The Design Observer Group

Posted 09.22.05

Lorraine Wild

Decorum, RIP

Mid-century modern is associated — especially in California — with an easier time, a more casual lifestyle: it's the spatial expression of a loosening of Depression-era habits. We associate restraint with the style of the mid-century, but the contemporary interpretation of that restraint is to connect it to a sort of visual minimalism. Yet while all minimalism may be modern, not all modernism is minimal: indeed, this 1952 photograph of Robinson's Department Store — reprinted not long ago in the Los Angeles Times — looks uncannily contemporary, so cool you can practically feel a blast of pre-oil crisis air conditioning.

At first glance, this could be a dramatization of a mid-century store interior crafted by the editors of Dwell or Wallpaper — but as it turns out, the picture accompanies an obituary for Robinson's, which had just been slated for closing by its parent company, Federated Department Stores. The Times entitled it "Obsolescence Dept." — but ironically, what's actually obsolete isn't so much the building as the behaviors it so expertly spawned. What's obsolete, it turns out, is decorum.

Decorum describes a self-conscious arrangement of relationships between spaces and the ways that people behave in those spaces. There's a ritualistic aspect to this notion, in that the behavior encouraged and enhanced by the space is situationally civil. The article in the LA Times describes the experience of shopping at Robinson's as elegant: not so elegant that it was out of reach for the middle-class customer, but clearly differentiated by curated merchandise, considered service, and aestheticized presentation. When it all worked for Robinson's — from the products sold, to the relationship between the store and its eager public — well, what would you call that besides design? Bear in mind that this was long before the days of "experience design" or "branding strategy."

While Robinson's shuts its doors, people await the opening of the nearest Target in Los Angeles (we have been, up until recently, "underserved") with some excitement. Target has brilliantly built its branding strategy on the premise that design can be used to attract customers across all price points. Even I must confess to scouring several of its stores to find one of the last available Philippe Stark potty-training seats (from the now-discontinued baby line) in L.A. County. (And it proved to be the magic bullet.)

Target has succeeded in making people feel cool just by walking into its stores. Commissioning name designers like Michael Graves or Isaac Mizrahi has boosted Target's cachet as a purveyor of inspiring and innovative wares. The company's advertising campaigns reinforce a corporate gestalt that successfully separates Target's "brand" from anything else in the realm of "big-box" retailing. The ads in the recent all-Target issue of The New Yorker take this to another level entirely, where the focus is no longer on what they sell, but how the brand, insinuated into every frame of life (through a variety of guises) has surpassed mere merchandising to become the very fulfillment of the ideal itself.

Target's design strategy is focused on a kind of clever psychological foreplay in which the image teases the consumer in; but once inside the store, that same consumer is set free in an environment in which the Target ideal morphs into a complete abstraction. The designer goods are in there, surrounded by the same merchandise available in K-Mart or Wal-Mart, but they must be ferreted out of mass quantities stacked on undifferentiated shelves in an encompassing sprawl. Although the orbits of retailing and marketing can hardly be said to fully characterize the design universe, to compare the experience of shopping in a Target now with what it must have been like in a Robinson's then is to realize how different design culture has truly become.

You might not have felt cool walking into Robinson's back in 1952 (in fact, you might have felt intimidated) but once you entered into its Gesamtkunstwerk you would have been offered a physical and psychological experience designed for seduction, an experience that not only engaged a wider range of sensory stimuli, but also sought to integrate the social exchange of interpersonal service. If this photo is to be believed, Robinson's visual allure was based on a carefully curated space, in which light was used to dramatically enhance the treasures available for purchase; qualities of air, sound, light and materiality of the display would all work together to mesmerize and enchant the customer. This was a space for "slow shopping" where you probably had to alter your pace in order to look — only to be rewarded with a rich visual experience whether you bought something or not. The formality that typified this slowness would have been emphasized by the need to engage with a salesperson in order to actually complete a purchase: both sides had to agreeably engage in this temporal, consensual communication in order for the exchange to be successful.

Conversely, while Target touts design in its ads, it has — along with several other contemporary retailers — actually designed the design out of its stores, and of the shopping experience itself. What Target discovered is that a powerful image will get people into the store, and in spite of (or perhaps because of) the paucity of social exchange, customers will consummate the relationship themselves by simply buying lots of stuff. The sketchiness of the experience Target offers is counterbalanced by consumers' willingness to trade quantity for quality, to feel satiated by piles of bags filling the trunks of their oversized, gas-guzzling cars.

In retrospect, the designed experience offered by retailers like Robinson's was actually an unnecessary public amenity. In recent years, as stores that excelled at such service began to jettison personal assistance in the name of efficiency, customers lost track of where their retail loyalties actually lay, opting, in turn, for the stores that came without all that responsibility. (And clearly, there must have been instances in which social exchanges were characterized more by rebuke than by reciprocity.) The late architect Charles Moore predicted that we would all end up one day having to "pay for the public life": he foresaw a trajectory of privatized social and cultural amenity once assumed to be part of the (free) public sphere. And of course, like most other things in consumer culture now, the old experience of decorum (or "luxury humor taste" as the Barney's slogan describes it) is actually only available at the high end, to those rarified few privileged enough to afford it.

As Robinson's fades from view, its story can be added to our collective cultural repository — our memories of the Christmas windows of Macy's in New York; of the little marshmallows served with salads at Wanamaker's in Philadelphia; of the white gloves worn by customers at J. L. Hudson's in Detroit and the streamlined interiors of Bullocks Wilshire in Los Angeles. These were public spectacles designed to feed the senses, to lure you to come in, spend some time, and maybe even spend a little cash. This splendid photograph of Robinson's attests to mass merchandising as middle-brow entertainment, which is how it actually began. Shopping, while critical to a store's economic survival, was secondary to the shopper's genteel experience. In those glory days — before iPod isolationism and the grunge of casual Fridays — you could walk out empty-handed and still have seen something. Apparently this was a problem that had to be designed out of existence.