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72 of 76 people found the following review helpful
on September 30, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Never before have humans mastered production and distribution so well that function and value become givens, making aesthetics the ground of marginal competition. Design, therefore, has real and substantive, if hard to measure, economic value. These are the two points that Virginia Postrel makes in The Substance of Style. It takes her 191 pages to do so, however, and this distresses some who feel that these obvious points could have been made in two sentences.
I came to this book with the same trepidation because I didn't particularly care for Postrel's last book, The Future and its Enemies. But, I ended up a convert. Sure, Postrel's thesis here is a simple one, but this only underscores its elegance. That we all demand ambiance with our coffee and a flourish with our door knobs is something many folks take for granted. But the thing is, it's an unprecedented change in the history of human consumption and I don't know of anyone who has catalogued it like Postrel has. That profitability and business survival increasingly depend on the intangible "feel" of a product or service--and not on its traditional utility--will still come as a surprise to many old-school thinkers.
What Postrel does in this book is engagingly prove her two points beyond a doubt. Sure, they're simple points, but the book is short and packed with interesting anecdotes. I recommend this book to anyone interested in design, but especially to folks who think there's no value in looks or those who might be tempted to fault our modern "consumerist" culture as wasteful.
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135 of 153 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Virginia Postrel's "The Substance of Style" is smart, fun to read, and correct. She tells us that we have entered the "Age of Aesthetics," a time when beauty and style are to be found everywhere, at least for market economies. Every product, every place, and every experience now is supposed to offer a touch of the aesthetic. The reason is simple: increasingly wealthy and sophisticated customers demand "an enticing, stimulating, diverse, and beautiful world." (p.4)
The book surveys a wide variety of trends -- from fashion to cosmetic surgery to restaurant design -- and shows how they fit this common pattern. We hear about Martha Stewart, Starbucks, the iMac, fashion magazines, tiled floors, nice salad bowls, and the Michael Graves brush from Target. The age of Wonder Bread is gone, and the middle class can now buy a sense of style previously reserved for the wealthy. Postrel declines the enterprise of demarcation and does not try to draw a boundary between art and the pleasures of daily life.
Some of the best passages concern globalization. In Turkey the number of interior design magazines has number from one to forty in a decade. Japan is becoming a fashion capital, while South Korea and Singapore are becoming centers of design (p.14).
Any reader of my own works, which stress how commerce brings us plenty, diversity, and creativity, will not be surprised how thoroughly I agree with Postrel. So I will spend the rest of this review outlining my primary worry with the book, noting that my own research is open to the same questions.
To put it bluntly, sometimes I wonder just how much these aesthetic developments make us better off. No, I am not advocating a return to Mao's gray pajamas. I believe in market-oriented capitalism, including for the arts. But could the baroque proliferation of the aesthetic, in all of its manifestations, be an unimportant epiphenomenon, distinct from the main success story of capitalism? Could "the Buff Revolution," as we now describe the new and growing obsession with male bodies, be a temporary and not very effective antidote against our underlying boredom?
Postrel (pp.74-77) does an excellent job arguing against Bob Frank's relative status idea. We want beauty for its own sake, and not just to look better than others. I will add that the interiors of American homes, over the last few decades, have improved much more than their exteriors, contra to what Frank's hypothesis would predict.
But does beauty make us much happier? Perhaps we get used to our frame of reference and quickly take new beautiful objects as part of our assumed background. Postrel's own text points to some of these worries. We are told "Design that was once cutting edge is now a minimum standard, taken for granted by customers." (p.19) Later she writes: "The aesthetic age won't last forever. The innovations that today seem exciting, disturbing, or both will eventually become the backgrounds of our lives. We won't notice them unless they're missing." (p.189)
A broader literature, focusing on the psychology of happiness, questions whether new gadgets, beautiful or not, make people much happier. Daniel Kahneman suggests that people mistakenly forecast what will make them happy (search our archives at [...] And after the fact they overestimate the happiness value of fleeting aesthetic experiences, leading them to seek out those experiences again and again, with little real satisfaction.
I can think of a few lines of response. First, an aesthete might argue happiness be damned, and advocate "art for art's sake." Unlike many economists, I have sympathies for this attitude, but only when it applies to Mozart and Michelangelo. The first sentence of the book blurb mentions "airport terminals decorated like Starbucks" and "hair dye among teenage boys," which are much harder to defend in these exalted terms.
A second possibility is that we use the aesthetic to promote ourselves. Maybe blue hair dye per se makes no one especially happy, but it helps teenage boys signal their identities and thus to form the appropriate peer groups. The psychological literature stresses that friends are a good source of real happiness. Our interest in the aesthetic may be an indirect path to better and better-matched sets of friends.
In this case, however, it is less clear how well the modern world is doing. Robert Putnam stresses that, instead of being happy with friends, we are moving to a society of "bowling alone." I will review Putnam's new book soon, but in any case this is a tougher debate than what Postrel takes on. And if we defend the aesthetic for instrumental reasons, suddenly Putnam, not Postrel, is addressing the more relevant debate.
Third, we may choose to side with "meaning" rather than "happiness." Postrel (pp.190-1) argues that material manifestations of the aesthetic bring meaning into our lives. Modern design serves artifactual functions, above and beyond its use as a source of pleasure: "When we too are dust, our descendants will have Fashid's curvy plastic trash cans." What we own is, in part, what we are and what we will be.
Postrel closes the book on this note, and we cannot help but notice the self-referential character of the assertion. I liked not only this book, but also its dust jacket.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
You can share the author's thrill of discovery as she uncovers something new about ourselves and our visual culture. The Substance of Style is a fascinating and well-thought out book that is hard to put down. As an artist and art professor I find particularly refreshing Postrell's insights and informed optimism about the immediate future of art and design in the world.
Postrel has done her homework on art, design, and aesthetics. As an outsider to the artworld (an economist writing for publications ranging from the New York Times and Reason Magazine), she offers new insights in the stuffy and exclusive club of academia, aesthetics, and art theory. Such cross-fertilization of disciplines offers the potential for break-though observations. Postrel's book proves this point by introducing consumer preferences, the creativity and competition of the marketplace, and product distinction as central to "good" design.
The author gains from others who have likewise crossed their disciplines with art and aesthetics. The observations and findings of noted anthropolgist, Ellen Disanyake is an example. Disanyake studied the visual arts in a wide range of non-western cultures and found some basic similarities in why art (and decorative artifacts)are produced. Essentially she claims that art is "to make something special." That's it.
And in a marketplace driven economy such as the United States, this function of art (and design) is finally being recognized and treasured again after decades of confusion and inreasing academic exclusiveness about the purpose of art. I particularly enjoy Postrel's tongue in cheek summay of form-follows-function purism. She proposes something that must infuriate the purists; A chair's purpose is not to express a modernist idea of "chairness," but instead is to please its owner.
Enjoyment and pleasure are attitudes that too much of the artworld has lost. I find Postrel's anti-establishment writings to be similar to those of distingushed architectural revolutionaries Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and James Wines. Her critical eye also is reminscent of author Tom Wolfe ("From Our House to Bauhaus") as he roasts society's self appointed guardians of good taste.
Virgiinia Postrel builds a convincing and optimisitic case on the role of art and design that must dismay Marxists and others with a negative world view. She does not buy into the premise that that the function of good design is subservient to solving world problems. The function of good design she argues is simply to make life enjoyable. Not a bad idea... but that pisses off a lot of people.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This book convinced me I was not nuts. Not the my-dog-wants-me-to-kill nuts, but the sinking feeling that no one else is thinking like you when you decide you absolutely hate your kitchen cabinets.
Virginia Postrel shows us that millions of people are thinking about the look and feel of things -- their door knobs, their pagers, their alarm clocks, their cabinets -- and, moreover, that it is a perfectly normal human interaction with the world around us.
This copiously footnoted book explains how the urge to decorate ourselves and our surroundings has always been with us and has only accelerated with modern means of production. In sum, the desire for stylish things is not the product of Madison Ave. manipulation, but the brains we climbed out of the trees with on the African plains.
With all these natural designers now on the loose and with previously unavailable ways to express their style in their hands, conflict is inevitable. But Postrel shows how it can be clumsy at best to try and impose a top-down style on neighborhoods or commercial development. You end up with elected officials with no better taste or sense of style than anyone else -- and that is being kind -- deciding that things like glass block just does not fit their vision of what a building should be. Better to reconcile yourself to the fact that different people like different things and move on.
Like it or not, the Aesthetic Age is upon us and there will be no going back to just the old duopolies of style -- Contemporary or Colonial, Preppie or Punk, Casual or Formal, not when there are a dozen quite distinct variations on Goth alone. It is a measure of how important aesthetics have become that if you work in retail, marketing, real estate, auto sales, or the hospitality industry, you need to read this book.
The rest of you could do worse things with your time, too.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Upon first hearing of Virginia Postel's new project, I confess I was somewhat taken aback. After her fascinating analysis of political thought in The Future and Its Enemies, what was she doing writing about something as ephemeral as style? I therefore approached her new work with some trepidation, as I wasn't sure where she might take such an odd (to me) topic. I needn't have worried.
The Substance of Style is one of those books that is almost annoying, because in it Postrel has identified a trend that is so pervasive that once you've read the first few chapters, you look around you with new eyes, noticing things that have been there all along but that you accepted as simply part of the backdrop. As products have become better and better, Henry Ford's famous dictum (You can have any color as long as it's black) can no longer hold. When the average product can easily accomplish its intended purpose, function no longer holds the same relative importance. Form, once an afterthought, becomes more and more important, because we can afford to consider it. And so we face a world where we can change the color of our cell phones and lap tops to match our mood, and Apple's latest computers are seen as works of art as much as functional systems.
Better yet, Postrel ties this age of aesthetics to her prior work in The Future and Its Enemies. As in politics, she identifies the aesthetic conflicts between those who want to leave people free to determine what works best for them, and those who prefer to determine 'one best way,' whether in housing, fashion, style, or whatever else. Postrel clearly comes down on the side of those who prefer fewer constraints, and she defends her position very well, particularly when noting how many things we all take for granted today were spawned by the near free-for-all of dynamic creation and competition.
Postrel's writing is concise and clean, making the book a very easy read. Through her use of numerous contemporary and familiar examples, she is able to tie her points to common experiences, making the work that much more powerful.
Like it or not, the age of aesthetics is upon us. If you have any interest at all in understanding how it will affect you, read and enjoy this terrific work.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 2006
Format: Paperback
Postrel main idea is that Maslow's classical "Hierarchy of needs" is based on a misstated premise: that human beings pursue aesthetics needs only after fulfilling basic needs. She argues that even poor people, given a minimum of stability and sustenance, will enrich their lives by decorating their houses or by buying Gucci handbags. Thus, design and aesthetics in general become as important as function.

She proposes a variation to Maslow similar to microeconomics theory: the marginal value of some needs drops faster than others' as we move up on the ladder. Therefore, the pyramid is rather dynamic, and we move back and forth on the available options depending on what options are available and at what costs.

Is this a general human trait or just a 21st century phenomenon, driven by globalisation, more refined marketing techniques and access to new technologies?

Find out in this well-written, economically justified book full of psychological insight. An aesthetics manifesto.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Over the course of the last ten years, design has undergone an profound economic and cultural renaissance. After years of producing ugly, 'merely' functional products, modern industry has begun to awaken to the power of aesthetics - witness the iPod, the Cooper Mini, and Michael Graves housewares in the aisles of your local Target. Powered by new technologies and a recognition that design is a powerful business differentiator, we've experienced a tremendous flowering of aesthetic forms and choices.
Lots of critics suggest that this great multiplication of forms is wasteful, decadent, or superficial, but author Virginia Postrel provides a very compelling defense of the aesthetic economy, with lots of engaging prose and examples. She untangles the complex forces that have underwritten design's rebirth. And she suggests that we can find not only pleasure in style, but deep meaning as well.
This is as cogent and compelling an exploration of design as I have ever read. Everyone, (and especially designers) who want to understand the rise of the Age of Aesthetics should have a copy of this book on their shelf.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on April 22, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This is the product of a hack. Her essential argument is that companies are increasingly able to make beautiful, cool stuff for an increasingly demanding public. The trouble is, it's about nothing but style, as in aesthetically pleasing. This is fashion and doesn't even scratch the surface of contemporary design. It is so superficial that I feel completely ripped off for having bought the book. There is NOTHING original in any of this. I mean, people who can afford beautiful things like to buy them? Thanks for the insight. Her thesis - that aesthetics define the age - is dead flat wrong. There are far more interesting things happening in design on levels she completely misses.

So what has she neglected in design, beyond style? For starters, making better products for safety, utility, and user friendliness. She acts as if she is completely ignorant of these issues - in this age of crowd and computer design - and evidently she has no notion whatsoever they they exist. But there are other issues, such as the ironies and philosophies behind sophisticated design products. For example, Droog Design of Holland seeks to produce objects for everyday use that confound our assumptions - each product is unique, the user can participate in their design, and they parody consumer culture at the same time. Or take Alessi: this Italian design company explores psychological issues such as play and the need for art in everyday life.

What Postrel is looking for is pretty things. I didn't need a book to tell me design can do so. Not recommended.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on April 20, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The author presents some interesting ideas on the value of aesthetics in our society. As a designer myself, I found these arguments validating and solid. But the author also has some disturbing arguements on the place of aesthetics in our economy. Postrel points out that our economic model values efficiency and supply/demand but does not factor in improved aesthetics when calculating the strength of the economy. Postrel then goes on to argue that by factoring in aesthetics, Americans are actually earning approximately 30% more than their parents earned (an argument with which the authors of Nickel and Dimed and The Working Poor would ardently disagree). Postrel actually claims poor people are living better lives because pagers and toilet brushes have pleasing aesthetic design. Postrel has clearly never had to "get by" or lived "paycheck to paycheck", else she would know a cool looking toilet brush doesn't mean squat when there's no food on the table.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2005
Format: Paperback
We often think of style and fashion as frivoloous things: certainly the debate over the teaching of evolution in Kansas' schools, or the war in Iraq, or abuses of eminent domain should rank as higher priorities in our intellectual lives than mere style. Beauty, after all, is only skin deep.

Right? Well, while it's tempting to dismiss style as something that concerns only the flighty classes, there is a surprising amount of substance to the question of style. Postrel applies a sort of study of semiotics to the question of style, and finds that style, and awareness of it, permeates our culture, in both high and low places. Fine European fashion houses like Chanel and Armani, which have branded themselves as the pre-eminent exemplars of "style" in clothing are obvious examples of how important style is to a given industry. But, as Postrel points out, much of mall-based American retail is an exercise in style as well: Target competes successfully against Wal-Mart precisely because it has developed a niche of delvering style to the masses.

A highly recommended book.
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