inn” where quality became improved and more widely available, but sadly there was little or no variety for customers. Henry Ford typified the business sentiment of this age when he said, “The customer can have any color he wants so long as it’s black.”
By the late 1970s and early 1980s the gains made in mass production, distribution, and quality reached a critical mass. Virginia Postrel explains how the ability to produce variety and utility was the tipping point for “the beginning of a new economic and cultural movement, in which look and feel matter more than ever. The cycle of individually produced items to mass-produced monotony and finally to mass-produced distinctive items was complete. The age of aesthetics had begun and suddenly style began to appear everywhere.
The Substance of Style notes that Starbucks “is to the age of aesthetics what McDonald’s was to the age of convenience or Ford was to the age of mass production.” What prompted millions of people to spend $3.3 billion on a cup of Starbucks’ coffee last year? Postrel’s answer is that companies like Starbucks have used aesthetics to give their customers a unique sensory experience, and their customers can’t get enough of it. That same focus on aesthetics by product designers is now being echoed by everyone from retailers to homebuilders, restaurants, hotels, and nearly every facet of our daily lives.
Aesthetics is no longer the luxury that it once was, and that has allowed people to pick and choose styles that appeal to them as individuals. Advances in technology and product design combined with the mixing of cultures have all allowed for a greater range of aesthetic choices. This has also meant a huge growth in industries that focus on personal aesthetics. The rise in the number of day spas, nail salons, piercing shops, tooth whitening products, and other appearance enhancing services are another indication that we are living in the age of aesthetics.
It is this facet of the age of aesthetics that seems to be drawing the most ire from critics. Postrel points out how “the very power of aesthetics makes its power suspect.” Outlet stores mimicking a Tuscan village are one thing, but many contend “surface and substance cannot coexist, that artifice inevitably detracts from truth.” Pundits allege that people are only left with a shallow, deceptive, and decadent “world of falsehoods.” Postrel confronts this widely held belief to show that style really can have substance.
To begin with, the author believes you have to throw out the absurd notion that aesthetics are meaningless and valueless. For some reason we have come to believe that “appearance must be worth either everything or nothing” instead of accepting that “aesthetic pleasure is an autonomous good, not the highest or the best but one of the many plural, sometimes conflicting, and frequently unconnected to sources of value.” The Substance of Style illustrates this point by noting that “colas are neither good nor evil, and neither is their packaging. The packaging design adds pleasure and meaning, and thus value, to morally neutral products.”
To keep things in perspective Postrel is quick to point out that “form has its own power and worth, but it does not inevitably trump content.” Aesthetics has influence over our decisions but it does not blind “us to all other values.” Instead the value of aesthetics in many cases is its ability to give individuals personalized identity. That sense of aesthetic identity prevails when “I like that merges into I’m like that.” The substance of style consists of its ability to signal identity and that reminds “ourselves and the world of what we think is important.”
The Substance of Style also delves into the broader implications of living in an aesthetic age. For all the choices and options available to customers there are a lot of roadblocks being put up. Postrel asserts, “when ‘design is everywhere, and everywhere is now designed’ whoever determines look and feel controls a great deal of economic and personal value.” Customers begin to “demand better design, and that demand inevitably generates conflict.” The results are limits on what you can and cannot do in a new housing development, what types of architecture are permitted in public spaces, and a reminder that “your ugly house bothers your neighbors; your ugly sofa does not.” The best response to the style police “is what we might call the Italian solution – to look the other way from the stuff we don’t like.”
So what does all of this mean for designers and business decision makers? At the outset of The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel emphatically states, “Aesthetics has become too important to be left to the aesthetics.” What she means is that people in a variety of professions need to understand the importance of aesthetics to their customers and to do something about it. Customers in today’s style-focused world have issued a challenge to potential corporate suitors: “Give us a way to be smart and pretty, and we’ll take it.”
Postrel quotes Don Norman, the well-known usability expert, and his view that “attractive things work better.“ Believing that smart and pretty can coexist is the first step to focusing on the aesthetic demands of your customers. “By bringing design to new areas or coming up with newly appealing styles, aesthetic innovators can reap rewards,” writes Postrel. The other reality is that paying attention to individual aesthetics is “a requirement to stay in the game.”
The Substance of Style is more than a surface-level synopsis of the importance of style in today’s culture. This is a serious and much needed book about the forces that are shaping today’s culture and economy. Virginia Postrel masterfully explains how the evolution of mass markets helped produce personalized aesthetics for the masses. Instead of ignoring the critics of such a trend, the book faces them head-on to point out just how much substance there is to style. Postrel’s examples are illuminating, her sources are well respected, and The Substance of Style offers a lot more than just a catchy title. Anyone who is serious about surviving in the age of aesthetics needs to read this book. The Substance of Style will not only show you what you might have been missing, but it also gives you some direction on what to do about it.
- The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness.
- Virginia Postrel
- Harper Collins, September 2003
- ISBN: 0060186321 § 256 pages
- Retail price, $24.95
- Target Audience: Designers, usability specialists, marketers, and business decision makers.
- The Aesthetic Imperative
- The Rise of Look and Feel
- Surface and Substance
- Meaningful Looks
- The Boundaries of Design
- Smart and Pretty