Monday, May 25, 2015


Thoreau: Cool your jets, man.

“Simplify, simplify!”

Today, more than ever, there’s wisdom in Henry David Thoreau’s well-known exhortation. And it applies to our domestic lives as much as anywhere else. Here’s Thoreau’s quote in its entirety:

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”  

Alas, the unstoppable wheels of marketing and mercantilism that subtly direct so much of our America lives make it damnably hard to heed Thoreau’s advice. But once we recognize that there’s only thing absolutely crucial to a contented life--namely, your good health and that of the ones you love--and all that attendant bric-a-brac of materialism quickly falls away. 

What you really, really need is a refrigerator with
an internet connection—at least,
Korean appliance giant LG hopes so.
Architects are as much a captive to rampant materialism as anyone else. After all, much of an architect’s time is spent divining and assembling collections of people’s material wants into tidy packages, whether they take the from of a kitchen, a bathroom, or a whole house. And since we’re the gatekeepers for some of the biggest expenditures most people ever make, marketers are hell-bent on trying to influence us. We’re treated to a ceaseless array of products brochures, samples, and telemarketing. As a matter of fact, in the midst of writing this, yet another sales representative telephoned to draw my attention to his product--let’s see, was it a home elevator, whole-house automation, or a fridge with an Internet connection? 

The truth is, I’m more likely to steer people clear of such products than to specify them, all the more so in this dismal economy. Yet while it’s easy to blame the marketers for creating such a cult of materialism, we Americans are far from blameless: Our overbearing sense of self-entitlement is central to the economic problems we’re now mired in: We want all that fancy stuff they try to sell us whether we can afford it or not, and we’re willing to be in hock up to our eyebrows in order to get it. Having so fully bought into the marketers siren song conflating possessions with happiness, we’ve lost perspective of how little it really takes to be happy. Or as the sage blogger Charles Hugh Smith recently pointed out regarding the relativity of our expectations: “If you’re used to living in a tent, a plywood shack seems like a luxury.”
 See that little bitty sink next to the real one?
That's the "toothbrushing sink" plumbing fixture
makers tried to convince Americans they needed.
Kohler hawked this one in 1939.

Getting people to buy things they don’t need isn’t a new idea. Back in the 1930s, one plumbing fixture manufacturer—Standard Sanitary, today’s American Standard—declared that “Cleaning the teeth in the regular lavatory is a very unsanitary practice,” and suggested that every bathroom have a separate “dental lavatory” just for tooth brushing. Sensing a new market, a few other manufacturers followed suit, but the idea didn’t fly, probably due more to the Great Depression than anything else. Yet the same clever sales strategy did eventually break through in the form of his-and-hers master bath lavatories.

Next time, we’ll look at some more recent examples of selling people things they don’t need, even though, in many cases, they cost more and don’t work as well.

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