I am, in principle, morally opposed to hero worship, but I'd like to announce that in my next life, I'd like to be Nigella Lawson. Like me, Nigella is a mother of two, a boy and a girl, and she is Jewish. She is my age. She is also beautiful and rich. (Okay, okay: the similarity ends there.) As a chef, she is fearless and messy. As a writer, perhaps equally so: Nigella routinely rejects words like braise and simmer in favor of much juicier language: blitz and squelch and my personal favorite, splodge. I think of her in the same category as a number of writers, all of them British (and female) who manage to write with humor, intelligence, keen observation and just a soupcon of self deprecation: I'd put the Guardian's Lucy Mangan in this category, as well as Lynn Truss, whose latest book should be required reading for everyone over the age of, say, six.
Fanship, a splinter group of hero worship, is a natural consequence of contemporary life. Its economic consequences are rampant, and beg the question: when did we start wanting, needing, greedily longing for so much stuff that allegedly brings us that much closer to what we imagine ourselves to be? This is more than mere conspicuous consumption: (although it is that, too) when, for instance, did we start needing so many pairs of sneakers? On a recent trip to Europe, I realized that, contrary to my earlier suspicions, athletic shoes (broadly stated) are hardly an American conceit. Shops in Zurich, London and Rome boasted everything from classic Converse high-tops to knee-high sneaker boots, an invention that could only have come from the drawing board of a man, since it is a simple fact that any woman whose calf measures more than 5 centimeters in diameter looks rather like a dwarfish wrestler when she puts them on. (Then again, let Jennifer Aniston be spotted wearing a pair in public and my economic theory is shot to hell.)
My point is simply this: in spite of our careful intentions, the things we design become absorbed in the public domain, whereupon our well-versed knowledge of target audiences is supplanted by the not-very-scientific endorsement of One Public Person who can make or break their success. Though perhaps less palpable in graphic form than in terms of fashion, the reality is the same: and doesn't all design seek, on some level, to go public? In the "be careful what you wish for" category, this strikes me as cause for concern.
In the United States, as elsewhere, television has kicked design up a notch into the mainstream consciousness in a way that makes me question what it is we're hoping to achieve. A big generalization, but let me qualify: when we redesign something, it is, allegedly, to improve it, to modernize, update, clarify or otherwise enhance the appearance (and, implicitly, the purpose) of something. Fine. So FedEx is reborn in a bold orange and purple identity, noticeable and recognizable and, it might be said, better than it was before. That a designer's help was enlisted to achieve this goal is (perhaps) obvious. But today on TV, the designer is a decorator: on HGTV, Curb Appeal is added to a rowhouse by painting the window mullions, a simple upgrade and one that is eminently achievable in 27 minutes of airtime. But on ABC-TV, the hit show Extreme Makeover introduces a "dream team" of designers in the form of cosmetic dentists, plastic surgeons, and a host of experts whose cumulative adornments further amplify the splendor of the redesign. This is a fascinating, if somewhat terrifying form of design-in-action, accelerated in the interest of broadcast economy as if to suggest that the final rewards of months of surgical intervention take about as long to achieve as, say, the spin cycle on a washing machine. It's deliriously fun to watch, if a bit sickening and sad, but at the end of the day (or hour, as it were) one is left pondering the true reach and power of the very act of redesign. Logos? Liposuction? To the uninitiated layperson, what's the difference?
Crooked teeth notwithstanding, to wish yourself into someone else's likeness is ultimately a fiction, and a sad one, at that. Consider the teenage twins on MTV's I Want a Famous Face whose yearning to look like Brad Pitt led them to seek extraordinarily invasive surgery. Curb appeal or cosmetic dentistry? As we nip and tuck at our houses and our bodies, what's next for image conscious worshippers, and for the designers who are ultimately serving as their enablers?
In my vain yearning to refashion my self (or at least my kitchen) in the model of Nigella, I would be wise to consider several basic truths. Number one: cloning is not an option. Number two: I'll never have a British accent, anglophile that I am, nor am I likely to turn my green eyes to her dreamy brown ones unless I consider cosmetic improvements that, being a time-pressed working mother, are unlikely to take place any time soon. No: I don't want to be Nigella Lawson so much as to know her. If nothing else, perhaps our children can play together one day while she teaches me how to make crème brulée. Then she can explain to me, once and for all, the true meaning of splodge.