Two years ago, while trying to rent and furnish a new apartment, I was defeated repeatedly by the answer to the question How much could it possibly cost? Getting a key cost $3,200 when it required paying a broker fee to some guy named Steve. Four planks of wood and some metal piping cost $1,499 when they were a West Elm bookcase. I had moved and bought furniture before, of course, but the financial horror is fresh every time. This go-round, the kitchen chairs were what broke me.
Like a lot of young people aspiring to move upward, I was in the market for some furniture crafted by Charles and Ray Eames, the mid-century designers who helped introduce modernism to the United States. The couple’s work has been central to the furniture style’s American revival in the past 20 years, but if you encounter high-end interior design mostly on Instagram and Pinterest, you probably know the Eameses by their chairs. The most famous pieces include a leather lounger-and-ottoman set with a curved wooden base that’s particularly beloved by men who work at start-ups, as well as a series of dining chairs with colorful molded-plastic bucket seats. Arguably the most recognizable of the latter is nicknamed the “Eiffel” for its trussed-metal leg structure; one of the most popular reproductions costs $595 from Herman Miller, the design’s original manufacturer. I needed at least four.
Nearly as quickly as the internet dashed my hopes of owning the coveted chairs, it came to my rescue—by showing me the wares inside its coat. In the days after I’d spent a few minutes browsing for the real thing, ads on Instagram, Facebook, and Google offered up identical chairs at virtually every price level from discount decor retailers such as Wayfair and Overstock. I could pay $35, $60, or $100 each for chairs with no discernible differences from one another, or from the “Eiffel” they were legally aping (abetted by copyright and patent laws that make it difficult to protect design as intellectual property). Absent any real information about what I’d actually need to spend to end up with something decent to sit in, I was left to decide how much it was worth to me to announce to my visitors and Instagram followers that I’m also a mildly unimaginative person who appreciates Eames.
The presence of many nice-enough choices without any meaningful way to distinguish among them is a fundamental dysphoria of modern consumerism. Anybody can track in intimate detail how the wealthy and stylish spend their money via social media, and just when you’ve learned exactly what you can’t have, the internet swoops in to offer a look-for-less utopia of counterfeits, rip-offs, and discount cashmere sweaters, perfectly keyed to the performance of a lifestyle that young Americans desperately want but can’t afford.
It was 2017, and Venkatesh Rao, a writer and management consultant, was having lunch at a fast-casual vegan chain restaurant in Seattle when the phrase premium mediocre popped into his head. It described the sensation he was having as he tucked into his meal—one of a not-unpleasant artificial gloss (airline seating with extra legroom; “healthy” chickpea chips that taste like Doritos; $40 scented candles) on an otherwise thoroughly unspecial experience. I had a similar eureka moment in early 2018, when the portmanteau premiocre came to me while I was trying to parse the discriminating features among mid-priced bed linens from several start-up brands. I found Rao’s observation while checking to see whether, against all odds, I had come up with an original idea. Instead, I’d noticed something that many others also saw wherever they looked, once they had heard the idea articulated.
When Rao mentioned “premium mediocre” to his wife, who was eating with him that day, she immediately got it. So did his Facebook friends and Twitter followers. “People had started noticing a pervasive pattern in everything from groceries to clothing, and entire styles of architecture in gentrifying neighborhoods,” he told me. Premium mediocrity, by his definition, is a fancy tile backsplash in an apartment’s tiny, nearly nonfunctional kitchen, or french fries doused in truffle oil, which contains no actual truffles. It’s Uber Pool, which makes the luxury of being chauffeured around town financially accessible, yet requires that you brush thighs with strangers sharing the back seat.
Rao pegs the beginning of premium mediocrity’s ascent to the 2008 financial collapse, when cupcakes ruled the culinary landscape. The cupcake is a classic example: It’s a single-serve dessert on demand, minus the true indulgence of buying or making a whole cake to enjoy over time or share with family or friends. Cupcakes look great in photos, but as has been frequently noted in the past decade, many of them are not exactly delicious. I remain unconvinced that anyone ever took genuine pleasure in eating a dry, fist-size Crumbs Bake Shop cupcake topped with a mountain of hardened buttercream.
As with many aesthetically pleasing food trends that have thrived in the era of constant internet access, the value of a deluxe cupcake isn’t necessarily in its physical consumption. Instead, it’s more like an edible Gucci logo belt, or a sprinkle-topped boutique hotel with a beautifully decorated lobby bar and painfully cramped showers. These goods are the least expensive way to gain temporary entry to a particular consumer class—for example, Gucci belts cost $450, while one of the brand’s bags could easily set you back $3,500. The brand’s belts are not any better at belting than many far less expensive options, but they provide a conduit for a person of middling means to transport herself into the lavish life she wants, if only within the highly edited confines of a carefully staged Instagram photo.
Crumbs Bake Shop expanded to 79 locations in the United States before it went out of business in 2014, but the value system that enabled it remains: A plethora of subpar options is the foundation of modern shopping. Most Millennials were too young to get a foothold in the economy before it fell out from under them, and now, confronted with the precariousness of working- and middle-class life in the decade after the Great Recession, the most many can do is playact modern success for as long as possible while hoping the real thing happens eventually.
All of the faux-Eames chairs the internet tried to sell me are props for this Kabuki theater: things you buy because they’re masquerading as more exceptional than they are. Some of these products are perfectly good at fulfilling their function, but they paper over a problem of class mobility that consumer choices can’t change. The market has looked upon the people it serves and said, “Let them eat cupcakes.”
Social strivers have been buying knockoffs in America since modern consumerism took shape, in the decades after World War II. The advent of industrialized manufacturing and mass media helped create marketing as we know it, but it’s hard to imagine that the internet would be so bloated with speciously opulent mid-priced home decor and personal-wellness products if not for celebrities and, more recently, Instagram.
Rao is right to date the acceleration of premium mediocrity to the late 2000s, but it wasn’t just the recession that drove the phenomenon. The streets of Los Angeles and New York had turned into paparazzi wonderlands, fueled by a mixture of booming tabloid sales and new blockbuster gossip blogs such as TMZ. Photographers tailed Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Nicole Richie while they bought lattes and spilled out of nightclubs; then journalists and bloggers detailed exactly what they were wearing, carrying, and driving for a ravenous audience, often offering up “looks for less” to help readers imitate what they saw. This was the first time most Americans got such an exhaustive and unvarnished look at how famous people behave when they’re not on the red carpet—a glimpse of the wealth that had previously been consigned to the pages of glossy fashion magazines, where it was cleaned up and made tasteful, or to the personal knowledge of maids, cooks, and assistants.
The meteoric popularity of Instagram in the 2010s has meant that not only can the famous detail their favorite clothes, snacks, and skin-care lines for their fans, but so can the run-of-the-mill wealthy, who sometimes amass audiences in the six or seven figures. With that many followers, the random rich can charge brands to feature their stuff—the upshot being that, absent a notable skill or expertise, a passel of ordinary and in many cases insipid people parlay family wealth or a remunerative marriage into a business all its own. For many of us, however, luxury is only creative artifice. In previous generations, fake it ’til you make it might have meant embellishing your résumé to land a stable corporate job with a pension. Now it means pairing a Gucci belt with a Zara wardrobe and hoping you’re hot enough to eventually hawk teeth-whitening gadgets.
Even if conspicuous consumption is a less-than-reliable career path, sometimes the look-for-less products we buy work great. And when they do, you feel like you’re slipping through a tear in the fabric of capitalism. My $250 bookcase displays my books—both in real life and in photographs—just as well as the $1,499 one I balked at buying. I recently spent $35 on a viral hair gadget that makes my hair look professionally styled in a way that my $300 blow-dryer never has. It’s intoxicating to believe for a moment that maybe rich people are the ones who have been getting conned all along, spending their money on cars and vacations and sweaters that aren’t that much nicer than what regular people can afford.
Every time I dared to dream that I had somehow hacked taste in the year after I purchased the fake Eames chairs, the chairs quickly reminded me of my hubris. Money buys you plenty of advantages in a society built to reward its accumulation, and it almost certainly buys you chairs that don’t need to be flipped over once a week to have their screws tightened. That’s what I regularly did until a visiting friend tumbled out of one and onto the floor, at which point my embarrassment about my own premium mediocrity overtook the financial worries that had consigned me to it. I bought solid metal dining chairs, which were more expensive than my knockoffs but less likely to fail at their one job. In the end, the internet worked exactly as it’s been designed to: I caved to the thrill of a deal that felt too good to be true, and when that turned out to be the case, I went back out to shop again.