Friday, March 11, 2005


luxury, populism and utility

Luxury has been called a "supra-functional" aspect of a good. It can supply prestige, of course, but it can supply pleasure that not socially derived. Luxury goods are supposed to be "better," though critics say they are just excessive, not better. What gives?

Today I saw a woman wearing a Burberry raincoat. That would be hardly noteworthy in a former British colony where it rains continually. But it was remarkable: it may be the first Burberry I've seen since I moved to New Zealand. New Zealand is like Britain in many ways, but with one big catch: there is no class system here, there is an anti-class system. No one shops at New Bond Street style retailers, quite the opposite: people take pride in shopping at warehouse stores that offer only practical goods at unadorned prices. There are no luxury goods for sale in New Zealand, except for a few duty-free stores catering to Asian tourists.

What's so bad about luxury, or alternatively what's so good about it? There is an enormous baggage associated with luxury goods. De Tocqueville notes that luxury is the privilege of the aristocracy. When goods are more abundant, and quality falls, then the artistocracy is in retreat, he thought. But he does associate luxury with quality, and it is interesting to press that association. Are popular goods necessarily inferior quality? De Tocqueville:
In an aristocracy he [the artisan] would seek to sell his workmanship at a high price to the few; he now conceives that the more expeditious way of getting rich is to sell them at a low price to all. But there are only two ways of lowering the price of commodities. The first is to discover some better, shorter, and more ingenious method of producing them; the second is to manufacture a larger quantity of goods, nearly similar, but of less value. Among a democratic population all the intellectual faculties of the workman are directed to these two objects: he strives to invent methods that may enable him not only to work better, but more quickly and more cheaply; or if he cannot succeed in that, to diminish the intrinsic quality of the thing he makes, without rendering it wholly unfit for the use for which it is intended. When none but the wealthy had watches, they were almost all very good ones; few are now made that are worth much, but everybody has one in his pocket.
I think people who are prepared to pay more for something, demand more, and often get more. It is a value judgment of course if what is received is worth what is paid. What I like about de Tocqueville's understanding is that quality is in fact compromised. It not just about image -- quality can be real attribute of a brand, even if not always present.

Back to the notion for supra-functionality. I think Victor Papanek, back in the earthy 1970s, discussed historic pioneer cultures, such as New Zealand or the US, which give priority to if something works, ahead of how beautifully it works. The pragmatic bias of such thinking working against celebrating frivolity. But I would argue that not all luxury is frivolous. I don't own an expensive watch, but can understand why people do. Some may want to impress neighbors and colleagues, a doubtful motive for me, but many just delight at something so complex as a mechanical watch in today's throwaway society. Many luxury goods celebrate simple tasks such as telling the time or writing one's signature. When I lived in Europe. I used to enjoy buying uber-expensive household items from a company called Manufactum, largely because what the items said to me: scrubbing the floor is an important part of the quality of my live, why not spend a little money on enhancing the experience?

Much exciting design today is about discovering opportunities to improve things that have been historically overlooked. Yes, utilitarian solutions exist, but are they all that is possible?

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