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The Substance of Style [Kindle Edition]

Virginia Postrel
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Whether it's sleek leather pants, a shiny new Apple computer, or a designer toaster, we make important decisions as consumers every day based on our sensory experience. Sensory appeals are everywhere, and they are intensifying, radically changing how Americans live and work. The twenty-first century has become the age of aesthetics, and whether we realize it or not, this influence has taken over the marketplace, and much more.

In this penetrating, keenly observed book, Virginia Postrel makes the argument that appearance counts, that aesthetic value is real. Drawing from fields as diverse as fashion, real estate, politics, design, and economics, Postrel deftly chronicles our culture's aesthetic imperative and argues persuasively that it is a vital component of a healthy, forward-looking society.

Intelligent, incisive, and thought-provoking, The Substance of Style is a groundbreaking portrait of the democratization of taste and a brilliant examination of the way we live now.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

At the Great Indoors, a hugely successful department store chain, customers can choose from among 250 lavatory faucets. If that represents too little variety, there are more than 1,500 distinct models of drawer pulls. Like it or not, we live in an age where we can minutely dictate every aesthetic choice, to an extent our ancestors would certainly have found disturbingly wasteful and superficial. It is this censure that New York Times economics columnist Postrel is dead-set on dismantling. Aligning herself against "pleasure-hating" modernists like Walter Gropius and Adolf Loos, Postrel adopts the position that fashion has meaning. One of her argument's charms is that she allows Joe Q. Ray-Ban his own justification for his purchase ("I like it") against the interpretations of theorists who insist an interest in surfaces is linked with deception, status or falsehood. Postrel's apt example of the proliferation in toilet-brush design is an effective rebuttal against such theorists-after all, nobody buys a sleek toilet brush to impress neighbors who will never see it, so aesthetics must constitute much of the rationale. Increasingly, form is simply part of the function. Postrel begins by explaining that appearance has a meaning commensurate to loftier values, then examines the many manifestations of this truth. While her argument is intellectually sophisticated, Postrel's journalistic training ensures the examples she cites are well-chosen and the prose remains crisp and readable. Gracefully representing one endpoint of a certain debate, this ambitious book may someday become a classic of the genre.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

It's enough to make your head hurt, this very conscious, contemporary, intellectual interpretation of Keats' "Beauty is life, life, Beauty." On the other hand, social scientist and author (The Future and Its Enemies, 1998) Postrel brings together some very compelling arguments, insights, and examples about the value of aesthetics today. Nothing is quantified; instead, she points to qualitative examples like the GE Design Center in Selkirk, New York, devoted exclusively to the creation of new plastic forms. To Starbucks and the iMac, each a symbol of looks that sell--at a higher price. And to the 1,500-odd different drawer pulls available at the Great Indoors. Aesthetics is how we make the world around us special, a feature recognized as early as 1927, when adman Ernest Elmo Calkins opined about "Beauty the New Business Tool" in the Atlantic. It enhances communications (cf. PowerPoint) and identities (Hillary Clinton's hair). Ask any Afghan woman who risked prison to style her hair and paint her face; aesthetics is at one with life. Barbara Jacobs
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • File Size: 262 KB
  • Print Length: 272 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins e-books (March 17, 2009)
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000RH0E4I
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #264,510 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
72 of 76 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Simple points made well September 29, 2003
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
5.0 out of 5 stars Are We Having Fun Yet? September 25, 2003
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.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Form follows emotion, NOT form follows function. April 11, 2004
Format:Hardcover|Verified 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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
One of my all-time favorite books.
Published 6 days ago by Allan Baldwin
3.0 out of 5 stars Made me think about style in new ways
I enjoyed the book and it made me think about style in ways I'm not accustomed to, but to be honest, it was a bit of a slog to get through and I didn't finish it. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Ted Sanders
4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty AND Useful
I very much enjoyed this book. Well written and argued, I enjoyed the premise much more than I originally thought. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Confirmation of what we all really know...
Beauty is a distinct advantage in life. Postrel leads us through a rational, interesting and compelling argument as to the power and the intrinsic advantages enjoyed by the... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Questhm
1.0 out of 5 stars a very stupid design book
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. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Robert J. Crawford
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding Style
Postrel is insightful and as a person who appreciates material things I appreciated her explanation of why so many people want the best of the best. Things make a difference. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Linda F. Greenberg
5.0 out of 5 stars Changed the way I think about style, fashion and aesthetic...
I have not read many books since entering middle age that have metaphorically grabbed me by the lapels, batted me around, and screamed "WAKE UP and actually THINK about your... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Christopher K. Gray
3.0 out of 5 stars Anecdotal History of Culture
A great idea to look at aesthetics from this perspective of advertising and media. Unfortunately this ambitious book strings together just too many ideas with little analysis. Read more
Published 20 months ago by m stone
4.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening...
I liked the ideas in this book, it was very enlightening. Quick read too. It was for a class which is why I could not bring myself to "love it"...
Published on January 30, 2013 by apet
4.0 out of 5 stars An economist looks at style
Postrel weaves a story from several threads: that human beings value style (as revealed by their preferences in the market); that sometimes fashion becomes a public issue (i.e. Read more
Published on January 6, 2013 by Mec
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More About the Author

Virginia Postrel a Los Angeles-based author, columnist, and speaker whose work spans a broad range of topics, from social science to fashion, concentrating on the intersection of culture and commerce.

Writing in Vanity Fair, Sam Tanenhaus described her as "a master D.J. who sequences the latest riffs from the hard sciences, the social sciences, business, and technology, to name only a few sources."

Postrel is the author most recently of The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion (2013). Her previous books are The Substance of Style (2003) and The Future and Its Enemies (1998).

She is a regular columnist for Bloomberg View.

To learn more about her and read a large archive of her articles and blog posts, visit


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