I recently wrote about schlepping my kids around in minivans [Of minivans and CO2]. In my generation, as kids, we were more likely to be rolling around in the back of a massive station wagon built in Detroit. Your family may have had one or, at the very least, you knew someone who did. They had names like Country Squire, Grand Safari or Colony Park. My favorite was the Vista Cruiser. Something that struck me as odd was that “fancy” models had wood paneling on the sides … or was it wood? That wood paneling was usually plastic formed shapes painted and, in some cases, textured to look like wood, and, finally, wood grained contact vinyl applied to the door panels. They sold loads of these things but did anyone actually think the sides were real wood? No, but it must have reminded them of the beautiful classic ‘woodies’ from the 30’s and 40’s, rolling pieces of art, hand crafted wood exposed for all to see … what was not to like? So what was the appeal of settling for a plastic copy?
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
What else in our consumer life do we fool ourselves into settling for copies knowing full well it isn’t real? Fake fur for example, what is the point? If you don’t want to kill little furry creatures, buy fake fur! But, if it is really good fake fur do people think you’ve supported the killing of said critters? If you go to the trouble of buying shoes or belts that aren’t made out of animal hides only to have them look like leather, I guess only you will know if you are supporting your particular cause or life style and everyone else will think you are wearing leather or real fur. And is it important that people know you are wearing your cause or belief literally on your foot or around your neck?
In the music world, a band like Daft Punk, for example, uses synthesizers to replicate guitars, piano and various other instruments, and takes recorded voices to alter them. Totally new musical expression that turns traditional ideas of how music is made on its head; the music is not as it seems, or is it? Is this manipulation understood and totally acceptable? If their sales figures are to be believed then I guess so, or do we ever care? Is it unsettling not to know if that is a great guitar riff or just a clever synthesized sound? Are you more or less impressed once you know how the sound was produced? And, what does that mean for your enjoyment of said music?
In the last several years we are seeing more and more fake materials, or should I say representational materials in construction. Materials made out of one thing to look like another. Plastic laminates have made great strides in faking wood; they are even moving on to simulated metal and stone. Stick a photograph of whatever on your tabletop and it has greater appeal! What happened to those great 50’s boomerang Formica patterns that looked so modern (in a 50’s sort of way). No mistaking it, the material was futurist at the time and looked it; original, something other than a copy of something else, somehow more honest (again, in a 50’s sort of way).
Recently we had a porcelain tile salesperson come to the office and show us their great new product, 5 by 10 foot panels of porcelain that could look like almost anything … even Carrera Marble! It was quite impressive, in a sort of ‘sleight of hand’ kind of way. My wife just finished a kitchen renovation that used a fair amount of real marble. It looks breath taking. The marble walls and counter tops are exquisite, presumably with the particular veining and coloration being one of a kind. But what if it had been a piece of porcelain tile with a photograph of marble embedded in it? Not real marble but a representation of it; a symbol of expensive material stuck on the wall. Potentially the exact same looking fake marble as in a thousand kitchens, no longer one of a kind, but a mass-produced product. Does that lead to better living through photography?
So what is it all coming to? Concrete that looks like limestone, cement board that looks like wood, rubber that look like slate and I am sure you could add several other products to this list. As a culture we seem to be quite content to have products that are made out of one thing look like something else, which presumably connotes a product that costs more. In chasing status is this a race to the top or the bottom as everything becomes mere imitation? Is this finally true value engineering? But what values? Sure, we get more for less, but more of what? We all get to have the expensive looking materials but really they are all fake – fake wood, fake marble, fake stainless steel. So, eventually will most everything be purely representational and, in some cases, literally a picture – just a symbol of what we value? Just like that plastic wood on the side of the Country Squire, are we all in on the joke, but nobody seems to be laughing? Living in a representational world where real is just a matter of your point of view.