Undesign: from Wal-Mart to the 99 Cent Store
While there is not likely to be any controversy in referring to the objects of my previous two categories, Design-Art and Design For All as design, the products found in a suburban Wal-Mart or corner 99 Cent Store in any American city may stretch the definition of design for some. Indeed, the gallons of print and myriad pixels devoted every day to Design-Art effectively drowns out any focus on the anonymous objects consumed and utilized by most Americans on a daily basis. My focus here is a brief look at the generic urban 99 Cent Store (as I know such places better than Wal-Mart or other discount retailers). Outside of the image world of Design-Art and the designer branding of Design For All, the world of everyday objects at the 99 Cent Store generally falls well below the attention of the designer, design critic or design historian.
“Undesign” is the realm of anonymous design: functional, generic, and above all, low-cost. The typical 99 Cent Store features wire racks crammed with clothes, brooms and kitchen items, clothes and accessories, towels, bedding, stationary, toys and electronic goods (including toasters, blenders and stereos), pots and pans and small furniture items. A kind of generic department store, the 99 Cent Store is a cornucopia of surplus commodities dumped together for high-turnover sales. What all of these commodities share are a particular generic, un-designer nature, poor quality, and the absence of labels. Instead of designer brand names, the 99 Cent Store emphasizes the lowest possible price and largest turnover of volume – this is the lowest base of American consumerism – a mass of cheap and disposable products that are neither environmentally nor socially sustainable.
From a design perspective, is a generic 99 Cent Store toaster without added-value, a brand name and an associated lifestyle experience, still considered an object of “design”? Without brand equity, without a sense of cultural identity, without mythologies or narratives to associate with, a 99 Cent Store toaster seems a long way from a Marc Newson Lockheed Lounge or even a Michael Graves toaster. Do such generic objects, clearly standardized, anonymous and homogeneous, thus seem somehow “inauthentic”? Do we read such industrially produced objects as simply remainders that have not yet caught up with the post-industrial image world? One thing is clear: modes of social distinction enter the picture at this point. The 99 Cent Store, at least in its New York context (the one I know best), is associated with poverty.
In thinking about the 99 Cent Store as the realm of the inauthentic, a single example springs to mind that may challenge the absence of branding point raised above: the Yankees cap. At $3.99, a fake Yankees cap from the 99 Cent Store is certainly cheaper than the authentic, MLB-licensed version, which retails for anywhere from around $25-$30 for a standard design to $50 or more for rare or special editions. The design of Yankees caps and their global ubiquity is worthy of another study. But for my purposes here, even street fashion operates in terms of designer distinctions – the expensive authentic caps are authenticated by silver holographic stickers on the brims (proudly worn on the streets rather than removed, presumably to highlight their authenticity), while the inauthentic versions at the 99 Cent Store have fake stickers (similarly silver but without the holograms). Here is design operating beyond function and clearly in the realm of branding and cultural identity, even at the 99 Cent Store. But this example is a rare exception to the absence of branding rule.
Finally, I imagine a conventional reading of design in the 99 Cent Store (if there were such a reading) would be to analyse the 99 Cent Store in terms of a “trickle-down” theory of design. In this reading, design begins at the top with Design-Art, then trickles down in diluted form to the mass department stores as Design For All, and finally, diluted almost beyond recognition, ends up in the bargain bins of the 99 Cent Store. This “trickle-down” narrative operates on three levels of differentiation: aesthetic (art, good design, utilitarian object), economic (price differentials) and historical (last year’s Design-Art is next year’s Design For All, while the 99 Cent Store is just “so last century”). While designers, design critics and historians are generally focused on the discourses surrounding Design-Art and, to a lesser extent, Design For All, design at the lowest level of consumerism is ignored. Beyond “trickle-down” theories of design, it may well be time to start rethinking design from the bottom up.
Photos of 99 Cent Stores, Brooklyn, NYC, by D.J. Huppatz