Tuesday, December 8, 2009

all anthropologie apologies: what else should I be?

I've been alerted to a TV show called "Man Shops Globe" about the guy whose job it is to travel the world in search of wares to duplicate and sell at Anthropologie. Racked, Jezebel, Salon, the Washington Post, the New York Observer, and Effortless Anthropologie have all written amusingly about it, and about the kind of person who admires Anthro stuff (wants to be Zooey Deschanel; would name her baby Emma).

I didn't know, before this, what machinations led to the production of the stuff at Anthropologie. I knew they weren't the literal items found at flea markets in the French countryside, but it also seemed unlikely that some designer in New York was just sitting there dreaming up this stuff, whole cloth, based on an inner understanding of what antiques from Provence, or whatever, look like. So it makes sense that how it happens is, this guy finds an actual ceramic ear of corn in China, he brings it back to HQ, and developers develop ersatz versions of it to sell in the stores for high prices.

So the main difference between you and this guy is he gets paid to travel the globe and look for this stuff, but you would have to take time off from work AND pay to go on the same kind of trip, which isn't really feasible for you, so therefore you would maybe deign to buy something at Anthropologie. This is true even though the dude claims you can get a ceramic ear of corn for $1 in China, and you would probably pay $40 for it at Anthropologie, so in that way, if you bought enough stuff, the trip might save you money. Ultimately, Anthro is the closest you can conveniently get to the real thing.

It's widely looked down upon to buy mass-produced copies of one-of-a-kind, "authentic" items, as illustrated in the episode of Friends (which itself is undeservingly looked down upon, just by virtue of being a sitcom with a laugh track) where Rachel buys a coffee table from Pottery Barn and pretends it's from a flea market because Phoebe would be horrified if she knew it was from Pottery Barn. And yet, it isn't considered quite as gauche to have faux-authentic things decorating your living room as it is to have things from a chain store that don't even attempt to look like they're from a flea market (for example, the perfectly serviceable Room Essentials 6-Drawer Dresser from Target). One would think that if actual authenticity were the goal, and your authentic life didn't give you enough free time to tour international bazaars, then the not-even-trying, mass-produced stuff would be like the pinnacle of awesome, but sadly, it just communicates that you don't have as good "taste" as someone who would recognize a good copy of an authentic coffee table when she saw one. (You will always be safe with Ikea, however, because although it's both cheap and mass-produced, Ikea stuff has a contemporary-design look that keeps it in the realm of "taste.")

Two cultural tropes associated with elite liberalism always dominate this discussion of authenticity. One, that those who seek "authenticity" seek it because they want to imagine themselves connected to the calloused, leathery hands of "indigenous peoples" who wrought (not just "made," but "wrought") the original stuff, because then they can feel worldly and also philanthropically supportive of these "peoples," who are defined by how underprivileged they are. Two, that buying stuff (especially at a store, but also just in general) is stupid and meaningless, and only those neanderthals who have been duped by the corporate ad industry think that there's any meaning in the act of buying anything, implying that a well-educated, urbane sort of person would never decorate their living room with anything that can be bought in a store, whether hand-wrought by indigenous peoples or factory-made. You can maybe make things yourself, but if you're not a talented artist, displaying those things in your living room might not meet the demands of taste. (see also: Regretsy.) Utilitarian stuff, such as a wine rack, is exempt from this ban. As are gifts bestowed upon you directly by indigenous peoples after you stayed for a week in their village, if you have the luxury of taking such vacations.

(This is linked to using the word "find" as a noun. "It was a real find" implies that you just found it on the side of the street, and isn't your life marked by an enviable sense of childlike whimsy and wonder unmarred by the daily slog of adult life, indeed like Pippi Longstocking when she declared herself a "Thing-Finder." It implies more serendipity and experience-orientedness (rather than commerce-orientedness) than even a flea market. But whether you find a "find" at a mall store, or a one-of-a-kind-handicrafts store, or a flea market, or an antiques shop, or eBay, or on your travels to distant lands, you didn't just find it, you shopped for it. There is just no way around the fact that you shopped. Sorry.)

But let's leave aside, for a moment, that people are aiming to look like they're (a) worldly philanthropists and (b) somehow above buying things in stores, and let's focus on the psychology of why we love things that have the qualities Keith Johnson, the Man Shops Globe guy, is looking for in his travels. After all, he doesn't come home with just any item from the Avignon Fair; it has to be the right item. From Salon: "Johnson wants 'things that let people know more about this very
extraordinary country' and 'things that have real resonance' but not
things that are in every craft market or import store in New York City,
but 'just the right thing has been eluding us.'"

So what provides that resonance?

I've been rereading Little Stalker by Jennifer Belle, a great novel about a 33-year-old New York City woman obsessed with a 60something neurotic Jewish NYC film auteur named (heh) Arthur Weeman, who comes out with a new film every year that she ritualistically goes to see at the Ziegfeld the day it opens. Rebekah, the woman, has no furniture in her apartment, because she hasn't found any furniture she likes. But then she gets wind of an Arthur Weeman prop and costume sale, filled with furniture that was used in all his movies! She hires a van to take her to the sale and spends $22,000 there to furnish her apartment with things like a gondola. She rationalizes, "You would pay that much for a few ugly things at a horrible store like Crate & Barrel."

Rebekah's shrink tells her she's "obsessed with symbolism," that she needs everything, including furniture, to symbolize something: "You want the couch to represent something else. Sometimes it's okay for a couch to just be a couch." The stuff from Arthur Weeman's movies is perfect, then, because they reference the movies and symbolize her obsession and decades-long identification with them. The furniture is about her life story. She's also obsessed with the idea of a life story, or "timeline," like the timeline she made when she was a kid, for a school project, of the important events in Paul Revere's life. "What's his timeline?" she asks another woman who tries to set her up with a guy. When the woman responds, "You mean his schedule?" Rebekah quips that she and the woman have nothing in common.

This made me feel like I had everything in common with Rebekah. How many times have I expressed some abstract, meaning-laden concept to a person who interpreted it as something flat and banal because they just didn't have the depth or whatever to get what I was talking about? I think Rebekah is an N, like me. N for iNtuitive, as defined by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test, as opposed to S ("Sensing"). S people are concerned with the facts, the schedule, what is said; N people are concerned with what is meant. If something doesn't mean anything, an N considers it worthless. The kind of resonance that N people are looking for in a home decor item is some sort of personal meaning, that it's tied to something from your life story. If it's just some square-shaped plain old thing from Target or even Crate & Barrel that anyone could have, it's too random, too impersonal. So when something seems special, beautiful in just the exact way you like, poignant (or at least evocative of something else that's poignant), it has that resonance.

The first time I went into an Anthropologie store, in 1998, I didn't know it was owned by Urban Outfitters or that the company donated money to anti-choice politicians or anything. I knew it was a corporate store, because it was in the Third Street Promenade mall-thingy in Santa Monica, CA, but the feeling I got from it was that everything was so beautiful. Just so rich in details and sweetness and poignancy. It spoke to me. I bought a skirt. Actually I became obsessed with the skirt that day and waited till I got home to New York to buy it at one of the Anthropologies there. I still have the skirt, 11 years later, and I still think it is beautiful.

What the beautifulness (as opposed to beauty) of Anthropologie says to me is, YOUR life is better than all the fast-fashion-eating-disorder-cube-farm drabness of the everyday. Life can be fanciful! Like a movie! Like Amelie! And as insufferable as it is to listen to people rhapsodize about that feeling, actually feeling the feeling feels great. Twee aesthetics make me feel happier about my circumstances. As if actual life were more about the things that make your heart go pitter-patter than the mundane limitations that your circumstances place on you. And I'm also shameless enough to buy something from Anthropologie instead of the original antique or indigenous artifact that it is a replica of, just because it's beautiful in the same way. The fact that it's a fake, mass-produced copy just doesn't trump the beautifulness factor. Objects from that store make me feel like I have a timeline and everyone else just has a schedule.

However, it's not just that I'm a romantic, sensitive, poetic, semiotics-crazed, insufferable solipsist. There's still an element of class-conscious one-upmanship going on here. Because not only does the Anthro fantasy make you feel elevated above mundane concerns, it also tries to make you feel elevated above OTHER PEOPLE who are mired in those concerns. They all have to wear suits to work and I can wear a big fluffy skirt festooned with pinwheels! They are ordinary, while I am special! Those who decorate their homes in the manner of Anthropologie, then, could be cultivating the mythology of being special rather than ordinary, having an interesting life. If these people were merely interested in owning things that were nice and appearing rich, they wouldn't go the Anthro route, they'd be more attracted to "luxury" items from purveyors even more expensive and snooty than Anthro. If you go to any wealthy suburb of New York City, you'll find that most of the houses are decorated more in this "luxury" way than in a way that tries to convey brilliant, frothy whimsy, and the owners seem to be cultivating a mythology of wealth rather than of specialness. And wealth is intertwined with specialness (Anthro costs more than Target; a life of serendipity and beauty implies not being overworked and poorly paid at an unglamorous job, unless it's a type of unglamorousness that can be glamorized, like bartending; the matter of "taste" is wholly bound up in class/education), but each of these two mythologies is a separate subculture.

So I guess the answer that Keith Johnson is looking for, in my opinion, to the question of which things are the right things that provide the right resonance, is: Things that suggest the owner's life is an aesthetically gorgeous, lush one replete with breathtaking interestingness. And that the owner has to have a certain type of elite education, a sensibility, that has to do with foreign travel ("worldliness"), in order to recognize the wonderfulness of the objects—they're not some Ugly American who thinks the height of sophistication is a pastel metallic patchwork Coach handbag with little C's all over it.

Still, any act of buying something at Anthropologie involves shopping in an engineered, corporate store—a mundane, unsophisticated, unwhimsical act, to be sure. Wouldn't it be better just to focus on living the most aesthetically exciting, serendipitous life of mind-opening cultural experiences that you can? Is it a problem that I feel like that experience would be incomplete if I weren't wearing the right outfit for it?

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