- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (September 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0060186321
- ISBN-13: 978-0060186326
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,531,798 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness Hardcover – September 2, 2003
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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.
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
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
Since I was a teen, I've belonged to one of the intellectual tribes that almost reflexively derides style and fashion, product design and packaging, as a sort of artsy-fartsy, shallow indulgence. These were things unworthy of serious thought or consideration. Worse (for people less intelligent than myself and my peers, of course), external packaging and delightful appearances threaten to mislead others from or even displace entirely what was REALLY important: function and substance.
But after reading this book, I've found I cannot think this way anymore. Virginia Postrel presents compelling arguments backed by facts and numerous entertaining anecdotes, arguing for the genuine importance delivering aesthetic virtue, of pleasing the senses, in addition to delivering function, both as a goal to be pursued and as a subject of serious thought. She effectively refutes the common arguments used to justify the dismissive attitudes of hidebound people...well...like me.
This is not a _perfect_ book. Occasionally, the author seems to wanders off on tangents while serving up anecdotes. But I'd recommend this book to just about anyone. Whether you are a committed soldier in the eternal war between style and substance, or have never given the matter a moment's thought, "The Substance of Style (P.S.)" will give you a lot to think about.