You Eat With Your Eyes First

“The result is a kind of permeative mono-aesthetic—blond wood, clean lines, bright-but-soft lighting—that is designed, always, to “appeal to Millennials,” and that is inflected not just by Chipotle’s faux industrialism, but also by the design logic of Silicon Valley and Marie Kondo and minimalism. Strategically de-cluttered, devoid of flair—devoid, indeed, of any decor that might distinguish them from their fellow establishments—chain restaurants are melding, visually, into one tentacular beast. They are, en masse, going normcore…The redesigns are also responding to a culture that is renegotiating its relationship with “stuff” as a concept. More and more young people are renting homes rather than buying them; many of them simply intuit, in a way their parents cannot, the life-changing magic of tidying up. In an age defined by anxieties about the limitations of the planet’s physical resources, minimalism is a moral as much as it is an aesthetic; the “clutter” that defined so much of Friday’s traditional look, in that sense, can now whiff of self-indulgence and lazy excess.”

This article in The Atlantiwas an interesting observation on the contemporary state of dining establishments…

You Eat With Your Eyes First


It’s difficult if not impossible to divorce visual culture from material culture – both depend on each other to produce meaning: the object used in film can help convey an idea and the use of the object in film can help asseverate our idea about that object while widely spreading that message to others. In one sense, using objects in film (or in photography, art, or set making) helps create a common culture to which we can all relate (a super specific example would be Balbier’s “East German Material Culture and the Power of Memory“). With this common culture in place and the understanding of what these objects represent, we can then draw on them referentially to convey our own ideas. Objects become a common referent upon which we can all draw though it should be noted, are only accessible to cultural insiders or those indoctrinated to this shared culture (cue discourse on Saussure’s concept of the signifier and signified).

One quintessential American experience is summer camp which, if not enjoyed personally, has been experienced vicariously through television shows and movies that have taken place at camp. In any portrayal of these camps, the color schemes and materials employed in the built environment are almost always the same just like in the visual culture that the camps propagate (from real and fictionalized Native American art to the rustic lettering oftentimes made of twigs that look like ornamentation found on Adirondack furniture).

Two books come to mind in thinking about how this came to be: “A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890–1960 (Architecture, Landscape and Amer Culture) ” and “Playing Indian.”

While the books won’t be discussed here, I think they provide some great insight in addressing many questions that come to mind, mostly about the way artistic direction informs (or warps) our reality, especially in its perpetuation of an idea through film, art, plays, etc. Are summer camps built with this common vernacular to address this Disneyland-esque anticipation about what a summer camp should be? One would think so, making it no different than any art or architecture movement (cultural politics aside) in the sense that summer camp is both a place and a descriptor for a certain type of aesthetic that involves art and architecture. Further, what separates this incredibly distinct style from kitsch? Or is it kitsch?


Salute Your Shorts, 1991-1992


Heavyweights, 1995


Moonrise Kingdom, 2012


The Parent Trap, 1998



Yet another case for regional architecture.

Most interestingly, aside from boosting sales by connecting its individual stores with its regionalized customers (an old idea in the fashion industry – why roll out fall clothing to Dallasites in July), is this tidbit:

“Experts say that the localization trend reflects a desire to connect more deeply with consumers at a time when competition within the retail industry is growing fiercer.  And it is also likely a play for coveted millennial shoppers, a group that research often finds craves authenticity from their shopping experience.

Localization also may be gaining more traction now because sophisticated algorithms and other technology is making it easier to execute,  said Dick Seesel, head of consultancy Retailing In Focus.”




I recently read about the opening of Reese Witherspoon’s new store Draper James. What intrigued me was its interior design, done by Mark Sikes, who also designed her home. However, it also bears a striking resemblance to Kate Spade and Tory Burch, as well as C. Wonder (which was based off of Tory Burch). Aside from the issue of overlapping design identities, I have to wonder if this is a case of spatial gendering which is not a new concept but which is now currently being challenged (see Target’s recent move to eliminate a boys and girls section in the toy aisles) while at the same time being promoted (this case by Bain and Company shows luxury brands creating men’s only stores).

All four labels are devoted to womenswear so these spaces will be, primarily, inhabited by women. Thus, not only could we imagine women’s bodies inform the way that the space is designed like kitchens of the past and present, but also that women may begin to claim certain aesthetic touches as their own. For example, will stripes be considered ‘feminine’? Giving gender to inanimate objects to define a space for a certain gender is a curious phenomenon, if not one which has been explored before in material culture (“Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons” is a great example).


Draper James


Tory Burch


Kate Spade


C. Wonder



The new Burberry and Dior flagship stores in South Korea make the case for awe-inspiring regional architecture. Sure, they serve as totemic symbols of power for these global fashion houses who can afford these displays of wealth to sell their wares in; yet, they also make me wonder when we went from the windows of 18th century shops to standalone universes. Was it in the mid aughts? Michael Barbaro’s “Are We Shopping? Is This a Store?” from 2006 makes me inclined to think so…

Burberry in Cheongdam




Objects, Documented

Two art projects involving the documentation of every item that the artist owns is as straightforward as one can get in material culture: Refinery 29 covers the project Every Little Thing by Corey Vaughn and Emily Okada while T Magazine covers a project by Hong Hao.

The immediate questions that come to mind include the environmental impact of our consumptive habits and our consumerist culture; what our throwaway culture says about our relationships to things; and how might the digital documentation of things change our relationship to them.

The last question is, for me, the most interesting one (and the least hackneyed idea in material culture presently) because never before have we so easily been able to digitally document anything and everything, let alone easily access this record. The digital camera and how much we can store on so little a device means that we could, in theory, take the contents of our whole house with us anywhere, or at least a representation of what we own. And if we put those photos in a constant rotating gallery, would our constant reminder of things we may have seen only a handful of times otherwise make us more or less attached to them?

Ways to categorize images may even reveal different truths about our objects and ultimately about us: we could sort things by color, by category (kitchenware versus clothing), relative date of acquisition, and, perhaps, even price of object if such a functionality were ever built in to this hypothetical app. Then, like Spotify, we would know a lot more about what we buy and when and how much we typically spend (think of the value of that data to retailers!). After all, that’s in large part what material culture is: the study of stuff and what it says about us.


Every Little Thing by Corey Vaughn and Emily Okada


Hong Hao, My Things- Book Keeping of 06 B



Objects, Documented