Robin Peck, A Shallow Flight of Stairs, 2007, installation view. Photo: Scott Massey

A gloss is a brief summary of a word's meaning, equivalent to the dictionary entry of that word, but...can often specifically refer to a note made in the margins or between the lines of a book, in which the meaning of the text in its original language is explained. As such, glosses can vary in thoroughness and complexity, from simple marginal notations of words one reader found difficult or obscure, to entire interlinear translations of the original text and cross references to similar passages. A collection of glosses is a glossary (though glossary also means simply a collection of specialized terms with their meanings). [wikipedia]

If I were to compose a gloss on these terms:
1. luxury
2. collection
3. taste

But first, I need to curate a collection of 24 objects, each of which are under $100 in value, that embody the pinnacle of luxury and taste. This should flow into my thoughts on how to tackle the glosses.


Buchanan breakdown

Luxury is an inadvertent shortcut to find meaning in a transitory world.
Luxury is always socially constructed.

Desire and value comes not from an isolated individual but is the act of unconscious collusion. (208, Twitchell, “Living it Up”)

and “borrowed value” is a technique that a lot of branding companies utilize.
Proximity generates worth; in other words, value leaks.

The Stendhal Syndrome is “a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place. The term can also be used to describe a similar reaction to a surfeit of choice in other circumstances, e.g. when confronted with immense beauty in the natural world. It is named after the famous 19th century French author Stendhal (pseudonym of Henri-Marie Beyle), who described his experience with the phenomenon during his 1817 visit to Florence, Italy in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio.” [wikipedia]

But there can also be more modern equivalents to this condition.

Take for example the review I wrote about Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with Holly Golightly’s reverie’s in the store Tiffany & Co curing her of the “mean reds”:
“Not that I give a hoot about jewelry…[it’s] the quietness and the proud look of it…that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets.” (39, Capote)


The character of Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” after being overwhelmed by Gatsby’s luxurious collection of apparel:
“He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-coloured disarray…Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily. ‘They’re such beautiful shirts’, she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—beautiful shirts before.’” (98, Fitzgerald)

Whether a Golightly glow or a Buchanan breakdown, there is the emotional attachment to even the most confected displays of luxury. It is due to the concept of proximity to value. The fairytale-like stories that make our minds associate the self within the dream. Because value resides in the perception of the object, (as Rolling Stones coined the phrase) perception IS reality.

With all this in mind, I want to focus on how the story is told by the architecture that surrounds the luxury item. Much like how the ancient holy relic gets put in a box within an even more ornate box into another box on an alter until the entire church and even flying buttresses were formed, so is the story of the modern luxury item. The customer’s sense of perceived value is manipulated.

First I must define “new luxury”. Old style luxury is based on actually patina of old age. The notion of authenticity is upheld by official records. It stems from traditional roots of aristocracy and is a rare item. That is not to say it deserves to be valued more highly than other items, because as I mentioned before, it is still a socially constructed assumption. New luxury on the other hand is all in the marketing and packaging, because once the production is tied to machines and computers, you have to tell a story in order to separate it from the rest of the pack. And advertising, contrary to popular belief does not invent desire, it just expresses desire with the hopes of exploiting it over and over (157, Twitchell).

A perfect, if not too easy a target, is Ralph Lauren. In their flagship store on upper Madison Avenue, in the five story space of the gentrified Rhinelander mansion, there are make-believe coat of arms (Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Liftshitz from the Bronx), brushed-on patina, concocted heritage, machine-distressed leather chairs, etchings of sporting animals, bookshelves of husks of Victorian novels, the list goes on (185, Twitchell). Each polo shirt could hardly be distinguished between any other polo shirt except for the little emblem on the left breast. But the customers soak all of this in, like a set of a movie, only more real. And this is not to condemn Ralph Lauren’s ambitions or taste. Every “new luxury” store attempts to manufacture desire through its spaces. I want to explore which are the most effective ways, and what we can learn about ourselves (and our society) in the process.


Fendi goes east

Since this happened more than two years ago, before any signs of the recession, it is unknown whether this kind of scale of opulence can sustain itself today. But it is interesting to note how ancient history and existing architecture seeped in meaning and memory has been utilized (or taken advantage of?) in this Fendi couture runway show, by Karl Lagerfeld. Video:


how the camorra contract couture

Gomorrah: Itay’s Other Mafia
Roberto Saviano

This book is the brave exposé of the lesser-known but more prevalent mafia of Naples, the Camorra. And while it is a heartwrenching read of terrifying and TRUE stories of organized crime and brutality, there is also the most alarming issue of their globalization – the fact that their world is not isolated, but seeps into ours. So much so that even beyond the dirt (cocaine shipments and toxic waste cover-ups), the seemingly immaculate products are tainted. What I am referring to are their roles in the shipment of merchandise and, specifically, the luxury fashion industry.

Firstly, the main bulk of product shipments from factories in China come through the port of Naples: 1.6 million tons annually (of registered merchandise). But at least another million tons pass without leaving a trace. Meaning 60% of goods arriving in Naples escape official customs inspections, 20% of bills of entry go unchecked and so 200 million euros of taxes are evaded each semester. Because today, taxes, VAT, and tractor-trailer maximums are the deadwood of profit, and the true obstacles hindering the circulation of merchandise and money (15). So all this merchandise – genuine, fake, semi-fake, partly authentic – arrive silently. Because “money doesn’t stink, but merchandise smells sweet. It doesn’t give off the odor of the sea it crossed or the hands that produced it, and there are no grease stains from the machinery that assembled it. Merchandise smells of itself.” (16)

But beyond what is shipped to Naples, there is also the portion of merchandise that is made in Naples. This is the monopoly that they have over top-quality garments with the official “Made in Italy” tags. Delivering speed and quality, the factories rarely have more than ten employees. Working about ten hours a day, earning 500 to 900 euros a month, the skilled workers are actually entirely off the map. If this work were done legally, the prices would soar and the work could no longer be supported in Italy, but rather be contracted out to Asia – which Italian designers could never risk. The system is very different than regular manufacturers. There are auctions, where the number of garments, listed with the types of fabric and the quality of the articles are combined with offers of prices and times from the various bidders. For example, “800/40/2”, written on the blackboard of the makeshift meeting room in an elementary school classroom, means 800 garments, 40 euros a piece in 2 months. These auctions big Italian brands hold do not involve winners or losers of contracts. It is just those who enter or do not enter. Someone states the time and price as an offer. Others can try to match it. All who want to enter get the fabric, but only one will get paid: the one who delivers first, with top-quality merchandise. The others can keep the fabric but will not receive a single cent. When contractors start to take advantage of the system by hoarding the free fabric but fails to deliver, they get excluded from future bidding wars. And this also guarantees speed, because the pace of fashion never slows down (28). And though the factories do legitimate work, when loan money is needed, bank directors cannot loan to phantom operations, so they turn to the Camorra. And for the other contractors who entered the designer bid but did not meet the requirements, they turn to the Camorra with their merchandise to sell on the fake-goods market (29). Fake or real is a very fine line.

As the final nail in the coffin of this corrupt condition, often the best tailors do not the get direct recognition they deserve. In Japan, the tailor of the bride to the heir to the throne had a state reception in his honour. A Berlin newspaper had dedicated six pages to the tailor of Germany’s first woman chancellor, speaking of craftsmanship, imagination, and elegance (34). But in these underground factories of Arzano, Caivano, and Sant’ Antimo, “luxury” is the most relative term.



MX Reviews
(July 29, 2009)

In attendence:
Rick Haldenby, Geoffrey Thun, Jeff Lederer

-must differentiate and beware of blurring lines between luxury goods and regular goods
-need specificity, one trajectory
-bracket the investigation to a specific situation and what architecture can/cannot do -DESIGN
-different locations (las vegas, rodeo, park ave…); fashion districts?
-real estate and other causalities, profit margins (seek out Michelle van Eyk’s thesis)
-does architecture come first? Or does the product? Where do you stand?
-telling architecture something useful? Or exploring how to sell luxury goods?
-descriptive or analytical thesis?
-show patterns that are not acknowledges in architectural thought – to offer critique
-body & desirable image, product & public street
-engage community?
-question to convey – gallery? Showroom? What is the most extreme environment?

-how does the ARCHITECTURE manufacture desire? (maybe don’t get caught up in religion aspect?)
-the architecture that entices, the environment of the product
-the implication of architecture in advertising

-look at Walter Benjamin. Dehistoritize the issues
-should contact Terry O’Reilly from Age of Persuasion on CBC
-will be in contact with Dr. Katerina Ruedi Ray in early September


Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour
Geoffrey Miller

A Literature Review

Geoffrey Miller takes a stab at looking at consumerist capitalism through an evolutionary psychologist’s lens and the reasons behind why we buy to advertise our biological potential.

He talks about previous attempts:

The Wrong Conservative Model (to “naturalize” – Darwinists, globalization advocates…):
Human nature + free markets = consumerist capitalism

The Wrong Radical Model (“bio-skeptics” of Marxists, anarchists, utopians, sociologists, postmodernists…):
The blank slate + oppressive institutions + invidious ideologies = consumer capitalism

And his:

The Sensible Model
Human instincts for trying unconsciously to display certain desirable personal traits + current social norms for displaying those mental traits through certain kinds of credentials, jobs, goods, and service + current technological abilities and constraints + certain social institutions and ideologies + historical accident and cultural inertia = early 21st century consumerist capitalism (9)

Arguing that the heart of modern day consumerism is not “materialistic”, but “semiotic” It is only about the psychological world of signs, symbols, images, brands, and not the actually realities of tangible products (11). And that we are all animals, and we possess “fitness indicators” even when we are not consciously aware why these traits evolved. And by understanding the biological realities, then maybe as a society, we can come to a higher, closer, common ground between those that are pro-consumerism and those that are against it (17). Miller explicitly keeps hammering the point home that the market “holds a mirror up to our desires, creating public manifestations of our private preferences” (19) and that it is much more convoluted than the “Hierarchy of needs” set out by Abraham Maslow in the 1950s. They are often not fulfilled one step at a time.

And this faith in products is the main crux of the issue:
“It promotes a narcissistic pseudospiritualism based on subjective pleasure, social status, romance, and lifestyle, as a product’s mental associations become more important than its actual physical qualities.” (43)

The two faces of consumerist narcissism are (a) public status seeking and (b) private pleasure seeking. Miller has many entertaining lists he creates based pretty much on his own preferences and thoughts, that his breaking down of what brands signal what notions. His “Narcissism Premium for Cost-Dense Products” table is semi-insightful, but strangely obvious at the same time. He calls it “economics meets physics” but basically what it shows is how many dollars per pound a variety of different products cost, from air, tap water, and rice to perfumes, luxury watches, private jet, botox injections, diamonds, and a human egg from a donor. First of all, the cost-densities are spread all over the map – with tap water at $0.0000633 US retail per pound net weight to the human egg at $4.5 trillion US retail per pound net weight. Then there are also thresholds of pricing that split the products from basic comforts of modern life to those that are designed mainly for flaunting or faking “fitness” because actually, “living doesn’t cost much, but showing off does.” (63) And all these notions about flaunting fitness, branding, and signalling theory (90) are great. But then Miller goes on to explain, in far too much detail, the “Central Six Traits” that he finds are absolutely essential in understanding why we choose the goods and services we do. It is not only trivial and auxiliary to my thesis, but it is inconclusive by any standards, and begins a very misleading tone for the rest of the book.

I would say it was a good overview in general, but quite reductionist. There might have been aspirations to be referred to as a pop-culture phenomenon in thinking about consumerist narcissism, but what is said is often too simple and too obvious. Some of Miller’s proposed solutions are quite awful, and self-evident money-saving tips, for example, how counterfeits reveal the real “con” in the so called “authentic” product. Or his logical extremes that lack actual common sense in his Porsche example of not fulfilling it’s cost-benefits of attracting an actual mate, versus saving that money and hiring a prostitute. There is also repeated disdain for marketing professionals not tapping into basic biological needs and wants, an almost personal rant. Not to mention his idea of tattoos of measured “Central Six Traits” on everyone’s head, the most frightening idea, not actually suggested in jest. I suspect that he meant to provoke rather than actually prove anything. But after digesting it all, the angle I wanted out of this book for my thesis is very narrow. I now know that I do not want to venture into this zone of evolutionary psychology to explain luxury and why we crave it. From a design point of view, it makes us tick inside, because senseless beauty is never actually senseless.