Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 13 February 2011





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Government Gazette

Design in San Francisco:

Taking Tickets on the Gravy Train

All roads on the Villa Rosa of San Francisco eventually lead either to penury and a rehabilitation center, or the world of money. (The difference is not always easy to ascertain.) The latter is, as is so often the case, an illusion. Like lords with an unaffordable manor, there is much milling about in what appears to be reserves of cash. The cash, as ever, is elsewhere, stashed in the hands of the few who will do all they can to keep it, internally or externally. Long time ago, the American elite worked out how to put water on the squib of potential revolution: apply philanthropy. Give generously to the deserving poor and hope they shut up. Pamper the bourgeoisie sufficiently, and their envious sniping will cease.

Design centres are the rubric material, indicia, of the west coast money image. What are these people, lounging about in those chairs, really doing here at the San Francisco Design Centre on 2 Henry Adams Street? To be seen, to be purred over in exceedingly clean and hygienic surroundings and sleek interiors.

They are served and spoiled by nibbles of minute crab and microscopic tartar. Then, the flattery, always well aimed, always insincere. 'Honey, that is a gorgeous necklace,' comments a well coiffed lady outside the immaculate designers Janus et Cie. The necklace on one of the grand dames is itself a baroque monstrosity, showing that the line between chic and tramp is fine, but that is neither here or there. The point is that she has it, and you don't.

This design complex has more rooms than the chambers of a Viet Cong command structure. The model room, with its Picasso styled masks (no one gives a damn - Africa, Melanesia in inspiration?) and the pendulous lamps, gives one a bordello feel. At any given moment, one imagined the audience, had there been more interest, precipitating an orgy of self-indulgent exploration.

The cushions were plentiful, and the prospect for getting seedy on the wood panelling good. But, as always, the Bard's words are instructive - drink might well provoke desire but eliminate performance.

The company at such design events is, as always, uneven in the qualitative sense, though one could not fault the flamboyance meter. Everyone is in service of the spectacle.

The spectacle is the flesh-eating monster that must be placated. Get the suitable clothes and colognes, the mandatory sprays. Get the show on the design road. The peacocks and peahens were in train.

There was an obnoxious South African intent less on viewing the design of furniture than the design of fine American cheekbones. 'Your name,' he told a Syrian gentleman standing next to him, 'sounds like an airline.' 'At least I don't charge for check-in luggage,' came the retort.

There was a statuesque blonde who, as yet, might have been unmarried and went in search of similar statuesque amazons. ('Psst,' came the Syrian. 'She is married.')

Then, the fashion statement of the West coast, the catch-me mating sign of the desperate and lonely - all those shirts, top buttons tactically left undone to reveal tufts of ravaged hair, graying grizzle and the occasional traces of sun.

The most conspicuous thing here is an absence of attention by the patrons to the design on offer. The replica rooms, decked with samples, models, were merely facilitators for the pleasure machine. Le Corbusier might have well been right to describe a home as a machine for people to live in, but it was only the start.

San Francisco Design Centre

These pleasure domes are expansive in this part of the world, where lubrication by champers, rosé and novelty cocktails is endless, where the conversation is merely a means of moving on to the next event, a running travel log for the next big gig.

Whatever happens, the risk of exposing never-ending shallows in conversation and personality is there. Best stick to the task at hand - avoid the décor and talk about the latest news snippet that has chanced to come across the handy blackberry.

'I object to the recent measures introduced in Ohio to make people after the age of 21 carry guns.' (That's from the brains trust of one of the design ventures, De Sousa Hughes.) A few stunned faces register their feeling, but nothing more. The cheesecake is looking too inviting.

Then comes the inevitable question: 'How do you know the design centres here?' Because of a real estate agent who knew San Francisco since he was in rompers. Peels of laughter follow. It does not occur to some people that few designers actually go to design events. Everyone else does. Where the gravy train has many carriages, the passengers shall be many.

Now, the army of wine, beer and tequila wallahs, courtesy of America Inc., and the expiring empire, will be cleaning up after such excesses. A ticket on the gravy train, purchased at what cost?

The writer was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]


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