The Substance of Style

By Catchword

October 28, 2004

The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness
by Virginia Postrel
Published by HarperCollins (September 2003)
256 pages, $24.95
ISBN: 0060186321

We have undoubtedly entered the Age of Aesthetics. Now that quality and functionality are taken for granted, we search for products that please our senses and effectively symbolize our personalities and relationships with the world. Form, color, tactile qualities, smell – and yes, names too! – contribute to our product and service experience and have a profound impact on our buying decisions.

In the thought-provoking book, “The Substance of Style,” Virginia Postrel posits that design and form do have meaning; “surface” itself has genuine value, and the “look and feel” of things, people and places are more important than we are prepared to admit. It’s time to recognize that we, humans, are less rational than some intellectuals would like us to be.

The aesthetics contribution to products’ and companies’ success is, unfortunately, very hard to measure. But the value is clearly there. Postrel cites Motorola’s decision to release a bright green pager in the early 1990’s, which sold for $15 more than the standard-issue black pager, even though the new gadget offered no technological improvements, and the plastic itself cost almost nothing. According to Postrel, “Sensory pleasure works to commercial and personal advantage because aesthetics has intrinsic values.”

Aesthetics was – and still is in some circles – seen as an attempt to create superficial distinctions, aid social rivalry and to deceive consumers. This view fails to recognize the innate human need for adornment and beauty. The impulses that influence our buying decisions today drove us to paint caves 25,000 years ago. “The paradox of aesthetics,” she writes, “is that it is at once trivial and eternal.” If you are tempted to think that it’s all trivial and meaningless, remember that the opposite is also true; after all, there is nothing left of what “mattered most” in Ancient Egypt, Mayan Empire or Medieval Europe – what remains is the artifacts, the “superficial” – design and some stories.

“The Substance of Style” offers fascinating insights into human behavior and is a captivating portrait of our culture at the beginning of the 21st century.

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