At the base of this erection was a rectangular piece of blue cardboard, representing a temple with porticoes, colonnades, and stucco statuettes all around in little niches embellished with gilt-paper stars. Above it, on the second storey, stood a castle-keep or donjon wrought in Savoy cake, surrounded with diminutive fortifications in angelica, almonds, raisins, and bits of orange; and finally, on the topmost level of all, which was nothing less than a verdant meadow where there were rocks with pools of jam and boats made out of nut-shells, was seen a little Cupid balancing himself on a chocolate swing, the posts of which were tipped with two real rosebuds. – Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
d** * *
The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center is one of the large, ugly buildings in New York City that, despite it’s enormity, manages to inspire almost no one’s curiosity – an entire block of riverside property devoted to reflective glass and no one to wonder what goes on behind it. What happens within those 675,000 square feet is anyone’s guess, but I don’t think anyone is guessing. It’s glass walls hold many secrets, but they’re far too boring to qualify as mysteries.
If one had wandered into the Javitz Center last weekend armed with a questionably obtained access badge, one might have uncovered one of those secrets: NY Now, formerly known as the New York International Gift Fair and one of the world’s major home and lifestyle trade shows. Twice a year buyers and sellers from across the world come together here to exchange pleasantries, business cards, and flashy products that middle-class Americans will one day, despite their best interests, purchase. This is where Pier 1 finds the rustic pillowcases and Oriental lanterns that every home desperately needs. This is where your favorite independent bookstore discovers the clever monthly planners that it will someday sell to you when you’re unhappy and trying to reorganize your life. This isn’t where it all starts, but it is where it all comes together.
Most Americans operate under the principle that their home-furnishing budget is best spent on the cheap and the functional. The home and lifestyle industry sets out to obliterate this logic. For example: most consumers don’t know it yet, but in a year or so they will discover that every office needs miniature suctioned arches to hold down and organize errant electronic cords, and that they will need to have these in bronze. Trade shows exist to make this into a reality. The manufacturer introduces the cable holder to the retailer; the retailer purchases the cable holder at wholesale price and sells it to his customers. Neither the manufacturer nor the retailer believes in the product, but they both know that the customer will and smile excitedly on his behalf. All of this happens out-of-sight from the general public, probably mercifully — like child slavery and the intricacies of sausage making, the trade show is part of the consumption process that no one ought to think about too much. If one did, he wouldn’t have half of the amazing stuff that now occupies his upper-middle-class counter space: whiskey stones, insulated brown paper bags, mason jars filled with burnt pieces of wood.
“What’s this here?”
“It’s a water purification system. It’s based on the traditional Japanese charcoal-infusion method. It produces the cleanest possible water in an all-natural process that doesn’t employ chemicals or affect taste.”
“It’s a mason jar with a stick in it?”
“It’s a sealed container with an oak branch cooked at the ideal temperature for water purification and brought to a state that is perfectly sanitary and, as you can see, almost like glass.”
“Oh, I see.”
“They sell very well.”
NY Now is divided into sections, each of them endless and hopelessly overwhelming. At the far end is the high-minded “Accent On Design,” where cleverness and artistry come first. Nearby is the “Home” section, where cleanliness reigns supreme and buzzwords like ” quality” are met with an interior smirk. Within the “Home” section are the bedding, bath, and kitchen subsections. I like the kitchen subsection the best: these are the booths that give away free food and liquor. You couldn’t live off of trade show giveaways, but you could skip lunch if you scrounged hard enough and ate a healthy breakfast. The champagne, sadly, is reserved for real customers. It’s easy enough to sneak off with a cheese display and a handful of crudités, but to earn a glass of wine requires a serious interest in the wine glass.
The lower level is a livelier realm, home to cheap gifts, holiday decorations, and competing plastic menorah manufacturers. Down here everyone knows that their product is junk and just has a good time selling it.
“Where do you do your manufacturing?” I asked the teenage girls from Glitter Toos who insisted on giving me an ombre skull and crossbones on my wrist.
“Right here!” they shouted. “We’re the only glitter tattoo company that’s made in America!”
“Hmm. When I’m looking for wholesale glitter tattoos, I’ll be sure to come to you.”
The downstairs is also home to hundreds of Orthodox Jews. In the front lobby and on the sidewalk outside they stick to themselves, but here they smile and welcome you to their booths with open arms. “Hello, welcome, what are you doing here?” shouted a thick-set man with a heavy Brooklyn Yiddish accent and peyos, pointing at my ambiguous “STAFF” badge.
“I’m not really sure.”
“It’s okay, yeah? You’re here to have fun, am I right?”
“That’s right. Let’s have some fun.”
He showed me his collection of jeweled hair clips while his conservatively dressed daughter eyed me suspiciously. I asked him what he did for the company. “I design, I sell, you know? It’s not jewelry, it’s more functional, it’s practical. You know what I mean?”
I supposed I knew what he meant.
“Yeah, right. Ha! Now go off and keep having fun. Come back if you’re looking to have some more.” He grabbed my hand and sent me on my way. His daughter shook her head and laughed.
Back upstairs and searching for more food, I came across what I thought was a massive display of immaculately constructed cupcakes. The peach wedges tucked into their frosted swirls gleamed in the fluorescent light. I fingered the small bits of thread that stuck out above the maraschino cherries.
“Are these – ?”
“They’re artisan candles,” said the salesgirl impatiently. “Made in Italy by some of the best candle-makers in the world. They come in fruit bowls, cupcakes, and whole cakes.”
I picked one up and sniffed it. “Does this smell like chocolate?”
“Yes,” she said, trying as hard as she could not to roll her eyes. “The peach cupcakes sell best.”
I felt my stomach twist in wounded agony. What would possess anyone to buy these? What sort of masochism does this brand of luxury require? I looked up to ask the salesgirl how much they cost but she had already moved on, bored. I stood there, alone, lost between Brooklyn-themed “buttah” dishes and American flag-shaped pancake flippers. Someday maybe soon I will be married with a home and children and dinner guests and I will learn that the only thing that I need to complete my sideboard is a chiseled pile of colored wax in the shape of a mocha almond coffee cake. But here, right now, I am alone and surrounded by things in there basest, most material form, pretty, un-buyable, and absolutely useless.
I fell into despondency. I wandered up and down the aisles, stopping only to look at hammered steel knives and hideously gilded pillow covers. To die here by my own hand, with a marble-handled Lagioule in my chest wrapped in faux-damask bedding. It would be so morbidly unromantic. I came across a booth selling clocks with fogged glass faces that made the hands all but indiscernible. “Nobody really needs a clock,” read the product blurb on the wall.
“I like your motto,” I said to the pretty brand rep. “It’s very honest.”
“Yes,” she said, “I’m glad our philosophy speaks to you. We think design is very important, and these actually come at a very affordable price point.”
She is paid to say this, I told myself. She has a soul and she’s just temporarily sold it. This is not the real world. She cares about something and this just isn’t it. Everyone cares about something. Sometimes that something is the product one is selling. Right now is not that sometime.
The best stupid thing I saw was a hollow plastic polar bear/centipede hybrid with a removable head that one could fill with water to make ice cubes. The stupidest stupid thing I saw were a set of stone pearls designed to keep white wine chilled, presumably necessary if one doesn’t own a refrigerator. “They make a good complimentary purchase with our whiskey stones,” said the rep.
“What makes your whiskey stones different from the whiskey stones they’re selling over there?”
“The packaging is different.”
I walked over to the whiskey stone booth over there. “Do you believe in this product?” I asked.
“I should hope so! I work for this company.”
Is there any integrity left in the home and lifestyle industry? What happened to the days when people were inventing appliance garages and banana hooks and electric juicers and all the other things that make modern homes what they are today? All of those innovations, replaced by vapid sales pitches and cute, worthless junk. This is the end of civilization. This is Nero’s carnival. There is no goodness, there is no hope. Too much is beautiful and too little hurts.
In the back of the Accent on Design section, tucked into a back corner and segregated from the rest of the show, is row of tables under the heading American Design Club, or AmDC. It’s run by a group of well-dressed young people with grubby hair who ten years ago would have been leaning against the wall smoking cigarettes and scowling at every clipboard-carrying gift shop owner that stormed by. Today they do their best to look amicable and stand up mostly straight. Their products are some of the most useless on the floor: wooden cones painted to look like trees, wing-shaped gold rings, idiosyncratic bottle openers.
Kiel Mead, the best-dressed young person with the grubbiest hair standing most in the corner, seems to be the man in charge of this racket, and when I went to speak to him he turned to me with a hint of genuine interest. AmDC, I learned, is a Brooklyn-based collective of rotating young designers who collaborate to get their work into major trade shows. What matters most to AmDC is that the products they put out are thoughtfully made and genuinely original — one of their cleverest products is a baseless champagne flute embedded in a Collins glass that not only looks cool but also keeps your drink cooler than normal glassware (lukewarm wine is a major concern for the leisure class, it seems). Joining the club requires innovation more than mass-market appeal, and everyone in AmDC is closely involved in the designing, production, and selling of their products.
This isn’t a particularly new company philosophy and I asked Kiel if he really believes in it. “You’re selling useless stuff that no one needs and that most people can’t afford,” I said. “Why is that worth it?”
“We think that you should love everything you own,” he said. “It doesn’t just have to be useful; it has to be made by someone who really cares about what they’re making, how it’s made, how it looks, how you’ll interact with it. Like this” — he reached back and grabbed a contorted metal wall hook — “this” — what a gloriously objectified this — “doesn’t have to be this way, but it’s made that way, and it’s beautiful, and we want you to appreciate that and to love it.”
He seemed to be good at what he was saying, as if he’d said it plenty of times before. But he also seemed to believe it.
“Do you like these events?” I asked.
He smirked. “I mean, you’ve got to. But really, it’s great to interact with the people who will eventually be selling what we’re making. I think it’s important as a buyer to have a relationship with the creator, and to have someone who cares about the product that they’re selling to you, for you to have a good buying experience and for you to be able to say, oh, I know who made that. It builds community, and it’s neat to be here and be a part of that.”
“Is everyone here full of shit?”
“No. Really, they’re not. I mean, yeah, there’s some people, yeah, who are just trying to put in hours and get their paycheck. But really, there’s some great stuff out there, and it’s exciting to interact with it.”
I left the AmDC booth feeling okay. They seemed to be more full of shit than anyone. But it was redemptive shit. I could get behind that shit. I wouldn’t mind being full of that shit. I looked around at everything around me, from the made-up sales reps to the scowling European buyers to the wig-wearing Orthodox Jews, all with pockets full of business cards and clipboards full of sales, throwing money that will someday be someone else’s from plastic into plastic and pretending, just for a second, that everything could just be pretty. Burnished brass and recycled paper and painted bamboo and laminated wood and blue grey carpet and reflective glass. A million different forms of this, all of it spent and ready to be spent again. Maybe someone along the way loves all of it.
Probably not, but maybe. It was time for me to go. I took one last look at the coffee cake candle before I left. What a disaster that would look like melted. All that money wasted away, and no opportunity to burn it.