Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Name-Brand Modern: Now or Over?

I'm all in favor of pushing the envelope, and in previous posts I've admired IKEA and Target for bringing modern design aesthetics to a wider population in a more approachable, less risky way. At the extreme of this, however, is the pre-packaging of acclaimed, agreed-upon tasteful designs into a plug-and-play "lifestyle" home. Buyers are attracted to the familiarity of a brand that they may have previously encountered in furniture, merchandise, pre-cooked gourmet meals, and fashion. But ready-made options are a convenience and not a personal expression. In the luxury market, it's becoming an increasingly expensive convenience. In the Vanity Fair Roundtable, A.A. Gill recently called New York's "high concept" condo developments marketed to the super rich antiseptically-clean "marvels of sterility". They are all haute design and no home, an "architectural catwalk" where a dwelling is as signature as someone's shoes, but it doesn't reveal their heart. Like home-style mashed potatoes in a plastic take-out tub, the comfort of these homes is encased in artificiality. The buildings generally involve large swaths of steel-supported glass, "bendy-glass-and-steel erections, with their tacky design features worn like second wives' engagement rings". I don't think Mr. Gill missed the double-meaning of the prestige that comes with occupying a signature project. Not to mention taking advantage of the building's life coach, personal training, and concierege services.

Previously intrigued with developing hotels, Ian Schrager developed plans for 40 Bond Street, where the style and theme are modern, modern, modern. 20 Pine Street The Collection (I don't kid, that's the full name) features Armani/Casa-styled interiors to provide "a couture concept in lifestyle living." What is lifestyle living? VF answers: a transitory fashion choice, a glass-fronted box where one stores one's "unexplored, unused life." Ian Schrager says, "Lifestyle is the way a person distinguishes himself or herself. It is the artistry of living....The home is the ultimate expression of lifestyle." Funny, I thought 'lifestyle' referred to sullen Goth chicks or those back-page Observer ads. Does this pre-designed lifestyle truly express the condo's occupant? Or is it just one more prop of a characatured "life"? For most folks, living creates the style, not vice-versa. While how I dress and where I live reveal something about me, how about judging me by my actions, not my sectional (even if it is a very sleek and modern art piece). Stylistic choices of expression, yes. Living a style, no thanks.

Starchitect projects are not unique to New York, either. In Dallas, there is an epidemic of high-style, luxury high rises afoot in Uptown, with Philippe Starck's House by Starck and Yoo in the Victory Project leading the name-brand cache. While the W residences, One Arts Plaza, the Azure, and the Ritz-Carlton are selling well, other planned projects (namely Maple Terraces) have been put on hold due to lack-luster sales. In New York some "starchitected" projects' offerings are moving slowly, say Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal, blaming the recent market downturn and the changing of the guard that accompanies the moving-target of of-the-moment taste and edginess. As constructions costs have risen, the investor market has shrunk, leaving luxury-quality projects to compete over fewer buyers. Don't get me started (yet) on Dallas' own Calatrava bridges.

Not to fear though, the image-seekers are still searching for the perfect statement. In the meantime, I'm going to stick with picking out stylish pieces that I like--with or without the pedigree or the price tag. And I intend on living first, and wearing Armani only if that's what's called for.

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