The Container Store, in Manhattan, is a noteworthy merchant on the plane of edu-commerce, among those stores serving as much a pedagogical as strictly commercial function. Ostensibly, the Container Store offers us containers and packaging rather than content and exhaustible commodity. Containers and packaging have always been sold, of course, but marginally and only for specialties or postage. Usually and more widely, they’re complimentary, discarded, and lacking exchange value.
They are not without their use values or sentimental values— without need or love altogether. We just do not esteem them commercially. The Container Store comes along and works a small reversal of this treasure-trunk picture of preciousness, and places both a price and a worth upon the container as much as the contained. With a bit of refocus, these things become objects of scrutiny or beauty rather than just periphery and expediency.
The beauty stems from a rubric of commercial aesthetics. Within that slipstream— that includes all Pop-sensibilities and commercial design— swirls a little eddy of the purest color and form. This is the sensibility of The Generic. The Generic should bring to mind IKEA, the Container Store, Target and Cosco, Staples and Office Max, Gap and American Apparel, knock-offs and off-brands, Soviet mass-production, and even drabber municipal design sensibilities.
Stores and marketing are entertaining this aesthetic more and more, I’ve noticed. Encouraging pure color poured into form, and form contoured purely by function. Stripping everything bare of brand names, rhetoric, or language altogether. Letting the object represent a genus unto itself. In the Container Store, we browse, and buy, and then bring home a whole shopping bag full of universals. They represent, to me, a certain austerity. Something not so much good or bad, as conceptually pleasing. I can meditate on types without distraction. Honest and even severe form, in the rhetoric of the International Style. These forms are for the kitchen; those, for the bathroom. This object has a strict function; that one is open-ended. Would we call this a canister? What use can I find for these shapes? We can really press the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to the test in a place like the Container Store.
Actually, the tagline for the Container Store claims it as a “storage and organization store,” which means that these container schemata simultaneously define a certain taxonomy of modern life: hooks, trash, bath, travel, college, collections, kitchen, gift boxes, and earth-friendly organization.
Everything is laid out so nicely, too. Do I even want to purchase them and pluck the petals from the garland? Why would I? They achieve such ripeness and purpose within display. In pyramids. In aisles. Among their brothers. Why corrupt them? Why use them? Unused, they are monuments of pure potentiality.
When I was young, my brother and I found a small, rectangular block of white plastic — pure as Ivory soap— in the parking lot of a dentist office. It was alluring and very promising, and we promptly got down to deciding its proper use. A sculpture of some sort, we imagined, or maybe toy parts… something. Years passed before we realized that it was already in its truest state: untouched, unused, as a pure potentiality. An uncarved block of pure Being, over which we could meditate on the deep interpenetration of beauty and potentiality.
Contrary to aestheticist antagonisms between beauty and utility, or Kantian ideas about disinterestedness, beauty and use are not odds. Beauty suggests and echoes uses, possibilities, and sharp interestedness without being reduced to them. It might be said that certain forms of beauty simply overwhelm us with desires, interests, pleasures, and uses. The female form provokes nearly every need and desire in the male psyche. She is sexual, edible, soft, stunning and lovable— capable of confusing all five senses— but often also a scarcity within a learned and triadic sexual economy. In the direct admiration of the female form, these forces twitter and twinkle in the background, but we never know exactly where to begin or end. I look at Sienna and inevitably think: “I’m gonna need a lot more time.” And no matter what I do, there is always that wonderful remainder. Beauty in this sense is an inexhaustibility rather than a uselessness.
Consider this poster, found beside a soda machine:
Notice how the view is from the vantage point of the drinker, rather than the natura morte of a basket-and-bottle tabletop. The fizz, the ice, the coloration, the rim of the glass. Engagement rather than contemplation. Man, I was just stopping by for some hot chocolate when seized by the aesthetic effect this advertisement had on me. The pleasures of Soda. Things conditioned in me. Cravings borne of thirst.
Nevertheless, I experienced them here as beauty and vivacity, and even admired the formal qualities in things as amorphous as soda and water. I cannot drink this picture. It elicits my soda-lust without being soda itself. It holds my soda-lust up to my own vision, and arrests the moment of pleasure and use— in the drinking. But the beauty I sense is rooted in my soda-lusts, my caffeine addictions, my days long gone spent in the enjoyment of that most excellent beverage. The poster— the commercial analog of the canvas— mentions no brand. It evokes the genus of soda experience, a genus that happens to stir longing in this passer-by.
Needless to say, the Generic, as a sensibility, offers us nothing in the way of a Benjaminian aura. The Generic object has no history and no haecceity. No story and no thisness. But saying “the loss of aura” connotes a disenchantment, which for me was never the case. To the contrary. It’s merely a different sort of mystery and emanation here. For me, mass-production envelops its objects with another, more otherly, kind of nimbus. Commodities never touch the human hand. They fall from a manufacturing Heaven comparable to the arctic workshop of Christmas elves. And all the stigmata of commercial production— bubble and shrinkwrap, barcodes, form-fitting packaging, total lack of facture— confirm this transhuman origin. This mythos is of course inaccurate— and laughable when that “manufacturing Heaven” compares to Far-Eastern industrial realities. But the same could be said for the charisma of the art object and the sanctity of genius. The mythos is, nonetheless, there and wholly prominent in the sensibility and symbolic forms. There, twittering and twinkling, in the meaning of things.
The Generic is the height this transhuman effect. The acme, if you will. The manufacture is anonymous. The object, free of labels and almost Platonically ideal. Untouched by world-dirt. A tupperware barrel, floating beside a number in white space. Maybe this is my idea of metaphysical release, then. A stroll through the Container Store with pencil and paper, engaged in the taxonomy of kitchenware.