Inventing Ourselves Products provide a snapshot of America

July 02, 1993|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Staff Writer

Clues. By the hundreds. All right there in front of you.That laptop computer balanced on your knees. The Coke bottle in the fridge. The pair of Air Jordans in the closet. The Cadillac cruising down the street. The sound of an electric guitar wailing from the stereo. Snapshots on the hall table. The stack of two-by-fours gathering dust in the basement.

Clues, Sherlock. To who we are, where we're going, where we've been.

They're everywhere.

"You may have to do a little mental digging," cautions Phil Patton. "But it's already time to start doing that. If we want to understand our values as a people, then we need to look as much at our cars and our shoes and our typewriters as we do our literature."

In another age Mr. Patton probably would have been a poet or an archaeologist, one of those probers of the tangible past or the spiritual future. Instead, he is just a journalist, welded to the ephemeral here and now. But with a digger's curiosity and a poet's pen he has done for the lowest artifacts of life - from easy chairs to the computer mouse - what Hemingway did for the sentence, what Picasso did for the color blue, what John Waters did for polyester.

"I think it is just as interesting to look at what goes into objects as trying to read our culture through literature or film or music," says Mr. Patton, a Harvard grad, former teacher at the Columbia School of Journalism and the current "Design" columnist for Esquire magazine.

"I mean, the Buick Roadmaster and the tail-fin Caddy came straight out of Hollywood," says the author of "Made in USA" (Penguin, paper $12.50). "It's not hard to see why. Harley Earl, the great General Motors executive who designed them, literally lived next door to Cecil B. DeMille. The tail fin is certainly every bit as worthy of studying as any Warner Brothers movies of the '30s and '40s as to what makes our culture go."

That's because Americans, he says, are defined by their things. "It seems inconceivable to believe we would be American without them. We, more than other countries, have focused on material objects as common denominators. And we tend to project our personalities and dreams into a lot of our objects."

A perfect example is the good old American car.

"When you go to a Chevy dealer, look at the list of options you can buy," he says. "You're almost designing your own car. Or look at when the Mustang first came out. The basic model was cheap. But everyone bought nearly as much value in options."

To Mr. Patton this represents the coming together of the two basic principles he says have shaped American design: the perfect model and the kit of parts. The irony of our design, he says, is that our most enduring objects, while rooted in a generality of type, have always had the capacity for personalization.

"We like to modify generic things for individuality," he says. "We are constantly surrounded by kit systems. A German designer visited me recently and wanted to go to a Home Depot. There, it's kit city, a Lego world of plumbing components and electrical pieces. It's the American do-it-yourself tradition. With a little PVC pipe or a few chips in my computer I can turn a generalized product into my own version."

And that tradition, he says, is ingrained not just in the psyche of the American consumer, but most especially in the designer. One of his favorite examples is the old Brownie box camera.

"Until the Brownie, photography was for professionals," he says. "You'd have to go to a studio to have a picture taken. But here came an idea where, for a dollar, you could get a mass-produced object that contained a cultural value: Everyone's face was important. Our personality as a country as well as individuals was expressed in that. So it was a very American idea: a black box for everybody, and yet the snapshots that come out are absolutely individual."

The same principle was evident, he says, in the Model-T. "This was your basic black car. But a whole industry grew up around selling mud guards and different radiator caps. Very much like today's computer add-on companies. I find it very much American."

And visible everywhere, he says, especially in architecture. "The balloon frame house was a sort of kit," he says, referring to the simplified wall framing design of 1833 that led ultimately to the standardization of the American building industry but also left plenty of room for do-it-yourselfers.

"It was made possible only by the fact that we developed the two-by-four, one of the great American icons," he says. "If we didn't have standardized lengths of wood, we couldn't have produced the balloon frame. And the same applies to the skyscraper. We had to be able to turn out I-beams in fixed length. Or the typewriter. We couldn't have had them in every office until we agreed on producing 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper."

Thus, he says, his fascination isn't so much with inventors, as with the people who figured out how to make inventions workable.

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