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Jessica Helfand

My Cup Holder Runneth Over



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?

Posted in: Cities + Places, Culture, Ideas, Product Design

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Comments [46]
It is iPod, not Ipod. How someone so obsessed over design minutiae could get a massively popular icon's name so wrong baffles me.

What *is* it with people mis-naming Apple (the company name is not Mac) products? It is Mac, iPod, iMac, Xserve not MAC, Ipod, i-pod, Imac, i-Mac, i-mac, xServe.

[Editor's Note: Correction made. Thanks.]
Neo
10.22.06
02:51

"What did all those people do with their time before they sat in nail salons?"

Some other damn fool thing, I expect. Or else they spent all that time *walking* to school! In the *snow*, at least *six*, no *seven* feet of it!
Allan
10.22.06
03:22

Jessica: Mitsubishi's 2007 Outlander, for instance, boasts NINE of them. [cupholders]

...and according to Autoweek, it seats seven people.
Su
10.22.06
06:40

Terrific post... this tale is largely apocryphal: in the US, Mercedes Benz were losing market share. They were informed that their cars didn't have (enough?) cup holders. Benz insisted that they wouldn't add more cup holders to their cars. 'Mercedes Benz are world-class, finely-honed machines/vehicles for driving, not for drinking caffè lattes in', they insisted. Finally they relented, added more cup holders... and sales went up.
Andrew Haig
10.22.06
07:11

Well said! I have been thinking about this for a while. I also wonder what it would be like if we had to get rid of our trash like my grandparents do out in Wyoming. Right now, we just toss all of those venti cups in a can on the sidewalk, and someone else digs a hole for them to die in.
I like to think of everyone having to dig their own whole in the backyard. Oh how we might conserve a little more!
Able Parris
10.22.06
07:45

Today the NYT Arts page ran an article on "The Starbucks Aesthetic". Leveraging the trust theyve gained in their brand as a coffee selector, Starbucks now wants to be a cultural arbiter as well by featuring movies, music, and books in their retail outlets that fit within the coffee giant's brand message. The NYT article carries a tone of apprehension regarding the coffee corporation imparting its tastes to american consumers, but I wonder if its that the NYT felt insecure about its own position of cultural authority; judging from Starbucks' multi-billion dollar sales, far more people in this country are aware of what the featured CD at Starbucks is than what novel the latest New York Times Book review is featuring. Perhaps a co-branded effort between the coffee giant and the Times is in order.

Who are we after all the manicures, coffee, and designer cars? Aren't we (most of us) searching for some way to participate in the 'good life'? There's nothing wrong with wanting to feel more relaxed, more luxurious, more beautiful. It's a search for pleasure and status. Comforts are more widely available these days, why shouldnt everyone be allowed to participate in it without lapsing into Protestant guilt over material excess?
manuel
10.22.06
08:34

Perhaps the answer to "who we are" is: people who have been trained (and who turned out to be highly trainable) to do more than one thing at a time. For instance, one rarely sees anyone walking anymore without that same person doing something else simultaneously (talking on the phone, eating, listening to an mp3 player, etc., etc.). I was remembering back to when I was a kid and I would always read in front of the television. My mother thought this was crazy behavior and would chide me to pick one or the other activity. Now, it bugs me to see my daughter "just' watching television: if she isn't doing something else while the tv is on, it looks to me like sloth (until I think about it, and then I don't quite know who's got the problem). While I don't have an explanation for nail salons (they may be one of those things that's been affected by immigration policy as much as anything else) I think the same urge to multi-task is behind the cup-holder phenomenon - why not hydrate while being stuck in traffic? Hell, why not hydrate and check your e-mail? Which makes me wonder: can you still get a ticket for reading the newpaper while you are driving, or is that just too old-school for law enforcement ? (I have some experience with this one). And: is it really about pleasure and status, or is there something more Pavlovian at play once the behavior is set?
lorraine Wild
10.23.06
01:30

Checking to make sure I get this right: material culture is robbing us of our souls?

This from a design blog, written and read by the very people that create live to manifest material culture in the first place?

People filter out almost 100% of the options that surround them. We curate a very neat set of objects and experiences to call our own. These materials and experiences are the most sincere indicators of the emotions we desire and the lives we are trying to rehearse. Proctor and Gamble doesn't make a dozen brands of soap because they work differently, they do it to help us fulfill the narratives we are inventing about who we are.

So what exactly is the concern here? All of the things mentioned (MP3 players, complex coffee drinks, water bottles, and especially nail care) just happen to be icons of massive amounts of consumer choice and self-identification. Within those parameters alone we are creating stories about what album we're listening to, what concoction we're sipping, what forms and materials we want to drink from, and what hyper-specific color of nail polish we choose. Or maybe we choose no any coffee at all but instead a tea, or soda, or energy drink, or juice blend, or identical bottled water with different phonologies in the name and different forms to hold the liquid. Or tap water.

I suspect that our gripes with material culture come from other concerns, like the landfills that hold coffee cups and the oil fields from which we make plastic water bottles. But if we are going to bring material culture and environmental concerns to the same discussion, let's realize that we can design to satisfy both.

Give material culture it's chance to speak, it has a lot to say.
Zach Rose
10.23.06
02:09

"Is it thirst, or boredom?"

It's the constant haste and stress. (and nicotine is so out...)
Marko Lokas
10.23.06
04:40

Regarding cupholders attached to everything, especially prominent in cars, a few years ago Malcolm Gladwell (I cannot believe I am bringing this guy up) wrote a good piece about consumers' perception of safety in automobiles and how it often conflicts with actual safety. He quotes a cultural anthropologist, G. Clotaire Rapaille, who is hired by automakers for "getting beyond the rational—what he calls "cortex"—impressions of consumers and tapping into their deeper, "reptilian" responses." Here's a long quote, emphasis will be my own:

There should be air bags everywhere. Then there's this notion that you need to be up high. That's a contradiction, because the people who buy these S.U.V.s know at the cortex level that if you are high there is more chance of a rollover. But at the reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller I'm safer. You feel secure because you are higher and dominate and look down. That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion. And what was the key element of safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That's why cupholders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cupholder, it is not safe. If I can put my coffee there, if I can have my food, if everything is round, if it's soft, and if I'm high, then I feel safe.
-the full article
Steve Hsu
10.23.06
09:12

This post touches the heart of the conundrum of most designers. The very existence of our profession (be it graphics, user interface, industrial design and so on) depends on a material, consumerist culture, and unfortunately, good design (and paticularly 'bad design') will more often reflect a society's desires than redefine them. I doubt a designer working on an automotive interior feels there is a need for 9 cup holders for 7 passengers - yet I am sure someone on the project team said, "surveys indicate most adults will want a cup holder for their coffee, one for their water, and probably a third for their cell phone - add another cup holder." Feature-creep is no longer a software term but it has become the phrase that best describes the desire for "MORE" everything. Thanks for the post.
Peter
10.23.06
09:33

Reading this post had me thinking about comparing different behaviour and priorities both contrasted by eras and generations and also through the tinted window of nostalgia.

Reading the comments, and some of the defensive tones therein, took me aback. Plus ca change plus ca la meme chose, I guess. Every generation goes through some level of rejection of their parents' mores, values, taboos, etc. One method of doing this is through defining 'new' self-images. Looking at living memory, though, at the cycles of this rejection/re-invention over the past 100 years, I see the differences tied more to the state of our society at a given time that to the direct generational connection.

My own inclination, also, is to look at such changes and ask why. Here's another question. Why do so many people respond to the question why as though it presages judgement? Do we learn that mostly from our parents? or through academia's structured form of teaching philosophical debate?

Vera
Vera Bass
10.23.06
09:34

This post touches the heart of the conundrum of most designers. The very existence of our profession (be it graphics, user interface, industrial design and so on) depends on a material, consumerist culture, and unfortunately, good design (and paticularly 'bad design') will more often reflect a society's desires than redefine them. I doubt a designer working on an automotive interior feels there is a need for 9 cup holders for 7 passengers - yet I am sure someone on the project team said, "surveys indicate most adults will want a cup holder for their coffee, one for their water, and probably a third for their cell phone - add another cup holder." Feature-creep is no longer a software term but it has become the phrase that best describes the desire for "MORE" everything. Thanks for the post.
Peter
10.23.06
10:23

Too add to what Peter said:
I would take it even one step further with the 7 passengers / 9 cupholder example. The surveys indicate not that the potential buyer has need for 9 cupholders, but the idea of having 9 cupholders is really what they are after. People will actually turn to their spouse when trying to decide between two vehicles and say, "Yeah sweetie, but this one has 9 cupholders!". They will do that, it is ludicrous when you are speaking of something like a vehicle, but it does happen! Then afterwards how many people will you find actually using all 9 cupholders even on a semi-regular basis? I bet half or more of the cupholders will be filled with empty bottles, loose change, and trash almost indefinitely after the first couple months.

I don't believe it has anything to do with function but rather an ideology. Once the option is offered, the general consumerist will then subconsciously decide that they need that option, denying the reality that the option will go unused. How many soccer moms who live in suburbia have ever used the 4 wheel-drive option on their Ford Explorer? But at the time of purchase their minds were able to fabricate many scenarios that would almost definitely come into play, and since it's offered, why not?

If there is an option, we will go for it, not because we need it, but because we can manifest a need for it.
ryan
10.23.06
12:07

"What did all those people do with their time before they sat in nail salons?"

The worked.

With their hands.

And they read and painted and cooked and entertained friends and sewed and tended home/farm/children/animals. Not that I would want to be on a farm, plowing behind a mule...or even eating my own cooking, for that matter.

I am always suspicious of a designer with a fancy manicure. (Don't they do any art? Or work?) I have flashbacks to the time I brushed eraser crumbs off of a just finished, fairly complicated mechanical, only to find streaks of Candy Apple Red across the whole piece. (For those who don't understand the ramifications—that was a day of work and several hundred dollars in typesetting.) Rubber cement thinner took care of first the nails and then most of the damage.

Now I assuage my Protestant guilt at perpetuating this culture with an abundance of pro bono work and the dream of a day when I, too, can replace my ancient Volvo with one that has at least ONE cupholder.
Michelle French
10.23.06
02:02

> Is it thirst, or boredom?

My take on the constant need to have a beverage on hand has more to do with the comfort derived from it: a never-ending stream that feeds an infantile oral fixation (hey, I hear Freud is back in fashion, so I'm going with it). We are so overwhelmed by the onslaught and complexity of the world that surrounds us that we need a constant drip of something to act as an emotional and physiological buffer, a simple solution that helps keep us in our happy place.

Next logical design evolution: 100% biodegradable, recycable nipple-shaped tops for those coffee cups.
Nancy Broden
10.23.06
03:03

I see the need to carry a security beverage in public as a healthier (albeit not yet "healthy") outgrowth of cigarette culture.

Both are props -- both may be employed manually as an expressive foil in conversation, both are signs of consumer solvency that may potentially indicate to some degree one's means, and both perform that unconsciously self-conscious duty of social anode, drawing a small degree of others' attention away from oneself and into what they're holding.

Different social props perform these various functions to different degrees: an iPod is less foil and more means (and anode), while a cell phone varies widely depending on shape (determining ease of foil use) and social perception of a particular model (means and anode).

Thanks for the thought-provoking article.
Clayton
10.23.06
05:42

—In Africa obesity is rare, but 16 million people have died of "slim" (AIDS).

—Women have their nails painted at curbsides by roving boys for a few shillings.

—Coffee is grown for cash, but seldom drunk by locals.

—Only luxury vehicles have cup holders, and these are used to hang laundry.

—People have little power, including electrical, but they don't suffer material-based identity crises.
david stairs
10.24.06
05:16

Oh, and nobody's ever heard of Mini-Cooper.
david stairs
10.24.06
05:18

Am I the only person who gets perverse pleasure out of misspelling marketing terms? Particularly Immac for iMac. Really makes feel like I'm getting one over the suits, who I imagine originally pitched their lowercase letters and needless punctuation as 'funky' and 'irreverent', and then impose them on other people like the facist maniacs they actually are.
Hans Roland
10.24.06
08:22

I was going to respond to Manuel at the obvious risk of sounding like the idealistic hippy, but looks like David Stairs beat me to the punch.

"Comforts are more widely available these days, why shouldnt everyone be allowed to participate in it without lapsing into Protestant guilt over material excess?"

The guilt isn't religious. It's global. While consumer culture begs for more cupholders for whatever reason, there are people in the world begging for a house that won't wash away in the rain, or perhaps more than a loaf of bread or bowl of rice to feed their families for a day. And I'd make a strong wager to say that these people work a lot harder than anyone here does, and get a lot less for it.

I'm no socialist, but the distribution of wealth on this planet is just a little too uneven for us to be complaining in any way, shape, or form about our cups and their holders. Thanks to David for bringing a little perspective to this subject.
John Ellis
10.24.06
10:08

John and David, You're both right — though sad that one has to travel all the way to Africa just to notice that the ubiquity we take for granted in sophisticated, urban environments is anything but. Personally, I live in a rural area, and these behaviors strike me as a kind of, well, tribal in their own way: instead of fetishizing spiritual emblems or worshipping iconic figures or even revering deities, we bow unthinkingly to the material. I chose to critique cup holders but mobile phones are nearly, if not more bizarre. I should add here that because I live in the country, my cell phone only works when I travel: ergo, I'm not accustomed to having it pinned to my ear whenever I'm walking down the street. Ditto the beverage addiction. I'm not trying to sound like a purist, but these things are extraordinarily noticeable when you don't live in a city and then travel to one. (I am reminded of the three-frame New Yorker cartoon: in the first frame, a man is getting on a subway with a cell phone to his ear, and speaking into it, he says, "I'm getting on the train." Frame two: he's on the train, and into the cell phone he says, "I'm on the train." In the third frame he exits the train, saying into the cell phone, "I'm getting off the train.")
jessica Helfand
10.24.06
10:25

Is that all we are?

No.

But that is how people think they can define themselves and add value and meaning to their lives.

It is an empty box.

True value comes through relationships with people. People is who we are and how we are defined.

Rather than letting who we are give us our identity. We are advertised into thinking that objects will give us identity.

Advertising knows this. That is why ads have happy people in them, having fun togeteher. We think, if we buy the product we will be happy with other people too.

Next time, don't buy the coffee. Buy a board game and invite some new friends over and "interact" with a human being.
Nathan Philpot
10.24.06
12:05

Is that all we are?

No.

But that is how people think they can define themselves and add value and meaning to their lives.

It is an empty box.

True value comes through relationships with people. People is who we are and how we are defined.

Rather than letting who we are give us our identity. We are advertised into thinking that objects will give us identity.

Advertising knows this. That is why ads have happy people in them, having fun togeteher. We think, if we buy the product we will be happy with other people too.

Next time, don't buy the coffee. Buy a board game and invite some new friends over and "interact" with a human being.
Nathan Philpot
10.24.06
12:08

Mini-Cooper? What happened to the Land-Rover? :)
Kevin
10.24.06
12:53

Jessica,

You bring up a good point about the cell phones, that even involves Nathan's comment. People spend however many hundreds of minutes out of their monthly plan narrating their mundane life activities ("I'm buying a cup of coffee...I'm drinking my cup of coffee...I'm trying to figure out which of my 9 cupholders to put my cup of coffee in...I'm done with my cup of coffee...?") - not quite the interaction that cellular life is capable of providing, or that Nathan (and myself) would rather see.

Now that I think about it, this whole discussion is reminding me of George Carlin's "Parental Advisory" album, which I just listened to last night.
John Ellis
10.24.06
02:32

As a Mom-on-the-go who managed to rear two children past toddlerhood without beverage dispensers surgically attached to our bodies.

Ok, not the point, but all I could think of when I read this was breastfeeding.

You had to have yours surgically attached?
JB
10.24.06
02:47

With the new X5, BMW answers one strong request from its U.S. marketing team — "please demonstrate that BMW can execute a cupholder" to U.S. tastes:

Link

thinctank
10.24.06
03:09

Another aspect with this observation of societal craving for holding drinks is of an ethno-cultural nature.

I have noticed the people around my area carrying hot drinks (in general) seem to be White and that Blacks, Latinos, Asians or others either do not carry these items or may be seen carrying other types of drinks or objects, more prevalently fast food cups or cans of soft drink, where as Whites usually carry only coffee.

It's interesting seing what brands and societal icons appeal to different groups of people (in general terms) and how these "props" or branded objects tend to overtly define and perhaps even culturally enforce (through peer pressure)consumer preferences for a certain group.
de
10.24.06
03:52

On the far end of the rural-to-urban spectrum, I live in New York City and can't remember ever seeing a cup holder in the back of a taxi. And drinks are supposedly outlawed on buses and subways. Am I lucky or missing out on all the fun?

Thank you, by the way, to everyone who goes to the trouble and expense of getting a manicure. Secondhand smoke rarely bothers me, but tormented cuticles, like a bad haircut, can truly offend.
Arch Garland
10.24.06
05:47

I dont think the guilt is religious, but I do think its cultural (which some may argue is the same thing). Consumerism and materialism arent necessarily the same as waste. The goods/services and their accesibility mentioned in this thread are only manifestations of an affluent society. Affluence isn't necessarily limited to urban areas, and in fact, in the Northeast, surrounding 'commuter' towns, like those found in Connecticut for example, are proportionally much richer than urban centers. You don't have to go very far to find people who are wanting, nor to find extreme economic stratification.

If manicured nails, coffee, and cellphones with bluetooth capabilities are signs of a consumerist and specifically urban culture, its also worth noting that in an urban center like New York City, inhabitants deplete far less energy resources than the average American. This is mostly due to the transportation system here which allows one to exist without having to own a car, and the smaller (tho more expensive) living quarters.

I'm not sure where DE is from, but I see Asian, Latino, and African people serving, buying, drinking, and carrying coffee all the time. And not every single Caucasian I see is carrying a cup of coffee. DE's assumptions based on his/her observations various groups' behavior in relation to coffee are absurd. The language DE is using relates more to class than race.

Speaking of class, design, and coffee, Magic Johnson's initiative to bring Starbucks to the inner city is something that I would consider a commendable use of spreading consumerism. Whatever elitist views we may hold about Starbucks and corporate sponsorship of progressive causes, you can't deny that 1.) they have a very good product, and 2.) they manage to create a face-to-face community that surrounds that product. Where this sort of face-to-face community is lacking, like in suburban America for example, Starbucks manages to create a community in their outlets where people take the time to hang out with one another.
manuel
10.25.06
01:12

You know, i love art and design, but this is the equivalent of sitting around contemplating our navels. It is very American to wax on about cup holders and very Routledge to believe that it has any significance in the world.

I vote for struggle. We ought to spend a few years in poorer countries wondering when the UN will drop another bag of rice in our laps.

We're 4 to 5 percent of the world population and consume 26 percent of it's energy.

Honestly, could our heads be further from the ground?
Raymond
10.25.06
11:59

Actually, one needn't travel all the way to Africa to see poverty and destitution. 37 million people in the U.S. are considered to be living in poverty. That's 12.6 percent.

What does a Starbucks latte cost? How about an Apache helicopter? A B-2 bomber?

$337 billion have been spent in Iraq.

Perspective: it isn't just a Renaissance invention.
raymond
10.25.06
12:13

Hmm... maybe this is a replacement for smoking? All of the things you describe seem to point to it. If people truly feel out of place without their water bottle. If they just want to be sure that they'll always feel hydrated. If they get some sort of contenment out of constantly knowing they won't be thirsty. That really reminds me of why people smoke. It gives you something to do in public. "I'm *sip* waiting for someone and *hard gulp* they're running really *sip* really *sip* late."
Tim
10.25.06
01:54

"Feature creep" is the real design killer here. The cup holder attached to the stroller is just one of many features that have turned a simple rolling child carrier into a mini SUV worthy of a cross-country trek. You see people with these things in malls, loaded up like they were leaving home for months. A couple of tubes and it could double as a life-support system.

Companies have figured out that a longer list of features implies a better "value". It's up to consumers to realize that less really can be more.

The classic example of feature creep, Microsoft Word, should be seen as a cautionary tale for product designers everwhere.
janemar
10.25.06
02:57

To Manuel:

"DE's assumptions based on his/her observations various groups' behavior in relation to coffee are absurd. The language DE is using relates more to class than race."

True, my point was possibly more centered around 'class' and how consumerism breaks out accordingly, but I would think that you as a poster who seems educated about the world would reserve a comment such as 'absurd'. Please, this is not a knife fight. No one's idealistic philosphy is at stake.

Your example of Magic Johnson doing "charity" work in inner cities to get 'everybody' hanging out in coffee shops seems to support the idea I was musing.

thanks
de
10.25.06
06:44

By all financial and marketing measures, Starbucks makes a good product. But here in Seattle, serious coffee afficianados wouldn't be caught dead holding a cup with the Siren logo, let alone sipping from one, regardless of the state of their manicured (or not) nails. There are independent coffee shops here that put Starbucks to shame; it really has become the fast food of coffee. Most of their espresso machines are automatic now (although the one in Seattle's Madison Park neighborhood, where Howard Schultz lives, is a manual La Marzocca because he prefers his shots hand-pulled).

And Jessica, in case you're interested, here's another piece of Starbucks trivia: if you were to order the drink you mentioned (Venti-Mocha-Double-Decaf-Skim-Lattes), it would be called out as a 'Decaf Venti Nonfat Mocha' or 'Decaf Venti Nonfat Latté', depending whether or not you wanted chocolate added. They employ a very specific order when calling their drinks. One thing they do have in place are great systems and logistics. :)

I generally have an espresso in my hand every morning, but I only allow myself two shots of caffeine per day. And I wouldn't really miss the cupholders in my car; as an urban-dweller, I walk everywhere.

And in response to Manuel's inquiry: "Comforts are more widely available these days, why shouldnt everyone be allowed to participate in it without lapsing into Protestant guilt over material excess?"

Because it's not sustainable, that's why. If the entire world population enjoyed the standard of living that Americans do, we would have exhausted our collective natural resources by now.

For more on sustainable design, read Cradle-to-Crade: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough.
Callie
10.26.06
12:26

Another aspect with this observation of societal craving for holding drinks is of an ethno-cultural nature.

I can't agree more: here in France we have to shift gears manually, thus always need both our hands. As a result we almost never use cup holders, because we never drink and drive.

But it's interesting for my french-based culture to hear about all this :)

(an illustration of the cultural basis needed to understand the stakes for questions of design)
Stephane Deschamps
10.26.06
05:40

Why it is important to boycott Starbucks (besides for the fact that it takes down the mom & pop coffee shops):

http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=107&ItemID=11267
Frie
10.26.06
09:46

My guess is that the icon on my Mini-Cooper's "balcony" means "no glass" rather then "no alcohol," based on the icon printed on cardboard boxes that means "fragile." Or did I take the joke too literally...
rich greco
10.28.06
12:59

"If the entire world population enjoyed the standard of living that Americans do, we would have exhausted our collective natural resources by now."

It is true that if everyone in the world drove cars as much and ate as much as Americans, our planet would probably be underwater by now. But the above argument has always had a jingoistic tone for me. For one, the connotation is that other 'developing countries' like China don't have the right to pollute the world like Americans do in order to reach a standard of living comparable to more 'developed' nations, and two, America's dependence alone on natural resources is already exhausting enough for the planet.

Consumption is not something that will go away, and given our species, consumption is something that has to be made sustainable. Habits of consumption and waste I think are affectable by a conscious citizenry and corporations, government regulation, and international pressure.

Regarding coffee in Seattle, Caffe Vivace was a favorite of mine. But I think this culture of gourmet coffee, microbrewed beer, and now wine is something that doesnt really exist in a lot of American cities. In New York, Starbucks quickly becomes the only option for good coffee. From what I've found, independent coffee shops on the east coast dont really have coffee as good as Starbucks.
manuel
10.28.06
04:26

The other link regarding boycotting starbucks:
http://www.inminds.co.uk/boycott-starbucks.html

No coffee as good as Starbucks? How about better?
http://nymag.com/urban/guides/bestofny/food/04/coffee.htm
http://www.theinsider.com/nyc/fun/3coffee.htm
Frie
10.29.06
09:16

As someone who lives a good 45 minutes from the nearest Starbucks and has a mostly-dormant cell phone, I thought my material skepticism was pretty clear. However, some of our readers may have read otherwise: David Stairs, for one, has posted a rather interesting (and public) response here.


Jessica Helfand
10.30.06
09:35

Hello Jessica Helfand!

After reading your piece, and then pretending to read every post that followed (let's say I took in a solid 65%- what can I say? there were lots), and then finally reading David Stairs' piece and trying to work out whether he was or was not calling you a fascist (I think...not?), I have come to the following two conclusions:

1. Design criticism has the essential function of responding incisively to material production, consumption, and appreciation in our society. Philanthropic design enterprises in Africa are one type of practice that requires examination; sustainable design is another. Unfortunately, or maybe not, so is the church of Frappacino.

Your question was important because it asked: 'Why do we fill our hands and stomachs and schedules with distracting minutae?', or essentially, what does our preoccupation with designing even the smallest aspects of our lives say about us? This is distinctly different from the implied sentiment attributed by Stairs, ie, 'Should I have gotten the black interior for my 2006 Mini instead of the silver?'.

We live in a society of navel gazers who are able to quickly attribute as many as 5 hypenated adjectives to their coffee, hence the subject of our criticism takes an inward turn. However, this does not mean that our conclusions are any less important as a reflection of contemporary culture, distressing though it may be. Critically examining Starbucks is how we stay socially responsible to the design of our everyday lives.

2. I completely disagree with the broadstroke application of Walter Benjamin's disavowal of Nazi-era social propaganda to describe the proliferation of Starbucks' lifestyle design in a self-consciously postmodern, consumer oriented society. Especially since Benjamin was so much more mellow than that. Adorno, OK, I buy it- but Benjamin might have snuck in the odd latte.

PS- and this was going to be my original comment: 'Every wonder why the entire Starbucks experience has to be designed (interior of cafe/interior of soul via Putamayo World Music hell), while even the most high-maintenance women are loyally devoted to regular visits to what might best be described as a harshly-lit, chemical-fumed sweatshop?' I had an answer in mind, but then was distracted by some lint.
Katherine Feo
11.02.06
10:49

Recently while reading reviews of Honda Elements on a reveiw web site I kept seeing the negative comments listed as: "The cup holders were not good."
Or some variation. Who knew?
Flaherty
11.02.06
05:06

As gently as I may, I think in the overall perspective, Mr. Stairs was pointing out a hypocrisy in demonstrating material skepticism with a post on manicures and cupholders.

For most of us, this discussion is culturally relevant - or as relevant as you want it to be. For others, it falls so far off the relevancy scale as to be laughable.

Not trying to take sides, I just think this is where the dissonance is coming from.
Chrisina W
11.21.06
06:18



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