29 March 2010

Commodity with Aura

Bauhaus, Moleskine Books, Apple Computers, Ikea Furniture

The practitioners of the Bauhaus worked to bridge two aspects of human material production in the early 20th Century; handmade craft and machine production. It was obvious by this time, that the machines would prevail over craft and we would eventually be surrounded by items that had little human intervention in their direct creation. Factories produced goods that were the building blocks for other other items and other factories and eventually some of these things are found in the trading markets that would eventually be defined as retail. There was a concern by the Bauhaus is that our lives would be impoverished by being surrounded by things defined by economics and machines. Humans would be oppressed, living in a world where numbers ruled and destroyed beauty by the non-existence of suitable tools, or economic logic, determining that this or that was too costly to make. A dystopia where our note books, pants and buildings are made according to whatever is cheaper to source, whatever provides the factory owner with the most profit, without regard of anything else. This for the most part has come to pass. We are surrounded by mechanically produced items that have a stringent relationship to the economics of production and distribution. If it can make it cheaper, it will usually win in retail. This is the rule of Dell, Wal-Mart, they do very well.

Some companies flex these rules and reposition their combinations of commodities in a way to avoid the discussion of exchange and push the discussion where price is not the first concern. This is related to the brand-name movement, but is slightly different. This form of trade argued that their merchandise is not even a commodity and its identity AND properties outweight the sum of its parts. (The brand-name exchange mode is easier as it is just the focus on the identity, rather than both.) Apple Computers have done this from the start and Moleskine has also accomplished this. Ikea is interesting in how it inverts the premium usually associated with this form of business furniture and house wares, but on closer examination, Ikea has more in common with a lumber yard than a furniture store so is also a premium retailer.

A characteristic of this sort of business is in the details. These items are not easy to make in relation to their competition and this is obvious when one encounters these objects, they remind us of people, maybe like ourself, making the specific decisions on the quality and characteristics of that merchandise. A specific off-white paper is more difficult to achieve than bleached white, a light grey line is more difficult than cyan straight from the can, round corners on a book or programmed into a computer is a more complex task than right angles being the easiest way to cut large quantities of paper or to describe the meeting of lines. Sewing paper with a ribbon in it is harder than, punching paper and running a coil thought the holes. Having pages that are some perforated, some tapped in with a different stock is also an intervention on a assembly line process. Of course these things are still mechanically produced, but the sense, when holding them, is that there is a thought behind them. They rely on narrative to push the brand and texture to move the quality. Of course these products are compromised, all all things made in this age, but the compromises make them even more acceptable, lending to their aura. These companies make products are the fragmented ideals of the Bauhaus answering their fears with flickering humanity.

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