Mass With Class


DEPARTURES – November/December 2003

Mass With Class

Target, U.S.A.

WE’RE SUPPOSED TO FIND the proliferation of big, upper-middle-brow American retail chains unfortunate. We’re supposed to consider the ubiquity of Barnes & Nobles, Starbucks, Gaps, and Targets as prime evidence of the mega-corporate retailing takeover that has, in a single generation, made American life homogenized and soulless.

One reason our arbiters of elite taste find Starbucks and Gaps more pernicious than they ever found McDonalds and Sears is that those early-generation chains never presumed to put on bobo-ish airs, never dared to communicate in the Euro-inflected dialect spoken by the arbiters themselves. What really rankles the BAM/ MoMA caste about America’s mass yuppification is that their monopoly on good taste has been broken, a halfcentury of de facto sumptuary laws rendered moot.

And while you won’t get much argument from me that large swaths of American life have become homogenized and soulless, I also think that the vastly wider availability of books, good coffee, unembarrassing clothes, and nice household objects is a pretty fair silver lining.

What prompted this consideration of the dialectic of modern consumerism was my first visit to a Target.

The dozen previous times I’d been in a giant discount store-a K-Mart, an Ames, whatever-I bought what I came for (screws, gaffer’s tape, ping-pong balls, a laundry basket) and scuttled out a little depressed, as if I’d watched a few minutes of COPS or Jerry Spri nger.T hose stores seem gratuitously grim, almost Soviet, as if management set out to reinforce the low self-esteem of the customers.

But Target was actually cheerful. I had intended only to look around, but I was inspired-by the spic-and-span intelligence of the design, the quality of the merchandise, the astonishingly low prices-to buy things, such as a reversible red dress ($19.99) for my teenaged daughter and a coffee grinder ($14.99) for my middle-aged self.

I homed in on the Michael Graves section first, where I found myself surrounded, as expected, by yards of cerulean-blue packaging and dozens of really not badlooking knives, pots, pans, salt shakers, toasters, coffeemakers, plastic canisters, papertowel holders, and drainboards.

Not far away was a wall hung with cool Oxo peelers and spatulas and a shelf full of nice Copco kettles and mixing bowls. And, as if dictated by some law of psychographics, a little section devoted to bags of Starbucks coffee.

The Swell stuff by Cynthia Rowley and Ilene Rozensweig-placemats and cushions in orange and pink and green and bluewas nice enough, though it seemed funny that you could have bought the same items, unstylishly, at a Woolworth’s in 1969.

But even more surprising was all the attractively non-name-brand merchandise: plain chrome and nickel knobs for drawers and cabinets, severe black stoneware, yoga and Pilates gear, 18 simple glasses for $15, a nice Aalto-esque stool for $55, two 30-foot-long aisles of picture frames.

Of course, this is populist America, where good taste will never be obligatory: For people who want ugly, cheesy, discount-store crap, Target carries plenty of that, tooalthough, to my eye, those things were not as ugly and cheesy as the versions at Target’s competitors. In other words, the experience was heartening, a word I never imagined I’d use to describe a visit to a big-box store in a shopping mall.©