In the first of a two-part series on international style, Isabelle Anscombe looks at the aggressive design and packaging that influences our lives – and gets a global view from three busy travellers. . .
International style, to most people, means glamour: images of the super-rich trekking from ski resort to Caribbean island with Gucci luggage
The playboy’s toys have the allure of being both expensive and exclusive, rich with the smells and textures of money and power. But, despite its popularity as the vital ingredient in Dallas and Dynasty, it is fast becoming a rather dated conception of fabulous wealth and perhaps now reveals more about middle-class aspirations than the real life of megastars and billionaires.
For the more discriminating, international style has less to do with the iconography of franchised prestige and more to do with their own group of cult objects, defined by good taste. Their self-righteous abstention from the vulgar conspicuous consumption of the jet-set takes the form of minimalist living quarters of black, white and grey austerity, sparely furnished in glass, steel, chrome and leather.
Such environments derive from the historical design phenomenon known as the International Style, a branch of the Modern Movement. Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius unknowingly brought this style of radical chic into being in the cause of mass housing in Europe in the early 1920s.
The International Style has now been appropriated by big business. Intended to be democratic, non-elitist, practical and unintrusive by its lack of patterning, ‘clean’ lines and ‘pure’ forms, the leather and chrome look was never cheap. But it looks good with the marble floors and huge pot plants in the lobbies of International Style high-rise office blocks. Thus, by an indirect route, its creed of functionalism has also come to symbolize corporate money and power.
Another truly international style also took off in the 1920s, but not in the European compounds of the avant garde. It led, after the Second World War, to the world-wide sales of such brands and products as Levi Strauss jeans, McDonalds hamburgers, Coca Cola and Ford cars, and its origins lay in the United States.
But few people would feel that such products represent the dizzy heights of aspiration. Although truly international they are not in themselves glamorous.
The Harvard Business School has named such successful mass-marketing ‘the globilization of products’. International trade has taken place since Roman times. But it was only when radio was developed in the 1920s as a means of mass communication that production-line manufacture could be properly exploited in the cause of satisfying people’s burgeoning aspirations.
Perhaps the first mass medium by which the individual, isolated consumer could identify with a larger world was the Sears, Roebuck mail-order catalogue which gave small communities in America seemingly accurate pictures of how life was lived elsewhere, as well as an image of how they themselves might live.
For the public, the chance to ‘see how the other half lived’ (even if no one really did live like that) has proved enduringly appealing. Around 1930 the London Board of Trade commented perceptively that ‘motion pictures are influencing fashions, behaviour, dress and housing. People all over the world are deliberately going to a cinema as to an animated catalogue to get ideas’. The same must be said today of television.
The industrial designer Raymond Loewy has claimed the credit for the next step towards global marketing. In the 1930s he put forward the aphorism that ‘between two products equal in price, function and quality, the better looking will outsell the other’.
The influence of art on industry was hotly debated, especially in Europe, in the 1930s. By the 1950s styling had become so important to the consumer that manufacturers were able to enjoy a balmy period of built-in obsolescence: a time when, in America, men replaced their cars every year when all that altered was the shape of the tail fins. ‘New’ products, especially within the field of household technology, were constantly introduced.
So how and why is style added onto a product? Deyan Sudjie, whose new book Cult Objects is to be published later this year, says simply that design is to sell things, but added that those people who try to use style to manipulate the buying public usually get it wrong, since the consumer sees the packaging and merchandising of style primarily as a form of entertainment. What is certain is that people want more than mere function when they buy services and objects.
So what types of product are perceived to have a style that is international?
First, there are the luxury products: the Dunhill lighter, Chanel perfume, monogrammed accessories. Estee Lauder, for example, don’t alter their packaging or advertising in any of the 140 countries in which their products are available. Its genuineness is as vital an aspect as it is in the art market, where the mystique of the product is that, by buying it, the customer enters an exclusive world. Ironically, such manufacturers have to ensure that, despite their ubiquitousness, their customers don’t perceive the product to be too easily available, too common, or the mystique vanishes.
Second, there is the group of objects that, broadly, are the inheritors of Modern Movement traditions, that are consciously well-designed or are perceived to be so by interested consumers: almost anything from such companies as Braun, Olivetti or Sony, a Rolex watch, most non-instamatic cameras, Saab and Porsche cars, most things that are high-tech, electronic and matt-black.
It is a style far more readily associated with men than with women and one potent element of its appeal is the mystique of professionalism – ‘this is the camera the professional photographer uses’. Even though the customer knows he will never put it to the same range of uses, there is the satisfaction of playing with the big boys, of being seen to take it seriously.
But there is also a host of products and services that are global but not perceived as international in terms of their styling. They include not just Kelloggs, Heinz, Ford, McDonalds and Coca-Cola, but the myriad products produced by multinational oil, chemical or electronics-based companies (ICI, IBM, Philips, or General Electric). Their success has little or nothing to do with global chic and everything to do with technological research and advance.
Does the imposition of a global standard, the appearance of the same package, tradename, advertising jingle, synthesized sound, computer graphic or familiar smell in every conceivable culture, mean that the world is heading for a state of entropy and homogenization? Or are the same products perceived differently by different people in different contexts?