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
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
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
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: