> archived articles      > write for core! be famous!

My Holiday Gift to Core77
by Cordy Swope

For many people the holiday season is a montage of benevolence, gluttony, depression, fruitcake, cheer, suicides, schmaltzy sentiment, eggnog and of course, shopping. The holidays always arouse a sense of wonderment--not at the pretty lights, nor at the cleverness of elfin decorators who re-interpret old myths and traditions through the filter of current trends--but rather, wonderment at the mammoth, salubrious force that is the economy. Every year, a sea of money washes heaps of quasi-desirable objects into people's lives. And while the psychology of gift giving that lurks beneath this annual rite is a fascinating area of study, it is another story altogether.

But the massive, mostly benevolent force of the economy comes about as close as any garden-variety atheist can imagine to the notion of a "higher power."
The benevolence of the holidays is not limited to the down-and-out in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but is also extended to the down-and-out among corporations. Aviation is probably the only field of endeavor that is more unforgiving of mistakes in judgment than corporate capitalism. And yet, consumer spending in Q4 has the capacity to avert all sorts of corporate disasters, and to forgive almost all business or design sins. In fact, free holiday spending argues against the old saw, "good design is good business" (which seems to be mindlessly repeated throughout the design community during all other times of the year) simply because of the sheer volume of crap that is bought and given to people as gifts, and especially as desired gifts.



In addition to absolution, the holidays offer a time of reflection and resolution. Last year, alongside the usual, giant electric snowflakes that hung on the lampposts of New York, were banners urging everyone to, "Fight Back and Shop." Around the same time, Rem Koolhas' pre-9.11 book, Projects for Prada Part 1 about designing the shopping experience for Prada mused,

museums, libraries, airports, hospitals and schools are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from shopping. Their adoption of retail for survival has unleashed an enormous wave of commercial entrapment that has transformed museumgoers, researchers, travelers, patients and students into customers. The result is a deadening loss of variety.

It is interesting that both the local New York boosters and the current high priest of modern architecture both inadvertently elevated the act of shopping to something well, almost religious While the boosters appealed to our sense of civic and communal duty to fight back and shop, the architect was trying, on behalf of his client, to purify the ritual of shopping in the face of its perceived debasement.

This year, despite predictions that we will spend even more than we did last year (an average of $649.00 per person), many people are doing so with a lesser sense of purpose and more of a sense of resignation. The "it" toy for kids has yet to emerge this year. For adults, the "it" product of last year, the DVD player, has been deeply reduced in price this season because the market is saturated with them.
The age-old criticism, leveled at the Christmas holiday for generations has been, "it's become too commercialized." Last year, this criticism felt as though it had been inverted: Americans seemed to create a condition wherein it was acceptable to become so desperately and zealously acquisitive while holiday shopping as to seem piously altruistic.


But in the face of catastrophe, alluring new objects lost their mystique. (For example, on 9.12, owning those once-coveted orange Prada bowling shoes just did not seem to matter anymore.) But what replaced that mystique was a sort of blanket sense of duty and defiance to spend money--otherwise the terrorists win.
Sadly, we have been reminded a lot recently that almost any mundane activity takes on epic meaning if it is performed in the face of death. The residents of the Washington DC area experienced this during the sniper siege this past October, after 13 people were gunned down while performing some of the most banal tasks--shopping among them. As NPR later reported post-apprehension of the suspects, "after three weeks of random shootings by a sniper, kids and teachers in the area are wondering what it's going to take to get back to normal and what normal really means." Not long ago, those orange Prada bowling shoes once might have been expressions of individuality and uniqueness. One wonders about the desirability of the accoutrements of uniqueness now that normalcy has suddenly become elusive.

While 9.11 and the sniper rampage were extraordinary, and hopefully anomalous events, our entire economic system is predicated on the less extraordinary act of people forking over money for something--whether we actually have the money to do so or not. Witness the consumer confidence index, the metric by which many corporations that employ or engage designers predict future health. Consumer spending--and often, borrowing in order to spend more--is how our economy breathes.

So it is not the point that what were once "religious" holidays have now become "commercialized." Rather, it seems more that the commercialism required by the practice of gift giving has become newly imbued with religious principles. Consumer behavior has replaced what was once considered religious behavior--behavior that reinforces the interdependence we share with one another for survival. For example, if the continuing issue of municipal bonds supports the field of urban planning, and the continuing issue of mortgages supports the fields of architecture and construction, then consumer credit card debt is what continues to support the corporations, which in turn support the field of design.

Whatever the excesses and sins of crass consumerism, it creates an interdependence with one another, regardless of our differences. As born-again Christians point out, "we all serve somebody." So what then, besides people's wants and needs, does design serve? For one, the $2.5 billion self-storage industry, then maybe the Salvation Army (which, incidentally, raises $250 million per year.)

So happy holidays, and remember, regardless of whether you are atheist, buddhist, christian, dervishist, eckankarist, falun gongist, greek orthodox, hindu, ibo, jewish, kemetic orthodox, latter day saint, muslim, neo-paganist, ovimbundu, pentecostalist, quaker, rastafarian, satanist, trancendentalist, unaffiliated, vampirist, way of right unitist, xhosa, yahwehite, zoroastrian, or other designer, spend lots of money shopping, but do whatever it takes in your work to create demand for the things you produce--otherwise the terrorists win.


Cordy Swope is a design strategist and co-founder of normal life a research and product development consulting firm.

> back to top

> back to core