Author of The Substance of Style.
Postrel writes an economics column for the New York Times and is the author of The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. She lives in Dallas, Texas.
Tom's blurb about the book: "This is a profoundly important book. The topic is absurdly understudied, and Virginia Postrel has turned in a magnificent performance. My only irritation: that I didn't get there first!"
tompeters.com asks …
Can you give me a brief overview of The Substance of Style?
VP: It starts with the basic argument that aesthetics—the look and feel of people, places, and things—is becoming increasingly important as a force of economic value. And that economic value stems from social and personal value that is derived from aesthetics. Much of the book is concerned with the question, What is the substance of style. What is that source of aesthetic value? Why is it that we value something that’s as superficial as the way things look and feel?
What do you mean when you say aesthetics?
VP: First of all, of course, I do not mean the philosophy of art. There’s no Immanuel Kant in the book. What I mean is communicating through the senses, creating reactions without words. Aesthetics shows rather than tells, it delights rather than instructs, and the effects are immediate, perceptual, visceral, and emotional. If you think of typography, the aesthetic component is the shape, the color of the letters, any connotation that they might have immediately, not the words they spell. Aesthetics is not narrative, it’s not cognitive. But it’s not irrational. It’s pre-rational. It doesn’t require cognition. Now, of course, designers have plenty of cognition when they create something in order to create aesthetic reactions. But when it works, it works at an immediate, emotional, visceral level.
Why did you write this book now?
VP: I wrote this book now because I started noticing the trend, which has two parts. One is there tends to be more aesthetics in more places and more parts of our lives, even in products or places that no one ever thought of as more than purely functional before. The other is that there’s more aesthetic variety, more opportunity for self-expression.
I write about toilet brushes for two reasons. First, because it is an example of something purely functional that has over the last five to ten years become a designed object, designed for aesthetic pleasure. And, second, because you don’t use a toilet brush to impress the neighbors. It’s not a status symbol. This is aesthetics for pleasure and possibly for personal meaning, not for status competition.
Isn’t it possible that there are just too many different kinds of toilet brushes? And I think it’s entirely possible that a lot of people would want a sexy toilet brush to impress their neighbors when they come in and use the guest toilet.
VP: I think that’s a hard case to make. It is an empirical question. I am a compulsively middle-class person. And while I talk about this rage in toilet brushes, what I’m really thinking is that you go to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and there are a bunch of different styles of toilet brushes, all of which cost roughly the same, all of which would impress the neighbors probably the same amount, if they were to even notice them, which I don’t think they would.
Now it is possible that people buy these sorts of things for aspirational goals. That’s not directly the rat race competition, but it reflects their picture of the good life.
What’s going on in a lot of these areas is that we see large percentage increases in prices that are very small dollar amount increases. You’re talking about going from a $4 brush to a $12 brush. That’s a 200 percent increase, but the total is still only 12 dollars. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to incorporate a little more aesthetic pleasure into your life. If you were to redesign the whole bathroom, then that might be a little more aspirational. If you observe people when you’re out shopping, you hear a lot of “this is so cool,” or “isn’t that cute,” or “isn’t that pretty.” It’s that immediate reaction, particularly when we’re dealing with these kinds of goods that are not luxury goods.
One of the points of your book is that we humans are sensory creatures, and we respond to things that are beautiful. We respond to the surface of things, I think you would say.
And in one chapter you refute the romanticists and then the social critics of the ’30s and ’40s who maintained that we’re not motivated by beauty but that we are all being manipulated by Madison Avenue into buying things that we don’t need. That we’re just trying to outdo the Joneses. If we as humans have been sensory creatures from the get-go, and if we’re now seeing this interest in the look and feel of things, what happened along the way? We must have lost something in order to be regaining it at this point in time.
VP: Exactly. Well, yes, this is one of the things that’s different about my approach to writing about aesthetics. The typical person who writes about these issues is not very informed by economic analysis. I think more like an economist, which means thinking about tradeoffs. Given what you have, given relative prices, given what you have to spend—whether that’s money or time and talent—where can you do best?
What has changed is the answer to that economic question. For 100 years or so people obviously didn’t lose their appreciation of aesthetics, but given relative prices and economic progress, what suddenly was impressive and available was not so much the look and feel, the sensory content of these goods and services, it was having these goods or services at all. Yes, in some cases, the automobile for an obvious example, there were periods when there was a lot of attention to aesthetics. At other points characteristics such as functionality and convenience were more important. When automobiles matured as an industry in the ’50s and ’60s, aesthetics became very important. Then in the ’70s and ’80s the combination of concerns about the energy and efficiency and the competition on the basis of reliability among the manufacturers made the other dimensions more important. Now, quality is very high and prices are competitive, so people are looking for more aesthetics in their cars, more personal definition.
There was a period where mass manufacturing, mass distribution, was the great form of economic progress. And it was progress, compared to what had gone before. But when you’re making things in mass quantities, what you have to do is design to the lowest common denominator of aesthetics because if the aesthetic content is too intense, if the design is too strong, you inevitably please some people and alienate others.
What we have now for a variety of reasons is the ability to produce and deliver more variety. And, as a result, when you can offer more variety, you can also offer more intensity because you can please some people and alienate others with this design, but over here you have this other design to please a different group of people, and alienate the people who liked the first one.
But in the ’50s, did people know what they were missing?
VP: Well, interestingly, rich people did know what they were missing. You see a lot of complaints in that period about how you can’t get craftsmanship like you used to be able to, even if you could afford what might have been turn-of-the-century rich living. Because everything was focused on mass production.
Did people know what they were missing? Well, the point is that they knew what they were getting. They were getting houses for the first time. They were getting yards. The fact that aesthetics is a good doesn’t mean that it’s always the most valuable good on the margins. That’s one challenge in the book—getting people to think in terms of tradeoffs and incremental progress, not in terms of all or nothing. So, yes, some people knew what they were missing, but in many cases they didn’t because they hadn’t been exposed to a higher level of craftsmanship.
Part of what we see today is a ratchet effect. As people are exposed to designed public spaces, they come to expect this same kind of aesthetic treatment everywhere. For example, in the ’50s, if you went out to a restaurant outside of the largest cities, it probably was chosen essentially to get the same food that you would have had at home. The point of going out was to save Mom from having to cook and then clean up afterwards. The restaurant’s atmosphere was nothing to write home about, and the food wasn’t even all that exciting. But it served its purpose and people were happy to have it. Eating out was still a kind of luxury, and you didn’t do it a lot.
Today that would not wash, except perhaps in some nostalgic sense of “Oh, this is what we used to do when I was a kid.” Now people expect to have better food, different cuisines, and certainly a much more designed environment. You don’t have to go all the way back to the ’50s cafeteria-style restaurants to get that contrast. Just look at the contrast between Pizza Hut, which was a standard suburban pizza restaurant in the ’70s, versus California Pizza Kitchen, which is also standard now and found throughout suburban America. There’s a huge contrast in the total aesthetics of the experience, from the food itself to the look and feel of the restaurant.
You write that “the more choices we have the more responsibility we face, whether or not we want it, to define ourselves aesthetically.” What does that mean for us as individuals?
VP: What that means is that whatever we choose to do aesthetically, including the choice to ignore aesthetics, will be interpreted by others as a way of saying something about who we are. You prefer to have people think you are who you think you are and not something else. If you’re talking about an individual, it’s how they wear their hair, how they dress. I talk about Hillary Clinton’s hair and the way people interpreted it, and the jokes she’s made about it. She’s quoted as saying, “The most important thing I’ve learned is to pay attention to your hair because everybody else will.”
Here was a woman who hadn’t paid attention to her hair and how people might interpret it, and suddenly there she was in the public eye. She didn’t have her own personal style. Whether people liked her or disliked her, they read into her changing hair styles meanings that might have been there or might not have been there. Because she hadn’t defined her own aesthetic, she wasn’t controlling the discussion. The same thing is true for business. If you’re running a restaurant, how you design the atmosphere will say something to your customers about who you expect them to be, about who you are. If you don’t do anything, if you just keep the building the way it was when you inherited it, or you put together a hodge-podge, whatever’s convenient, that will say something else.
The same thing is true with any materials you might design—brochures or trade show booths or anything like that. People will make interpretations about identity based on those things. And given that we have many, many choices and a lot more access to aesthetic elements than we might have had in the past, it’s less likely in any given case that there will be a safe default, something that will go completely unnoticed.
Now it is the case that within a certain environment there may be a kind of standard. Bankers dressing alike, or designers dressing alike, that kind of thing. Dressing like your friends or colleagues, largely unconsciously, is a phenomenon called “costume echo.”
Costume echo can occur outside personal appearance, sometimes with weird effects. In the late ’90s lots and lots of companies used swooshes in their logo design. The swooshes were supposed to show that you were progressive and moving forward, and futuristic, but what they really show is that they designed their logo in the late ’90s. That may not be an interpretation that you want.
Well that seems to be happening to UPS right now. They’ve gone from their boxy UPS logo and now they’ve got this curving line, two-tone thing. They seem to be victims of that same thought pattern logo-wise.
VP: Yes. It happens. There is this problem, especially if you come a little bit late to the game. Then the logo has less of a chance of referring to you specifically as opposed to just being part of the era.
It puts a lot of pressure on every one of us, as businesspeople, as individuals, to constantly think about this.
VP: This is a double-edged sword. As consumers, as people buying things in the marketplace, or just people walking down the street, looking at the environment, looking at other people, this is all wonderful, because it results in a more beautiful, more interesting, more stimulating, better-designed world. That’s great. However, as producers, whether that’s business producers or just people deciding how to get dressed in the morning, it puts more pressure on us and is another form of competition. It’s not as simple as that vertical status competition where if I spend more money I’ll be higher on the totem pole. It’s actually a harder form of competition than that traditional “keeping up with the Joneses” competition. Because it’s about paying attention, it’s about thinking about how to match your outside and your inside or your identity and your aesthetic, whether that’s personal or organizational or whatever that might be.
And the fact that there’s so much pluralism, it’s freeing on the one hand because it doesn’t mean you always fit into someone else’s box, but on the other hand it does give you more responsibility. There are fewer simple defaults that you know you can’t go wrong with. You have to be more conscious of it.
One of Tom’s areas that he’s speaking about now is experience. How we’ve gone from goods to services and now the new differentiator is experience. Is that part and parcel of this design, of this aesthetics? Is it different? Where does what you’re writing about in the substance of style intersect with experiences?
VP: It’s clearly related. For example, think about the design of places, and I think that’s a touchstone example, particularly in a business context. Public places, public commercial places, restaurants, stores like Starbucks, and public noncommercial places like libraries, churches, airports, etc., are paying much more attention to that, to the aesthetic, to the lighting, to the floor coverings, the textures of the furniture-to creating an aesthetic environment in which people want to spend time.
In a sense the organization brings the pleasure, that value of aesthetics, and the customers bring the meaning, the other value. They spend time in a successful place. Again, Starbucks is the touchstone, but not the only example. Customers have experiences there, and it becomes meaningful to them as a social space.
There are a couple of differences between what I’m talking about and what people talk about when they talk about the experience economy. They tend to focus on stores or restaurants that have very strong narrative elements: theme restaurants, theme stores. They talk about the Rain Forest Cafe. That sort of thing. What I’m talking about is not narrative. It does not require a theme, a story behind it. It may have a story behind it, but it doesn’t necessarily have a story behind it. The customers make their own stories in some sense, through their experience of the place. What you provide is an emotionally and sensorially satisfying environment.
So that’s one difference. The other difference is that a lot of the economic value that I’m talking about does have to do with how we improve our personal aesthetics. So, for example, the growth of nail salons, or spa services, the ever increasing sales of hair dye, of plastic surgery, of tooth whiteners. All of those are much more about the personal and are not what people are talking about when they’re talking about an experience economy, although obviously, if you get a massage, it’s an experience, and all these personal services are experiences.
The guy who is making granite countertops for the bathroom in your house is part of this aesthetic economy, and all these kinds of craft professions are growth areas. But he’s not creating an experience, he’s helping create an environment in which you, the consumer, will create your own experiences because it’s your house.
I would maintain that by having granite countertops of some certain look I’m trying to create an experience—I guess for myself, but I think any time you do anything, you think about other people in that space, don’t you?
VP: It depends. If it’s your guest bathroom, it’s one thing. If it’s your master bathroom where you and your spouse are the only ones that ever go in, maybe you’re creating an experience for yourself. We can take just about anything and interpret it and put it in an experiential context. I wouldn’t disagree with that, but it’s not what people are usually talking about. I haven’t heard Tom talk about this so I don’t know exactly what touchstone examples he uses, but when people talk about an experience economy, they tend to be talking about other things.
You write that the age of look and feel will eventually pass. When did this age begin and if you’re willing to put on your futurist cap, when do you think this will end?
VP: Whenever you’re talking about trying to nail things down historically, you can always find precursors to any trend. Many historians will now say that the Renaissance began in the 12th century. I want to avoid doing that. You will always be able to find some examples earlier, but I would say that, as a widespread mass phenomenon, what I’m talking about has its intellectual roots in the ’80s but really did not become a widespread trend until the mid ’90s. That’s because a lot of economic advances had to get in place. Certain things had to happen with the power of the computer, certain things had to happen with retail distribution. Certain things had to happen with urbanization. We don’t think much about this, but more and more Americans are moving into cities.
In terms of the full blown economic trend that I’m writing about, it did start in the late ’90s and I think barring unexpected changes, which can always happen, it’ll be able to continue at least through this decade. I’m reluctant to make predictions because those predictions depend less on the aesthetic world and more on other things.
In other words, if there are tremendous unexpected advances in transportation or communication, people might move in that direction and aesthetics may not be so important. Then there’s always biotechnology, biomedicine, and those frontiers are competing for the value of our time and there are ways in which they interact with aesthetics. So it depends on what else is out there as a competing source of value.
I think you begin the book by saying the future as we’re living it now, as envisioned in the ’50s or ’60s, didn’t come into being. We’re not all walking around in these silver-gray jump suits and looking very Jetsons-like. I’m reminded of the woman you quote who says she’d rather not have to go through all the trouble of make-up and surgery, and just take a pill to look better.
VP: I don’t actually think that’s going to happen, but it could.
We’re right on the verge of gene therapy. We’re moments away from being able to alter one’s susceptibility to certain diseases, so I would think that altering looks genetically could only be a millisecond behind that. Maybe in the future we will all give up on this aesthetic competition. Maybe people say they can’t deal with the stress and just decide to look like other people.
VP: I don’t think people are likely to all want to look the same, but I think over time you get these subcultural similarities in people. You go from region to region of the country, you see similarities within the regions. Or within professions. I’ve actually done a Google imagery search where I typed in different professions. I typed in designers and professors and lawyers and looking at the group pictures you can see the costume echoes. The people all look like individuals, but they all look like each other in some sense, too.
So this is the idea of standing out and fitting in. How we’re designing ourselves aesthetically. It’s not just “I’m an individual, I’m totally different from everybody else.” It’s also a question of “I’m not totally different from everybody else, there are some people that I want to be associated with.” And there are other people that we don’t want to be associated with and our aesthetic reflects that. That’s true for us as individuals in the way we dress and the way we look. It’s also true of organizations designing representations of themselves, whether those are buildings or products or packaging, or whatever it might be.
This aesthetic definition of identity always has two components: I like that. I’m like that. This is me, what I like, and who else I associate myself with.
As far as people getting tired of it, there are definitely fashion cycles, which are different from not paying attention. You do sometimes get what people in the industry call antifashion, which is not the same as what they call nonfashion. Nonfashion is ignoring, truly being indifferent and ignoring, and I think we’re going to see less and less of that.
Antifashion is where you’re deliberately flouting the rules of fashion. Now that’s just as much a style as any other. This is what happens when the local coffeehouse opens up, deliberately not looking like Starbucks. “You don’t want that corporate homogenous white wood thing. Come to our funky coffeehouse with the mismatched furniture.” It’s just as much a style as any other, but it’s a rebellious style.
We may not want to think about it but, you know, companies don’t want to think about manufacturing quality, either. All the forms of competition that exist in the world are all double-edged swords. They all have advantages in some ways and disadvantages in others. If you study hard and do well in school that would be good, but maybe it would be better if you didn’t have to. If you concentrate on getting your manufacturing quality up up up up up up up, maybe you’d really rather go back to the good old 1970s when you didn’t have to care about this so much. This is where progress comes from to a large degree, but it’s not without effort.
Yes, we’re all victims. We’re all victims of progress.
VP: We’re all victims and we’re all beneficiaries at the same time. That’s the great paradox. We’re getting what we want, but like anything else, it costs something.
Email: vp (at) dynamist.com