It’s quite possible that we are now living in the ugliest time in America’s history, even if we leave out politics, the economy, and Reality TV. I’ll admit my bias upfront; my life more closely parallels Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris (a beautiful movie, I’ll admit) than the modern man. On my best day, I don’t fit in. However, at the risk of withstanding howls of derision from myriad art students around the country, I don’t think it’s a stretch to admit that an object’s utility has finally, and perhaps rightfully, overshadowed its beauty. It’s not due to the human race’s disdain for beautiful objects, as evidenced by the throngs visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts during my recent visit. The real culprit lies in the fact that beautiful objects can no longer live up to modern man’s (and woman’s) more demanding expectations. In memoriam, I’d like to offer a few glaring examples of this sad fact.
1963 Buick Riviera vs. 2012 Buick LaCrosse
I’m a car guy, first and foremost, so I’ll start with my true love. One of my favorite old cars is the ’63 Riv, designed during the great William Mitchell’s tenure as the head of GM design. It’s a high point: swelling fenders, an eggcrate grille, and a starched-shirt crisp roofline exude early-60s swagger. It has big, rumbling V-8 power and effortless performance. Not surprisingly, it also suffers from 10ish mile per gallon “economy,” no protective door beams or air bags, an AM radio, and not a whole ton of legroom for rear seat passengers, which is difficult to imagine given its length. The 2012 LaCrosse, while sharp by today’s standards, is a plain-Jane wallflower compared to my favorite Riviera. However, it has tons of room inside, is safe, and has all the electronic interaction the modern person thinks s/he needs. Plus, its fuel mileage is more in line with a somewhat more energy conscious world. Utility over aesthetics, 2012 style.
1945 Elgin DeLuxe watch v. a cell phone
My Grandpa was a stylish man. He died when I was 18, but I still have his Elgin watch, which is the only way to tell time as far as I’m concerned. It’s so simply elegant, one can enjoy its beauty without needing to know that there’s organized chaos inside-gears and springs keeping the same time as a modern cell phone. In fact, it seems that few people wear wristwatches anymore; most of my English students sure don’t. Unfortunately for them, they are missing out on the soothing rhythmic ticking an old timepiece makes as the universe of gears meshes inside. Sadly, in my 2012 world, it’s not waterproof and a good shock will send the movement into orbit, making me at least an hour early for my appointment at the watchmaker’s, should I be able to find one.
Eames Office chair v. a modern office chair
I knew little about Charles and Ray Eames until a couple of years ago. What a dynamic couple, and what an interesting chair they designed. The fiberglass shell-everybody has seen and sat on one. It is colorful and comfortable, despite being constructed from a hard surface…fiberglass. Modern office chairs are nice, but they look like castoffs from a science fiction movie. I’m reminded of the Jetsons’ robot maid, but let’s not get into CGI v. animation. You probably know how I feel about that.
One could wax nostalgic ad infinitum about the lack of aesthetic appeal in today’s world: advertising, edifices, telephones, radios, and toasters were infinitely more beautiful in days of yore, but they weren’t always so all-encompassing, which may have left users more time to appreciate their beauty. After all, it’s tough to notice the world around while texting.