October 15, 2012

Are we living through a "comfort revolution" in design?

Here is a free WSJ article making the case for. These kinds of articles never resonate with me, probably because I have a decent memory for what the world was like before the so-called revolution.

The average person today is still wearing synthetic unbreathable fabrics during summer, sits on similarly unbreathable seat cushions, and now more than ever exposes themselves to the elements. It's like the Tasmanians, who lost an already primitive tool kit when they got separated from the Australian aborigines. Most people no longer wear gloves when it's freezing or carry umbrellas when it's pouring because -- ugh -- so formal and stuffy.

Probably the best example of truly greater comfort within the past several decades is how common air conditioning is, but that has nothing to do with design or fashion.

An over-emphasis on comfort like we have today also makes us ultimately more uncomfortable. Shocks and stressors from the environment signal to our body that it needs to allocate finite resources to building and maintaining our strength. Otherwise your body just assumes you're bed-ridden and doesn't bother with strong bones and muscles. Of course we still have to open jars, climb stairs, and other simple things. A too-pampered body will not be up to the task, so today you hear people complaining about how uncomfortable the activities of daily life have become.

We're moving too far in the direction of moving around on power scooters, and judging from those people's facial expressions, they're not happy or relieved. They look miserable, and part of that comes from wasting their body in the name of comfort.

So it's hard to sort out all of the changes in recent times, to see whether the net result is greater or lesser comfort or no noticeable change. Subjectively, though, I don't remember people complaining about how uncomfortable stuff was in the 1980s or '90s. And pain is an absolute, not relative thing. If something really is uncomfortable, people say so whenever they're doing it, like women wearing high heels. They've never said they were comfortable, never re-wired their brains to find what was expected of them to be comfortable, etc., if it actually wasn't.

As for the examples in the article, that's all just a change in tastes. When there are major shifts in tastes, people rationalize it as a liberation from the prison-like conditions of ye olden days. Architecture of the Jazz Age saw revivals of all sorts of historical styles, often fused with Machine Age principles. There was the Tudor revival, Egyptian and Neo-Classical revivals, Collegiate Gothic, and so on. But that was still too confining, the dead head of history stretching its arm from the grave to grab hold of our ankle as we try to escape.

But the architecture and other design of the Mid-Century Modern period was not more comfortable, just responding to a shift in aesthetic and social preferences -- away from pleasurable ornament and front-porch gregariousness, and toward emotionally minimalist surfaces and backyard patio seclusion.

The past 20 years have seen a re-birth of the drab minimalism and design-as-bubble-building, and it's once again being rationalized as the march of progress leading us into The World of Tomorrow, Today. And the more cocooning social attitudes are being reborn as well. Track pants and sweatshirts are not more comfortable than jeans and t-shirts. Rather, they function to say, "I don't want those bothersome boys coming up and talking to me. I have more important matters of my own to take care of, like reminding all those jealous bitches out there that I'm like so much more fashionable and sophisticated than they are." Or if male, "Welp, the girls have given up on prettying themselves up for the boys, so if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

As for cars, the other major domain covered in the article, again I think that's more of a change in preferences than an even closer match between preferences and reality. Remember how car designs cycle over time with the crime rate. To people from a falling-crime era, like the mid-century or the past 20 years, the interiors of rising-crime era cars look cramped, whether from the Jazz Age or the New Wave Age. But people during those times when they were popular felt that they were cozy, not cramped, with friends sitting close together. And they'd react with agoraphobia to the sprawling interiors of falling-crime era cars, with everyone in their own separate little world. The types of things that make people uncomfortable is not the same over time.

The same goes for color -- red and orange are not uncomfortable, let alone painful, but stimulating. The trend toward desaturated car exteriors and interiors is part of the broader shift away from anything viscerally exciting. A visitor from 1978, travelling through time in a banana yellow Stingray Corvette, would feel uncomfortable looking out at all the black, white, gray, and silver. "Hey man, didn't we, like, leave those dull 1950s behind, man?" Bummer dude -- they're back.

In fairness to the article, I think our age, and the mid-century age, probably are marginally more comfortable, although it's not so huge of a difference that everybody remarks about it, like they do for the presence vs. absence of ornament. Still, it's worth giving up a tiny amount of private comfort to make yourself more appealing and pleasing to others. I'm sure that compared to the less dressed-up mid-century, the clothing of the Jazz Age felt more fussy, just like today's cargo shorts and track suits feel less constricting than the skin-tight jeans and power suits of the Go-Go Eighties. But look at how much more engaged they were with other people, how lacking in self-consciousness they were, and how much fun they were having.

Even those far removed from office work chose to sacrifice a little personal comfort if it would make their audience connect more closely with them, like guys in a rock band wearing leather pants, and female performers being more made up than fashion models.

It's only natural for people undergoing a seismic shift in popular preferences to rationalize the attendant shift on the producers' side as a long-awaited liberation from the toil of the dark ages. But anyone trying to take stock of what happens over time has to keep in mind that what we assume to be "human nature" can change very quickly -- and back again.

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