Friday, May 7, 2010


At a secular moment, in which neither magic nor religion the original mainsprings of art—has quite the prestige that it once enjoyed, luxury can be understood as a synthetic alternative. For certain objects, the concept of luxury is used to create the aura that art once provided. You do not have to believe in God or in magic to be seduced, in however minor a way, by a banal version of luxury. But, to judge by Koolhaas’s messianic tone, luxury itself may yet become a religious cult. Certainly luxury has become the driving force fuelling Western industrial economies. They have abandoned basic manufacturing to China, and focus instead on building cars that reek of carefully tanned leather and whose heavy doors click shut reassuringly softly. Europe is in the business of making expensive clothes and luggage, wristwatches of impossible precision, and military aircraft made from exotic carbon fibre and alloy that are capable of flying at the speed of sound.

Each of these is a conspicuous luxury of a kind. Strictly speaking, we don’t need any of them, and yet if we didn’t make them and then buy them, the economy on which we depend for our survival would suffer, so in a sense we certainly do need them.

But luxury is an ever more elusive concept in the contemporary context. It is harder and harder to make an object that feels sufficiently out of the ordinary to qualify. The wonder is that the concept has survived at all, when there are so many more possessions and they are so much easier to make than in the past, when skills were jealously guarded secrets, passed from generation to generation. It’s even more remarkable that luxury has managed to retain its allure, given the archaic nature of so many objects that are notionally its embodiment. It seems to be easier to imbue categories of object that are at the brink of redundancy with the quality of luxury than to create new ones that can demonstrate it.

For luxury to survive, the traditions on which it depends, far from staying the same, need to be continuously reinvented. Some objects are more redundant than others. The wristwatch still retains its prestige. But the fountain pen is losing the attraction it once had. For a while, the pen was presented as more than a practical writing implement. It was a possession that could be passed from father to son—the kind of industrial object that might form part of an atavistic coming-of-age rite. The protective cap could be unwound slowly and reverentially to reveal a sculpted gold nib. The proportions were satisfyingly commanding, and would be made even more so by placing the cap on the end of the barrel. There was a clip on the cap to discreetly signal the presence of the pen even when it was concealed in a jacket top pocket.

It is now on the brink of the same fate that befell the portable typewriter. The basic concept has lost its relevance. Keyboards have sharply reduced opportunities to demonstrate elegant handwriting. Pens still have those clips, because that is what they have always had, but fewer and fewer people want to risk them in a jacket pocket — ink reservoirs and traditional nibs are notoriously prone to leak over hands and clothes. Ballpoints are a less risky alternative. But, even when equipped with a barrel just as glossy, and a cap identical to that of a fountain pen, the ballpoint version of a brand has nothing like the same charisma and fails to command the same premium price no matter how many gold carats it is finished with.

The wristwatch, in contrast, has been able to maintain its position as a desirable artifact in very much the same shape that it assumed at the start of the twentieth century when Cartier first started to make them for men, followed shortly afterwards by Rolex. The traditional wristwatch has managed to see off the eruption of quartz technology despite a wobble over the introduction of digital as opposed to analog faces, mass-produced accuracy, and the impact of fashion as exemplified by the Swatch phenomenon.

What makes the wristwatch different from the pen is that its form was born from a collaboration between jewelers, who made the cases, and mechanical-movement makers, who in the early days supplied the working parts. Jewelry has a long history of addressing the emotional and tactile interaction between people and things. This is an interaction which every kind of personal object must succeed in if it is to acquire an emotional resonance, but few manage it.

Certainly archaic technologies do have their appeal. Enthusiasts for mid-twentieth-century recording technology have kept the vinyl disc alive. And there are manufacturers who have gone back to the use of vacuum tubes rather than solid state circuits for amplifiers. But the charming easily tips over into the preposterous. When digital readouts increasingly replace the dials and instruments on the dashboards of cars, how can a walnut fascia designed as the backdrop to carefully delineated sets of dials be made to accommodate them convincingly? When this is attempted, walnut turns into an anachronism, not an asset. It signals not luxury, but pretension.

Because the cellphone is permanently in the hand, and close to mouth and ear, it has a relationship with its user as intimate as any they will have with a wristwatch. The visual interface, the sound made, the mechanism that protects the keypad offer plenty of scope for a designer to give cellphones a personality. But when their makers have attempted to produce what they call luxury products they have had a much harder time of it than the watchmakers. The usual strategy has been to use precious metals and stones in the most conspicuous way possible. But a gold-plated case for an object that is technically redundant after six months looks gratingly profligate even in the midst of a culture of excess. Rather than gold adding luster to the phone, the phone undermines the prestige of gold as a material when it is used in that way.

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