Mini-Cooper Cup Holder Console Set, ©2005, Mini-Stuff, Inc.
Glance through the door of any of the countless nail salons sprouting up on virtually any city block, and you'll see numerous women (and a fair number of men) getting filed, buffed and polished by people who used to be called manicurists and are now referred to by the US Bureau of Labor as "licensed nail technicians." Once a private act, nail maintenance has become a public convention, even a social norm: suddenly there's this entire subculture of people fluent in things like moisturizing and cuticle removal. Salons and their denizens are serviced by an international SWAT team of cosmeticians whose sole purpose is to beautify not your home or your office or even your face but your nails, those things that poke the Treo buttons, swirl the iPod dials and cradle all those Venti-Mocha-Double-Decaf-Skim-Lattes while you walk down the street.
The idea that things that might once have been classified as human luxuries have come to be seen as urban necessities testifies to yet another remarkable paradox of modern life. Perfect nails, it appears, are made not born. Kind of like designer coffees: beyond the nutritional question (do we really need all those beverages?) and the economic conundrum (can we really afford all those beverages?) and the truly vexing and all-too-basic issue of time (who are all these people idling their afternoons away at Starbucks, and don't they have jobs?) comes the simple notion of identity: when we're not hiding behind our nail-technician-primed hands, drinking our barrista-blended beverages, IMing, text-messaging, and push-button withdrawing more money from the ATM to pay for all of these things, who are we?
Let's start with the manicure movement. (And let me say at the outset that as someone raised by a rather frugal mother who, as a child of the depression, adamantly refused to patronize such establishments, I myself view them with a mixture of fear and glee.) Unlike, say, going to the gym, where a consistent workout might produce certain demonstrable results, a manicure is, to some, the cosmetic equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. (Or, as my dear mother used to say, throwing money out the window.) Nearly a decade ago, Virginia Postrel estimated that there were nearly 50,000 nail salons nationwide, a number has that has steadily ballooned upward. And what about the time it takes to actually sit there and submit to all that micro-attention? If you think this is indulgent, bear in mind that pedicures (that's manicures for your feet) involve sitting in electric massage chairs where a remote control offers a series of pulsating options for your weary back. And why is it so weary, exactly? From lugging around all those Venti Lattes? Fear not: the beauty industry is way ahead of you. The pulsating-pedicure chairs, it turns out, have cup holders.
Which brings me to my next observation: now that we constantly need to be drinking something, our cups when not in the direct vicinity of our hands need to take up temporary residence somewhere. Enter the cup holder, an odd sort of conical vessel that basically babysits your coffee: for a generation raised in the age of the remote control, access to a cup holder is like putting your drink on pause. Many, if not all car manufacturers pride themselves on offering cup holders adjacent to virtually every seat. It's fine in the odd sedan, perhaps, though rather a travesty in certain multiplex SUVs. (Mitsubishi's 2007 Outlander, for instance, boasts NINE of them. ) Unlike the cup console featured in the photo above, the cup holder in my car, a 2006 Mini-Cooper, resembles a miniature balcony, complete with its own railed fence. This way, I suppose, your cup gets a good view of you in the driver's seat. The best part (or the worst, depending on how you look at it) is the icon printed beside it, showing a wine glass with a line through it just in case you were considering, say, pouring yourself a nice glass of Merlot-to-go, before hitting the road.
Yet well beyond the automotive industry, you'll find cup holders in everything from boats to baby strollers to shopping carts to wheelchairs, as if to suggest that the basic, human need to self-hydrate is not only imperative, it's never more than a few centimeters away. "The Milan Cup Holder was born out of our own hands-on experience," notes Katie Dinslage, who founded CarryYou.com along with her sister Kari Northeim in 2005. "We are two moms on the go who had no place to put our drinks while pushing our upscale strollers."(What would a cup holder in a downscale stroller look like, I wonder? )
And anyway, whoever said anyone had to be drinking while strolling? As a Mom-on-the-go who managed to rear two children past toddlerhood without beverage dispensers surgically attached to our bodies, I can tell you that nobody ever had to be rushed to the hospital due to dehydration. Strollers were just strollers back then, way back in the dark ages and that was the late 1990s. We're all of us still alive and well, thank you even occasionally drinking tap water out of a glass. Clearly, I am not the target audience for this sort of thing, yet cup holders persist, manufactured for everything from folding chairs to golf caddies. They're slyly integrated into the molded plastic dashboards fronting the treadmills at my gym, neatly carved into the foam in my neighbor's swimming pool float, and if that isn't laziness-inducing enough, there are cup holders that even come to you: with a 9-volt battery and a pool, you can ferry out drinks to your friends with a remote controlled drink caddy. (Serves four.)
The bottle of mineral water, like the cup of designer coffee, is an appendage routinely spotted on many a time-pressed pedestrian. Cup holders do double duty by servicing either (though not, my car reminds me, the wine glass). Of course, in the age of tainted spinach, what we put into our bodies deserves more scrutiny than it used to, back when waiters didn't announce themselves in restaurants by querying you with "Bottled or Tap?" and there weren't hormone-laced milks on the market, making "organic" a brand by default. Sure, designer beverages might be considered a worthy antidote to the obesity epidemic, a companion to "wellness" culture and a boon to personal P.R., but as a class unto themselves, they also perpetuate a vicious circle of conspicuous consumption in which the "designer" qualification merely adds another layer of shiny nothingness. (Kind of like manicures, actually.) Don't get me wrong: I like an occasional manicure and a good cup of coffee as much as the next person sometimes even at the same time but it vexes me to think that design, in this context, is merely a support mechanism for increased comfort and added convenience.
Interestingly, while we demand certain technologies, we tend not to deify them: if anything, we become more skeptical about their reliability, and less forgiving about their imperfections. Yet where beauty and self-preservation are concerned, we're lazier, more selfish, and decidedly less objective. Obviously, nail maintenance is pretty uninteresting when you consider, at one extreme, the kind of elective plastic surgery that's been parodied into cartoon immortality by Hollywood wannabes (and boosted, no doubt, by the prurient stealth of the paparazzi). At the other extreme, are people who wear sensible shoes, file their own nails, and drink Sanka. In the middle sit the rest of us, and I'd wager that a staggering number of the people you pass on the street, in most modern cities, are alarmingly predisposed toward the former group.
Am I suggesting that to patronize a nail salon or sip the occasional latte is tantamount to the death of individuality, to the loss of the soul? Hardly. But I do wonder about this obsession with our hands, this pathological need to carry things, this apparent insecurity about being seen, drink-free, in public. I wonder about our complicity, as designers, in helping support the perception that there's an actual need for a snap-on, fold down, flip-up apparatus to hold all those indulgently oversized take-away drinks we insist upon consuming. Is it thirst, or boredom? Keeping up with the Joneses, or keeping ahead of the curve? What did all those people do with their time before they sat in nail salons? What did they do with their money before mortgaging their houses for a few good cappuccinos? What did they carry when there were no cell phones, no water bottles, no MP3 players? True, modern efficiency owes a great deal to multitasking, made possible by mobile technologies and the caffeine that supports it. Cool it may be. But is that all there is?