The Joy of Style

Virginia Postrel, the author of The Substance of Style, argues that we should count ourselves lucky to be living in "the age of look and feel"

By Sage Stossel
The Substance of Style

The Substance of Style
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Virginia Postrel
HarperCollins
256 pages, $24.95

Over the course of the past decade or so, our daily lives have become increasingly steeped in design and aesthetic sophistication. The changes have been gradual enough to be almost imperceptible—we did not awake one morning to find our gray, industrial-looking computers abruptly transformed into sleek, colorful accessories, our no-frills coffee shops supplanted by swank parlors with armchairs, jazz, and Italian coffee drinks, or our culture's fashion-averse males suddenly reborn as connoisseurs of hair dyes, tooth-whiteners, and high-end clothing lines. Slowly but surely, however, such changes have crept up on us, rendering style so pervasive an aspect of contemporary experience that some commentators have dubbed this period "The Age of Aesthetics."

One commentator who has delved into the subject is the libertarian writer and speaker Virginia Postrel. In her new book, The Substance of Style, she contemplates the import of the current aesthetic renaissance and pronounces it a cause for celebration. In part, she suggests, the phenomenon has been made possible by technological advances. Beginning in the 1980s, she explains, companies made great strides in their management and manufacturing processes, enabling the production of a more diverse array of goods without raising costs. And globalization has brought a wide assortment of formerly exotic-seeming styles and products into the mainstream.

More importantly, Postrel suggests, our growing focus on aesthetics indicates that we have reached a point at which, having more than met our basic and not-so-basic needs and wants, our efforts can now be directed toward rendering the abundance of luxuries around us ever more appealing, desirable, and pleasant.

Having spent a century or more focused primarily on other goals—solving manufacturing problems, lowering costs, making goods and services widely available ... we are increasingly engaged in making our world special....
We are demanding and creating an enticing, stimulating, diverse, and beautiful world. We want our vacuum cleaners and mobile phones to sparkle, our bathroom faucets and desk accessories to express our personalities. We expect every strip mall and city block to offer designer coffee, several different cuisines, a copy shop with do-it-yourself graphics workstations and a nail salon for manicures on demand. We demand trees in our parking lots, peaked roofs and decorative facades on our supermarkets, auto dealerships as swoopy and stylish as the cars they sell.

To some, Postrel concedes, the growing emphasis on aesthetics seems self-indulgent and shallow—potentially even dangerous. Directing our energies toward creating pleasant surfaces, they argue, is a waste of talent that could more constructively be put to other uses. And our preoccupation with attractiveness, some fear, could lead us to lose sight of more substantive values. Should an intelligent, experienced job applicant, some wonder, be penalized because his resumé isn't as sleekly designed as other candidates', or because his teeth aren't as straight or as white? Should design experts manipulate the moods of consumers through strategically arranged décor? Is the Age of Aesthetics, in short, an age of distorted values and inauthenticity?

Postrel thinks not. Attractive surfaces, she points out, can as easily be employed to serve lofty purposes as to serve base ones. And in and of themselves, she argues, appealing designs are simply a source of pleasure and should be appreciated as such.

Rhetoric that treats aesthetic quality as a mark of goodness and truth—or as a sign of evil and deception—is profoundly misleading.... The challenge is to learn to accept that aesthetic pleasure is an autonomous good, not the highest or the best but one of many plural, sometimes conflicting, and frequently unconnected sources of value.

If we are only willing, she argues, to embrace the aesthetically sophisticated world in which we find ourselves, then we will be amply rewarded: "we can enjoy the age of look and feel, using surfaces to add pleasure and meaning to the substance of our lives."

Virginia Postrel is a columnist for the business section of The New York Times, and was the editor of Reason magazine from 1989 to 2000. Her previous book, The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, was published in 1998. She maintains a regularly updated Weblog at www.dynamist.com.

We spoke recently by telephone.

—Sage Stossel

Virginia Postrel
Virginia Postrel   

Your previous book, The Future and Its Enemies, argued that unfettered creativity is essential to the development of prosperity, progress, and an improved quality of life. Did you decide to undertake The Substance of Style as an elaboration of sorts upon that idea? Or is style a subject that inspired you independently of your ideas about libertarianism?

The Future and Its Enemies was such a broad book that practically anything I write afterwards will inevitably be considered in some sense related to it. It's true that what I talk about in The Substance of Style is a microcosm of some of the ideas I examined there. This new book is an exploration of how creativity manifests itself in a dynamic economy. But The Substance of Style didn't come about in my mind as a sequel. It was more a matter of my observing certain trends in business and society and being curious about what caused them and what their ramifications might be.

You emphasize that in terms of style, ours is an age of pluralism, in which there is no such thing as a uniform "correct" style. But you also assert that in recent years design standards have "risen" and "improved." This would seem to imply an evolution from inferior style choices to those that are more acceptable. You describe, for example, a new social service whereby stylists volunteer to give welfare-to-work women a different look for their upcoming jobs. Isn't this to some extent a matter of people gradually getting clued in to commonly agreed-upon "correct" standards of taste?

When I say standards are rising, what I mostly mean is that whether somebody's putting themselves together, or putting a restaurant together, or designing a product, much closer attention is being paid to making sure there's the kind of stylistic harmony and interest that innately gives us pleasure. There's no one way to achieve that. You can have radically different styles that are all thoughtful and pleasant and interesting. It doesn't have to mean "pretty" in the classical sense. But I do distinguish between pleasure and meaning with respect to style. Pleasure is primarily biologically ingrained. There are things that inherently appeal to us—like symmetry in faces, certain kinds of lighting, and that sort of thing. Then there's meaning: do you look "professional"—do you look right for the context? We associate certain things with certain styles. In most workplaces, for example, there's a kind of formal or informal norm. It may be very prescriptive—like people having to wear uniforms. But these days, even at places where there have traditionally been very prescriptive policies in the past, you see variety. So for example, all nurses used to wear white uniforms. Now they wear scrubs in all different colors and patterns. It's more personalized—one nurse might be wearing plain blue, while another one might be wearing flowers. It's also less specific to the job. It's not just a nurse's uniform, it's a medical personnel uniform.

Now, going back to the women moving from welfare to work. What you're seeing is two different things. First of all, when they get these makeovers, the women just look better. They have better haircuts, they have more flattering makeup. The pleasure aspect is there, because somebody who knows how to design for people has put that intelligence to work. In the same way, when an expert designs a restaurant or a product, he or she can make it look better than an amateur can. The other thing that's going on is that people are learning to adopt styles of clothing that are appropriate to whatever environment they're going into. If someone's going into an office environment the expectations are going to be different than if they're planning to work at Target. Target's dress code is that you must wear red. That's the whole dress code. If you want to wear a full-body, all-but-your-face-hidden Muslim covering you can wear that—as long as it's red. Their dress code is an example of specifying something that unites the environment, without prescribing so much that people feel that their personal style, or in some cases their personal religious convictions, are compromised.

You point to the fact that people are snapping up Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel framed art prints these days as heartening evidence that consumers today are excited about aesthetics rather than about status—that they care more about putting attractive decorations (that coordinate with their furniture) on their walls than about trying to outdo each other with fancy original artwork. But mightn't the phenomenon instead be an indication that consumers are increasingly anxious about getting the look of their living rooms "wrong" and therefore prefer to rely on the guidance of catalogues offering photos of how tasteful living rooms are supposed to look?

I'm sure some of that goes on. But if you observe people wandering around the actual stores, they're just like people who are shopping for clothes. They're saying, "Oh, this is nice." They're responding to things on a personal level. It is possible that those things are safe to some degree. But there's no particular prestige attached to them. There's no particular reason to shop at a Crate & Barrel if you don't like it, because no one's going to be impressed. It's just a style that a lot of people like. And it is a very distinctive style, actually. Even fairly mass-market brands have different personalities of their own. I mean, Crate & Barrel is different from West Elm, which is different from Design Within Reach.

One of the many arenas you point to as having aesthetically upgraded in recent years is airports. I was curious about the reasons for that, because an airport, unlike, say, a restaurant, store, or hotel, isn't a place that someone is likely to decide to frequent on the basis of how its atmosphere compares to others.

With airports, there are a couple of things going on. Cities realize that that's one of the places where they make the first impression. Many people have never been to Dallas, for example—where I live—except to change planes. So the airport tries to shape people's impression of the city. That's not a market phenomenon per se—it's a matter of civic pride. But a lot of what has driven this phenomenon is also the realization that the airport doesn't only have to be a cost center. It can also be a profit center. You can have shopping in airports, and restaurants that sell decent food and that generate fairly high revenue and are willing to pay higher rent. You're seeing a trend that to some degree started in Europe—particularly in Britain—toward making airports more like shopping malls. The aesthetic improvement of the airports has partly come from that, which is a business trend.

Given your observation that personal style is becoming increasingly important to a person's success in life, do you think there should be an explicit focus on teaching kids about self-presentation while they're young, so they won't have trouble in that area later on?

I think it is a good idea. I think we should teach kids about making themselves look good and about presenting their ideas well. They should have speech training, and there's nothing wrong with teaching them how to use aesthetic tools like Power Point. All of these things have to be done well. It's like teaching people to write.

In terms of self-presentation, the first thing we have to get over is the idea that it's wrong to think about it. We have to stop telling kids that they have to choose between being smart and being pretty. We tell kids that that's their choice in terms of their personal lives. But when we say, "it's what's on the inside that counts," and "it doesn't really matter if you don't look good," if you're fifteen, what you hear is, "you're ugly but we love you anyway." And that's probably not the best message.

I think what happens with aesthetics—both with respect to personal looks and aesthetics in general—is that we tend to be crazy in one direction or crazy in the other. Either we think it's the most important thing in the world, and that "beauty is truth" and so on, or we decide it's completely worthless—that it's utterly superficial and that if you focus on it at all there's something wrong with you.

All I'm arguing, basically, is that aesthetics is something that human beings value. It is a good. It is not the highest good. It is not the only good. It is an autonomous good. The fact that someone is good looking does not mean that they're a good person. The fact that someone is bad looking does not mean they are a bad person. Just because a product is good looking doesn't say anything about whether or not it has other good qualities. We just have to get used to talking and thinking about aesthetic value for what it is and nothing more. Otherwise we're going to drive ourselves completely nuts.

In what ways do you think kids today will end up affected by having grown up in the age of aesthetics?

I think that kids today are already much more visually savvy than in the past. They're able to process a lot of visual information and to play with images more. They also take for granted a great deal of freedom to express themselves in their personal styles—both in how they dress and wear their hair, and in how they decorate their rooms and skateboards, and so on. They assume both the freedom to do that and the tools—whether those tools are high-tech, like digital cameras and computers, or more traditional ones like hair dye and tattoos. The things you can do with a computer now are quite extraordinary. And you don't necessarily have to be especially gifted in order to use one to communicate aesthetically. It's just a matter of having access to the tools and learning to use them.

There is also a change in what careers are considered promising. We have a tradition of assuming that aesthetic careers are impractical—that you become an artist because the muses have you under their spell and you're willing to sacrifice material well-being in order to serve your art. There will always be some artists like that. But there are many, many fields now in which there is going to be a big demand for people with aesthetic skills. Not just in graphic and industrial design, but also in manual fields—fields that don't necessarily require high levels of education. Whether it's gardening, or customizing cars, or making granite counter-tops, or doing nails, or being a facialist— all of these are jobs that are growing because people want more aesthetics in their lives.

You suggest that Hillary Clinton's political career has been somewhat hampered by the fact that when she was growing up she was led to believe that serious women don't focus on their personal appearance. You point out that she's therefore had to go through the awkward process of figuring out a style for herself in public. I was wondering what your own experience of arriving at a personal style has been like, and whether some of that experience is reflected in arguments you make in the book.

It's definitely true that when I was growing up, I got the message, though it was never stated this explicitly, that because I was smart I could not be attractive. Those two things just existed in different worlds. I'm what the historian Arthur Marwick calls "personable." That is, I'm perfectly decent looking. I'm not a raving beauty. But because being smart was the most fundamental characteristic of my life as a young person, even if I had been a raving beauty, I would not have been considered good-looking and I would not have considered myself good-looking. I also got the message that being interested in clothes, which I am very interested in, was superficial, and was something that people like me didn't do. So I channeled that interest into becoming a costume designer in my high school. I didn't have a lot of clothes of my own, but I designed costumes, and did a lot of historical research. It was all very intellectual.

I'm fortunate, because I'm younger than Hillary Clinton. People of her generation and earlier got the message much more strongly than I did that to be feminine—to be a real woman—you must be interested in fashion. You must suffer to be beautiful. Those ideas used to be fundamental to feminine identity. Then Hillary's generation rebelled and rejected all of that, and then, lo and behold, she wakes up and she's living in the nineties. And she's First Lady and on TV, and she has both the opportunity and the responsibility to pay attention to how she looks. She's certainly a woman who is naturally decent looking. I mean, she's not a supermodel, but she's attractive. But she clearly had not paid a great deal of attention to or derived a great deal of enjoyment out of her personal presentation through most of her career. And it suddenly became quite a public issue.

In her book, which came out after my book was written, she suggests that when she was playing around with her hairstyles and such, she was enjoying it. I don't know if I entirely believe that. When any political figure is playing around with his or her hairstyle there's a certain amount of calculation going into what sort of image is being created, and what associations. I don't want to over-interpret it either way. I don't want to say, "suddenly Hillary Clinton discovered the joy of doing her hair," or, "she's just all about media images." I suspect it's some mixture of the two. When you become First Lady, suddenly you have access to the world's best hairstylists and couture—all this stuff that even as a well-paid lawyer and a governor's wife you wouldn't have had access to before.

I suppose that can be particularly dangerous if you don't know what you're doing.

Right. And stylists can get carried away. They can make you look like somebody you're not.

As you point out, the age of aesthetics is making us and our surroundings more attractive—which makes life more pleasant for everyone. But I was wondering how you respond to concerns about the possible downsides. For example, you celebrate the fact that the increasing accessibility of overseas materials and labor is making a wider array of attractive goods available for less. But aren't some Americans losing their jobs to third-world workers as a result?

That's where this book relates to The Future and Its Enemies. It's an argument about the value of specialization in trade, not specifically about aesthetics. Both history and theory suggest that specialization is in fact where prosperity comes from. It's where rising living standards come from, not only in the exporting country but in the importing country. So, for example, if goods are less expensive, people who are paid low wages in this country can suddenly have a better standard of living. It's like a wage increase or a tax cut. I'm not going to deny that some people lose their jobs. Obviously some people do. But in the long run, or even in the short and medium run, the average person in both places is much better off.

You also suggest that we've reached a point at which many consumer goods can't be significantly improved upon from a functional perspective, so companies are now issuing goods that differ from one another mainly in aesthetic ways. Should we be concerned that this ever-more-tempting array of goods (like computers in cute shapes and shiny colors) is leading us to spend beyond our means for items that we don't really need? After all, this is the first time that American household debt has been greater than disposable income, and the number of personal bankruptcies and home foreclosures has never been higher.

We in the United States are a hundred years beyond what we "need." You don't need an indoor bathroom. You don't need air conditioning. You don't need a lot of things that people in this country lived without before World War II, even. You don't need a car. You don't need more than a couple of outfits of clothes. In terms of something like computers, I think the objection tends to come from people who are engineers—from people who see increased power as the only reason you should buy a new computer. But somebody like me doesn't need a more powerful computer. The upside of that, from my point of view as a consumer, is that I don't need to replace my computer that often. That's a downside if you're a manufacturer. But when I do decide to replace my computer, I'm going to pay proportionately more attention to how it looks and feels, as opposed to just the raw power and memory and various other things that have traditionally characterized the latest and greatest new computer.

But it is true that in a sense my book is a defense of the consumer society. It's saying, look, people care about aesthetic luxuries—they care about things that give them pleasure and have meaning for them, regardless of whether those things can be justified or measured.

I consider it a form of progress that the marketplace gives people not just what they need in a subsistence sense, but what they want. Because I measure progress as having to do with peoples' ability to create the kind of lives they want to live. Some happiness comes from big-picture things. But a lot of it also comes from the little daily pleasures of life. We've been able to deliver more than just subsistence for quite a while. And now we've moved beyond the merely functional. We can also deliver improved sensory qualities that are less tangible. For many decades critics said the problem with capitalism was it didn't deliver that. They said capitalism made the world ugly. Well, for one stage in capitalism's development that was probably true. But the market responds to the things people care about—and people do care about aesthetics. After they've got some degree of comfort, they care a lot about how things look and feel.

You explain that as companies "ratchet up" the aesthetic quality of the goods they sell and the stores and restaurants and hotels they design, it's often the consumer who ends up benefiting most because the price usually doesn't inflate in tandem with the improvements. As a result, you argue, even though the consumer's standard of living is rising, and the economy is being more productive (as it offers more to the consumer), none of this ends up being reflected in official measurements of the economy's health—and unnecessary economy-boosting measures therefore end up being taken by the government. Would it be worth trying to develop some sort of objective measure that could factor aesthetic improvements into the equation?

It's a difficult problem. Qualitative factors, unless they show up in the price, just get lost in the economic data. The characteristic has to be measurable—it can't just be "the restaurant is pretty." Even learning how to account for certain kinds of quantifiable statistics, like the speed of computers or the longevity of tires, has been difficult for econometricians and people who work on national income statistics.

But the Federal Reserve is well aware of the measurement problem, so I'm less concerned with how it affects Federal Reserve policies than with how it affects our psychological perceptions of how we're doing. We look at income statistics and say, "Gee, per capita income's not rising all that fast when you correct for inflation. We must not be all that much better off than we were in 1975." Well, I remember 1975, and I've also used historical references—newspapers and so on—to help me remember 1975 in order to research this book, and believe me, we are a lot better off in terms of the quality of a lot of our goods than is accounted for in our income statistics. Some of that is obvious, like the fact that cars last longer and get better gas mileage now. But a lot of it is not. A lot of it has to do with how well the seams on our clothes hold together, or improvements in the quality of the fabric. Today's polyester is not twenty-five years' ago polyester. A lot of things have improved significantly but have not necessarily led to higher prices.

In your chapter titled "The Boundaries of Design," you criticize the government of Portland, Oregon, for developing strict rules about what can and can't be built. You argue that such rules inappropriately seek to "legislate taste." But isn't it precisely the result of those kinds of rules that Portland is today considered to be an extremely desirable and attractive city, whereas other cities in which no one has stepped up to manage growth are choked with traffic and struggling to provide infrastructure to widely-dispersed sprawl? Shouldn't it be acceptable for elected officials to create urban-design controls as they see fit?

All I can say is that the worst traffic I've ever been in in my life—and that includes L.A.—was in Portland, at 7:00 in the morning. My brother lives in Portland and he really likes it, so there are different tastes for different people. But all those building restrictions aren't why he likes it. He likes the outdoor environment and the mountains.

What I try to explore in the "Boundaries of Design" chapter is the tension between our desire for harmony on the one hand, and our desire for individuality and free expression on the other. What's implied by "design" is that there's a coherent aesthetic that expresses a particular purpose. And of course, design is good. But if you designed the whole United States the same way, that would be pretty oppressive.

The issue to me is where you draw the boundaries. Who gets to decide what the design will be? And how easy do you make it to shift from one design regime to another? Portland is an extreme case, but aesthetic regulation has grown tremendously in American cities in the past twenty years or so. A lot of people really like it, but a lot of people really chafe under it.

So what I'm trying to think about is, What's the best way to do it? My own aesthetic preference is to let people do whatever they want. I have an aesthetic taste for variety. I actually like to walk down the street and see houses that I would never in a million years want to live in. I don't necessarily want to see a whole neighborhood of them, but I think a little variety is good. So an important question is, How easy is it to shift yourself to avoid the things you don't like? Sometimes the easiest thing is to just look away. For example, consider the difference between the cost to you of getting used to the fact that the person down the street from you has ugly little statues in their yard versus the pleasure that they get from being able to have them. Sometimes tolerance is the best thing.

It's true that there are certain things like setbacks and lot sizes that are very difficult to change once they've been established and that have a large effect on the total environment. Those might be things that you'd want to regulate. But in terms of legislating details, what I think works best is smaller units. The city of Portland is too big to be legislating where your door should be, and whether you have to have a certain number of windows on the front of your house. There are styles that people really, really love, like those 1950s and '60s Eichler homes, that have no windows on the front. People pay premiums for those houses and are fanatical about them. But you couldn't build one in Portland. There are also practical issues. If you have a tiny lot and you want to have any kind of garage, it's going to take up a lot of the front of the building. But Portland won't allow that. Maybe a neighborhood in Portland could reasonably adopt those kinds of rules. But for the whole city to adopt them becomes problematic. It means that there's no room for innovation—there's no room for individual expression, there's no room for new aesthetic discoveries.

You explain that some critics of the age of aesthetics take issue with the way members of first-world cultures appropriate an assortment of styles from other, more exotic cultures, thereby watering down those styles' original meanings and depriving them of "authenticity." Are those critics primarily objecting to globalization?

The critique about authenticity has existed since before we were worried about globalization, so I think it really goes to a more basic issue. When we say authenticity is a value, what do we mean by that? Is it a kind of fundamentalism that says there was the one true style at a static point in time, and that that's the only legitimate way of creating a particular form? I think the reason the term authenticity resonates with people is that the opposite seems to imply some sort of deception. If I tell you something is an authentic Michelangelo but actually it's a forgery, then clearly there's fraud going on. In that instance the meaning of authenticity is clear-cut. But what do we mean when we talk about stylistic authenticity?

One meaning of authenticity is as a set of formal guidelines. Certain styles have developed over a long time within a particular artistic tradition. They adhere to a set of formal harmonies that are pleasing. And if you were to take that style and kind of graft something else onto it, it might not work. So reproducing that style accurately, not as the original thing but within the framework of that style's rules of formal harmony, is one form of authenticity. I talk about how the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable can't stand the notion of an "authentic reproduction"—like an "authentic reproduction" of colonial furniture. But I believe that when someone says something is an "authentic reproduction," what they mean is that it preserves the harmony of the original.

I also believe that authenticity comes more from the inside out than from the outside in. It's about what someone is trying to achieve with a style. Take, for example, Kente cloth. Some people would say that it's inauthentic for white people to wear Kente cloth. But by that logic it's actually, in some sense, inauthentic for anyone in the United States to wear it, and even for anyone in Africa to wear it who's not from the aristocracy. Traditionally it had a very specific use. But it's evolved over time. It's beautiful; African-Americans see it as reflecting their ties to their ancestors in Africa, and to their sense of identity—even if no one in their family would ever in a million years have been allowed to wear this cloth. It's taken on another meaning, and that meaning, I would argue, is just as authentic. It's come out of a different experience, and it reflects the authentic pleasure and meaning of the people who wear it.

So part of what I'm saying is that what's truly authentic is change and cultural evolution. That's how all these traditional forms got created in the first place. They weren't revealed in a moment, they were created over time. And we should not hold up a kind of aesthetic fundamentalism as the highest form of sensory expression.

As time goes by and there's an ever-greater mixing of styles, do you think fewer new distinctive ones will emerge? Will all styles eventually end up jumbled together in a single homogenous hodge-podge?

I think what you'll see is more styles than ever, because when you start combining things, numbers and potentials start getting really big really fast. The styles end up less segregated. So if somebody stays in the same place, they'll have exposure to much more variety than they had before—whether it's clothes, or food, or anything else. When people travel around they observe that things are more the same everywhere, but that's because there are a hundred styles everywhere, as opposed to one style in each of a hundred places. So when people say the world is becoming homogenized, it's not really true. What it's really becoming is more pluralistic within each individual place.

You point out that our culture has a history of dismissing the issue of aesthetics as an inconsequential and somewhat "irrational" matter of "feminine frivolity." Do you anticipate that the fact that The Substance of Style is written by a woman will in any way affect the way it's received?

I tend to have a predominantly male audience—it's about 80 to 90 percent male. So I expect that a lot of men will read this book. If you look at the cover blurbs, for example, they're all from men. That may just be a coincidence, but I do think a book like this will help build a bridge between traditionally female and traditionally male concerns. That bridge is also being built independently of my book. Male and female interests have been merging for several decades, both because women are no longer segregated in the home, and because there is a growing tendency for aesthetic content to be a part of hard-nosed business decision-making. Whether you're designing products or restaurants, or building shopping centers or new homes, you have to take aesthetic values into consideration. Your customers care about them—and you probably do too. That's the interesting thing. I myself am not a person who has been highly involved in design or fashion or any of these things. But I'm an example of the trend. I've become more and more interested in and more and more conscious of the aesthetics of people, places, and things as it's become a more important part of our society and culture.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/08/the-joy-of-style/303098/