Lorraine Wild | Essays

Decorum, RIP

Mid-century modern is associated — especially in California — with an easier time, a more casual lifestyle: it's the spatial expression of a loosening of Depression-era habits. We associate restraint with the style of the mid-century, but the contemporary interpretation of that restraint is to connect it to a sort of visual minimalism. Yet while all minimalism may be modern, not all modernism is minimal: indeed, this 1952 photograph of Robinson's Department Store — reprinted not long ago in the Los Angeles Times — looks uncannily contemporary, so cool you can practically feel a blast of pre-oil crisis air conditioning.

At first glance, this could be a dramatization of a mid-century store interior crafted by the editors of Dwell or Wallpaper — but as it turns out, the picture accompanies an obituary for Robinson's, which had just been slated for closing by its parent company, Federated Department Stores. The Times entitled it "Obsolescence Dept." — but ironically, what's actually obsolete isn't so much the building as the behaviors it so expertly spawned. What's obsolete, it turns out, is decorum.

Decorum describes a self-conscious arrangement of relationships between spaces and the ways that people behave in those spaces. There's a ritualistic aspect to this notion, in that the behavior encouraged and enhanced by the space is situationally civil. The article in the LA Times describes the experience of shopping at Robinson's as elegant: not so elegant that it was out of reach for the middle-class customer, but clearly differentiated by curated merchandise, considered service, and aestheticized presentation. When it all worked for Robinson's — from the products sold, to the relationship between the store and its eager public — well, what would you call that besides design? Bear in mind that this was long before the days of "experience design" or "branding strategy."

While Robinson's shuts its doors, people await the opening of the nearest Target in Los Angeles (we have been, up until recently, "underserved") with some excitement. Target has brilliantly built its branding strategy on the premise that design can be used to attract customers across all price points. Even I must confess to scouring several of its stores to find one of the last available Philippe Stark potty-training seats (from the now-discontinued baby line) in L.A. County. (And it proved to be the magic bullet.)

Target has succeeded in making people feel cool just by walking into its stores. Commissioning name designers like Michael Graves or Isaac Mizrahi has boosted Target's cachet as a purveyor of inspiring and innovative wares. The company's advertising campaigns reinforce a corporate gestalt that successfully separates Target's "brand" from anything else in the realm of "big-box" retailing. The ads in the recent all-Target issue of The New Yorker take this to another level entirely, where the focus is no longer on what they sell, but how the brand, insinuated into every frame of life (through a variety of guises) has surpassed mere merchandising to become the very fulfillment of the ideal itself.

Target's design strategy is focused on a kind of clever psychological foreplay in which the image teases the consumer in; but once inside the store, that same consumer is set free in an environment in which the Target ideal morphs into a complete abstraction. The designer goods are in there, surrounded by the same merchandise available in K-Mart or Wal-Mart, but they must be ferreted out of mass quantities stacked on undifferentiated shelves in an encompassing sprawl. Although the orbits of retailing and marketing can hardly be said to fully characterize the design universe, to compare the experience of shopping in a Target now with what it must have been like in a Robinson's then is to realize how different design culture has truly become.

You might not have felt cool walking into Robinson's back in 1952 (in fact, you might have felt intimidated) but once you entered into its Gesamtkunstwerk you would have been offered a physical and psychological experience designed for seduction, an experience that not only engaged a wider range of sensory stimuli, but also sought to integrate the social exchange of interpersonal service. If this photo is to be believed, Robinson's visual allure was based on a carefully curated space, in which light was used to dramatically enhance the treasures available for purchase; qualities of air, sound, light and materiality of the display would all work together to mesmerize and enchant the customer. This was a space for "slow shopping" where you probably had to alter your pace in order to look — only to be rewarded with a rich visual experience whether you bought something or not. The formality that typified this slowness would have been emphasized by the need to engage with a salesperson in order to actually complete a purchase: both sides had to agreeably engage in this temporal, consensual communication in order for the exchange to be successful.

Conversely, while Target touts design in its ads, it has — along with several other contemporary retailers — actually designed the design out of its stores, and of the shopping experience itself. What Target discovered is that a powerful image will get people into the store, and in spite of (or perhaps because of) the paucity of social exchange, customers will consummate the relationship themselves by simply buying lots of stuff. The sketchiness of the experience Target offers is counterbalanced by consumers' willingness to trade quantity for quality, to feel satiated by piles of bags filling the trunks of their oversized, gas-guzzling cars.

In retrospect, the designed experience offered by retailers like Robinson's was actually an unnecessary public amenity. In recent years, as stores that excelled at such service began to jettison personal assistance in the name of efficiency, customers lost track of where their retail loyalties actually lay, opting, in turn, for the stores that came without all that responsibility. (And clearly, there must have been instances in which social exchanges were characterized more by rebuke than by reciprocity.) The late architect Charles Moore predicted that we would all end up one day having to "pay for the public life": he foresaw a trajectory of privatized social and cultural amenity once assumed to be part of the (free) public sphere. And of course, like most other things in consumer culture now, the old experience of decorum (or "luxury humor taste" as the Barney's slogan describes it) is actually only available at the high end, to those rarified few privileged enough to afford it.

As Robinson's fades from view, its story can be added to our collective cultural repository — our memories of the Christmas windows of Macy's in New York; of the little marshmallows served with salads at Wanamaker's in Philadelphia; of the white gloves worn by customers at J. L. Hudson's in Detroit and the streamlined interiors of Bullocks Wilshire in Los Angeles. These were public spectacles designed to feed the senses, to lure you to come in, spend some time, and maybe even spend a little cash. This splendid photograph of Robinson's attests to mass merchandising as middle-brow entertainment, which is how it actually began. Shopping, while critical to a store's economic survival, was secondary to the shopper's genteel experience. In those glory days — before iPod isolationism and the grunge of casual Fridays — you could walk out empty-handed and still have seen something. Apparently this was a problem that had to be designed out of existence.

Comments [22]

The problem with many of these arguments is that, for the most part, the way people shop has changed so much. In our accelerated lives, most do not go to stores looking for experiences — they go to stores to find exactly what they need as quickly as possible so that they can go do other things that are more fulfilling than consuming like family (thats my hope at least, btu im surely over-optimistic).

With that said, quite a few stores are very experiential. But most are niche markets or premium stores (Apple stores come to mind, as do premium clothing companies). But here again, people with specific interests seek out those stores for a personal enjoyment. I don't think the general goods or "department" store can meet those needs the way speciality stores can any longer. The image of the housewife taking a few hours out of her day in the kitchen and going shopping and having an enjoyable experience is as outdated as Robinson's seems now.

Though I would gladly see someone try to create this experience in a better designed environment and prove me very wrong.
Derrick Schultz

As outdated as you may find it, some people do prefer, enjoy, live, & mourn the vanishing of that type of life.

I think that's what this article is saying...

For clarity--
"I think that's what this article is saying..." refers, partially, to your comment Derrick. This is "outdated" in that it is dead.

Lorraine - here in Chicago we're facing a similar kind of situation as Federated recently purchased our similarly beloved Marshall Field's. Field's offered a similar experience for shoppers, but the flagship store and its sibling stores have met a slow demise.

Interestigly enough, Field's was owned by Dayton Hudson Corp, which is now known as the Target Corporation, from 1990 until 2004 before when it was purchased by Federated. News just broke this week the Field's will become Macy's in 2006.

While this has generated a good bit of buzz, and it seems that most midwesterners think the name change is a mistake, there have been plenty of statements found in the media that this is just the last stage of the death of Field's, that the Field's decorum passed long ago, along with a rich history of customer service and the feeling that Field's provided something unique to store visitors. There seemed to be plenty of concern about the holiday story-based window dressing, which Macy's - er, Federated - plans to keep as part of the flagship store's tradition long after the name is gone. But that doesn't cost anything.

I have a feeling that this all has more to do with changes in consumer attitudes. More than ever, people buy things they can't afford anyway, and when you can get a real Picasso at Costco, why would the wealthy who just want to show it off go to a "real" art dealer anyway?

And, you can get Prada at Filene's basement and Bluefly. As you say, the old experience of decorum...is actually only available at the high end, to those rarified few privileged enough to afford it. Perhaps with new ways to acquire "luxury" goods without having to take the time to do it, people just don't regard the experience as worthwhile. After all, you can't take the experience home and put it on a shelf or wear it out for everyone to see.
Andrew Twigg

The decorum that Lorraine writes about may have died long ago at Marshall Field's, but it is alive and well and thriving at Von Maur.
The shopping experience at Von Maur reminds me of what shopping at stores like Field's, Bonwit's and Best used to be in the 60's when my mother and I would spend an entire day there. The good news for us is that Von Maur is growing.
Mary B.

Interesting to note the structural economic conditions underlying post-war LA, where American luxury was enabled by a crushed Europe and a subjugated Asia. Today the inverse is true, where we are addicted to lowest price mass produced goods largely made in China. This is what has driven decorum out of existence. Our public sphere was largely white and richer than all the world. Nothing was designed out of existence other than a more colonial economic order. And in this case the designer is Adam Smith's invisible hand.

this is one of the more interesting posts to appear in a while here. it touches on a lot of things, the change of shopping and the effect of globalization and branding in the foreground, and class and genteel nostalgia in the background.

i recently went to the target on atlantic avenue in brooklyn, and its the first time ive been to target since its rebranding. when i was in high school, we used to sarcastically refer to target as 'tar-jay', ironically invoking a french pronunciation as a way to elevate the store's status, knowing that target was just another low end, mass market department store chain.

i have to say, the new target was quite a disappointment. id only known target through its advertising, which i did find quite seductive; on television, on billboards in times square, in the new york times magazine. so i finally decided to check it out. what i saw was probably typical of branding, good (or at least, good intentions) top down branding elements and strategies, handed down from agencies and corporate brand management offices, and poor bottom up, local, in-house implementation.

somehow, it just didnt feel right. all the elements of what i had seen before going into target were there, and they were very well done, they just werent put together well. i was visually reminded everywhere of what brand i was experiencing, and there was a visual continuity between the store itself and what i had expected from viewing the ads, but everything else seemed wrong. the same poor (or complete lack of) customer service one experiences at non-elite, large chains in new york city, the same banality of consumption one experiencees at places like kmart, p.c. richard and son, walmart, and walgreens. one new thing i experienced was how suburban and sterilized people seemed from being in this environment, as opposed to the more urban surroundings the store found itself in. i guess what was wrong was the expectation i had built up about the experience, and the letdown i discovered when i actually went to the store, the subject of the imagery i had experienced before going to the actual thing.

which brings up the question of globalization, and of nostalgia. in the case of target, is the brand really about the store experience? when everything local is being ground down by globalization, privatization of everything, and corporations, what importance does a local, unique experience have for a corporation? if the brand is everywhere, isnt the idea and the image more important than the actual thing? because ideas and images are much more easily transferrable across time and space than actual things are.

that is what i believe is the success of target. it is completely image, nothing to do with an actual thing. the actual thing, the product being its service and accesibility to affordable consumer goods, is interchangeable with the product of any number of other chains. but the image of the thing is quite unique. and target's current success is based on its image, not the thing itself.

I think this picture was taken Right!

Great post, Lorraine. Thank you.
Jesse Courtemanche

I have never been to Target, but somehow I'm not very surprised to hear that the experience doesn't live up to the ... uh ... "brand."

Class nostalgia, and the merits of the culture of shopping aside, I think the main ingredient missing is personal service. In the Targets and KMarts it is seemingly non-existent, in the expensive stores it is reserved for those already clad in the insignia of wealth. I think what most people crave is not so much the sleek interior, the enticing ad campaign, or the sublime instore graphics (although all three help), but the respectful, pleasant, knowledgable and welcoming person to help us spend our money. Judging by the staff in most stores, these people are hard to find. We are surrounded by vacuous "greeters", silly teenagers. snotty wanna-be models, the cooler-than-thou, pushy commission sales, and the dead-tired in ugly uniforms. Retailers of the world note: I have more than once bought something I didn't need or wasn't really sure of by a good salesperson who was just so damned helpful I didn't have the heart to walk out empty-handed.

This is decorum, and it cannot be replaced by design: it's a personal experience, as opposed to a brand experience.
marian bantjes

I heartily agree with Ms. Bantjes. There's this record store in my neighborhood that's been around for 40 years. It's run by an elderly man who over the decades has become a public character of sorts. He's on a first-name basis with his clientele and, moreover, he's regarded as a father figure by the young people in the neighborhood. The store itself looks shabby and has no "design" to speak of but that doesn't matter at all. I'll take warm human connections any day over snazzy branding and slick interior design.

Clearly "the invisible hand" designs on the macro-level. Today, many people recognize that the price of ubiquitous and inexpensive consumer goods seems to include the loss of domestic manufacturing, and often undesirable labor issues overseas; and while there certainly has been some raising of political consciousness around that, the public is apparently willing to swap quality and experience for quantity and convenience. Now that the shift in peoples' buying habits is pretty much complete, it seems like a full accounting of these costs would have to include a diminishing of at least some aspects of the social sphere itself. For instance, service: while we all know of small personal stores that work, the service that has disappeared from larger stores was as considered a part of the design as the lighting, the displays, etc. There's no class nostalgia about this: money may have been needed to buy, but the experience was free. It might be trivial to think about the loss of a department store, since it 's so logically the outcome of a web of political, economic, technological and social forces playing themselves out in the lives of individuals: but it is the end of a variant of public space in the city, and the exchanges, and communication and rituals that played themselves out in those spaces, which are very much in the realm of design. So it is fascinating to me to watch designers creatively compensate for this loss, for instance by participating in the creation of highly visible brands for experiences or products that are at odds with the "facts on the ground." Though there are many examples of this, the Target campaign promoting the benefits of design (which designers love, of course) is a particularly brilliant—and weirdly poignant—inversion of the image to the reality.
Lorraine Wild

you don't own a pair of sweats LW ? traget is an extention of my

The experience at Robinson's was free. But walking through that elegant space, you'd surely gain something, even if you didn't buy a tangible product to put on your shelf and show your neighbors. You would feel classy, touch luxury items, perhaps try on a blouse even though you couldn't afford it. You'd walk away with a little bit of stardust in your hair. People seek these aspirational experiences in other parts of their life - like touring Graceland or having drinks at the Drake Hotel. The only difference is that these experiences usually cost money. I know it sounds radical, but if Robinson's had started charging admission, perhaps it could have sustained its lure. Its recognized offering was its merchandise, but its differentiated offering was its experience. We are moving into an experience economy, and sometimes you have to assign a monetary equivalent to your offering in order for people to see its value.
Sara Cantor

So, we live in a culture where decorum, civility, the civic, etc. are paid for, or not, by a public that for the most part does not want to be decorous, civil, or civic, unless they choose, indeed feel atomistically entitled to choose, what "experience" they feel like paying for. Surely this is not a formula that can admit much less emits much of a design common in public. Perhaps the private individual wins, some private experiences may even be winning - but the public indiviudal loses; and this is not nostalgia.
john kaliski

Would it be fair to say, to some degree, "the medium is the message"? Alan referred to the "lowest price mass produced goods largely made in China" and I feel that these are the qualities - lowest priced, mass produced - which pervade the shopping experience in all of these kinds of stores today, from the layout, the lighting, the shop fittings, the customer service, etc to the feeling I get when I unwrap the goods. No amount of branding is going to change that for me.

There seem to be two things going on,

1) There is a nostalgia for design that captures a sense of place. Banks no longer have high ceilings and pillars, libraries and offices no longer have detailed walnut cabinetry, and grocery stores no longer have wooden cracker barrels. On one hand, this is pining for gingerbread, architectural ornament. On the other hand, this is pining for architecture that informs behavior.

Of course, there was a time before banks had pillars, offices walnut cabinets, and groceries had cracker barrels.

2) There is also a desire for a better retail shopping experience, which is unfortunately no longer affordable for most people. You can still find excellent stores with excellent service, but they charge a great deal. Madison Avenue in New York is packed with them, but you have to be willing to pay $1,000 for a sweater or a blouse. Compare Restoration Hardware with Home Depot. They sell a lot of the same stuff, but the experience is quite different, as are the sales costs and profit margins.

Remember, those gilded department stores were for ladies with white gloves, and white gloves imply a certain level of income. One electrical utility used the white glove rule for pricing kilowatt-hours. If it was worth taking off one's white gloves to unlock the door and turn off the kitchen light, then the price was too high.


Personally, I kind of liked those places too. They were beautiful, if nothing else, and retail sales can be an art form, much like geisha. We were middle class, so we shopped downmarket, Alexander's and Korvette's, not Sak's or Bergdorf's. You can still find great looking places to shop. Check out the Apple Stores, or Armani, or Chanel, or La Perla, or .... The aesthetic may vary, but the sales experience exudes that je ne sais qua, i.e. the scent of money.

Although I shopped at places like Robinson's when I was growing up in affluent suburbia, it would bother me now. Why? I asked myself after reading the post here. I think it has something to do with the general lack of privacy I feel in my life. The world of data mining already knows too much about me; I don't need a real live salesperson to get inside my zone, too.

I prefer to shop at places where I can do the choosing, the trying on, and the purchasing without any human interference. Better yet, on line. Strange? Maybe, but I'll bet I'm not alone.
Mary Neal

The thing that is so interesting about all this to me is all the time companies--Target, Macy's, applebees, gm, apple, nike--spend "brand building" but then cast aside when it is convenient, only to be replaced by the next cool thing. the brands themselves are temporary visions of what's hot now.

often it seems design is another way of saying "cool right now" instead of something that transcends time and a narrow interpretation of taste.

There are probably many reasons time has passed robinson's by, Time being the operative word. We take fewer and shorter vacations now. We work at a higher pace. Speed is everything. who has time to "shop" in the sense it meant in 1952 when robinson's opened its doors. we are a rush society that wants everything a second ago. there are few "softer" experiences that we seem to value, like walking the floors of a brilliantly decorated and laid out department store with exquisite items we could dream about purchasing. There was a time when the immense experience of shopping in a place like robinsons or JL hudson's or even hecht's in washington d.c. infused the products we bought with a special value, a uniqueness that was part of the reward of owning what we purchased. Now we buy and crave something new almost as soon as the target clerk drops it in the bag..
Chris Ward

We live in a culture where life is very fast-paced, people are busy and always on the go, that although the idea of Robinson's with the sales people and customer service availability, would still be nice today but department stores have evolved as society develops more department stores such as Target and Wal-Mart, that meet the needs of our fast-paced lives while still offering high end departments that service our needs such as Macy's. It's good to look back on a time that people had time to shop and not work constantly. We should really consider incorporating the old with the new.
Julie Y.

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Great post, Lorraine. Thank you so much. You make me read every day this site !


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