Why We Can't Have Nice Things
No, it's not too expensive.
The things around us have become plainer. In 1923, or 1823, the fashion was for intricate and richly ornamented architecture, furniture, clothes, dishware, or whatever else. In 2023, fashionable objects are plain and minimalist, if not outright utilitarian. Steve Jobs believed that every object should look as much like a featureless white sphere as possible, and the rest of us follow in his footsteps.
Most people have noticed this trend, of course. To illustrate, here are two streetlights in San Francisco. The first, right outside my office, is from 1916:
The second is a much more recent streetlight not far from my house:
Granted, even in 1916 most streetlights didn’t go quite that hard. Still, it demonstrates the difference—the contemporary streetlight isn’t just plain, it’s ugly, without even the attention to aesthetics found in deliberate minimalism. This isn’t just a transition from old-fashioned styles to newer styles; here there is no attempt at style at all. You won’t find anything like that in 1916 streetlights.
When I ask people why this is, they usually tell me it’s because people can no longer afford ornamentation as a result of improved technology. This seems backwards—everywhere else, improved technology makes nice things cheap and plentiful. Why would this be the opposite for ornamentation? I’m often told it’s because of the Baumol effect—that when technology improves productivity in some fields, the cost rises in other fields where productivity remains relatively lower, such as live music performances. Because ornamentation must be handmade, improved technology does not improve productivity in this sector, and so prices rise and rise until it is unaffordable.
This is hot nonsense. Technology obviously improves the productivity of making and installing ornamentation. There is no law of nature which requires everything beautiful must be made by a seventy-year-old master craftsman peering through spectacles as he works with hammer and chisel. Men have used mass-production technology to make better and cheaper ornamentation since the first day of the Industrial Revolution—literally. James Watt, whose improved steam engine marks the Industrial Revolution’s beginning in 1776, was good friends with Josiah Wedgwood,1 an entrepreneur who used improved production techniques and advanced tooling to mass-manufacture decorative vases and tableware, including machine-made copies of ancient Greek and Roman works. Wedgwood sold to both middle-class consumers and the Queen of England.
For almost two centuries, improved technology steadily made ornamented objects and buildings accessible to more and more people. By the late 1800s, “Elaborate ornamentation [in American homes] was quite common, and its cost had been greatly reduced as manufacturers learned to replace skilled craftsmen with modern machines. “Instead of stone carvers who chiseled the cornices, there was a machine that stamped out cheap tin imitations. Instead of wood-carvers, a hydraulic press squeezed wood into intricate carved shapes.””2 In just the last few years, 3D-printed busts have become widely and cheaply available through online storefronts.
These advances in mass manufacturing were also responsible for the 1916 streetlight. Over three hundred were installed—you can just see two others in the background of my photo above. It looks like the pieces were cast from molds and assembled onsite:
Progress has continued, and with modern tooling and containerized freight, we now have the technology to make similar streetlights with even better methods and larger economies of scale. A single factory could turn them out by the thousands and ship them across the world. Today we can carve out molds with CNC machine tools rather than having a sculptor make them manually like we did in 1916, and for production at that scale we probably would, unless it’s someday supplanted by 3D printed molds or another new technology that’s even better and cheaper. The engineers who design flat-packed furniture for unskilled assembly in your living room could certainly design a beautiful streetlight for semiskilled laborers to easily and cheaply assemble on streets from Chicago to Nanjing.
Let’s take a simpler example, with no need for analyzing manufacturing processes and supply chains. This cabinet is in the lobby of my office building, the Mechanics Institute, built in 1910:
Why is simple decoration like this so rare in more recent work? There’s nothing prohibitively expensive about applying a stencil and a bit of gold paint. There’s clearly some barrier to installing things like this today, but it’s not the cost of labor.
If we move from architecture to tableware, this is even more obvious. Stamping plates or mugs with intricate designs is so cheap it adds practically nothing to the final cost, and this has been true for decades at least. I paid two dollars per piece for these:
So what’s going on? If it’s not a matter of well-designed things becoming prohibitively expensive, why do we see less of this stuff?
I have some stories that can shed light on this. When my former roommate Daniel was admiring the plates above, he mentioned that the idea of buying decorated plates and bowls had never occurred to him. In other words, the reason our previous tableware had been featureless white was not because, like the economically rational agent who theorists love so much, he had considered all available options and deliberately decided that the aesthetics-price package of plain white plates was superior. Rather, he bought it on autopilot, as we all do for most of our purchases.
Another story. As you can probably guess, I like ornate and ornamented furniture. I can’t find the things I like from popular furniture makers at any price, but this actually isn’t a problem, because it’s fast and easy to find gorgeous antiques browsing Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace or equivalents, and these are much cheaper than new unornamented furniture.3 When I go to pick it up, literally more than half the time the seller tells me without prompting how glad she is that someone is taking this, she was about to throw it out because nobody wants it, which would be a big shame because it belonged to her recently-deceased mother or something. The rest of the time, the sellers are hobbyists who attend estate sales for love of the art, and resell the good pieces at little or no profit.
Another story. Not too long after I moved in, Daniel picked up a bit of an eye for older ornamented furniture. One day he passed a nice cabinet left on the sidewalk for anyone to claim. Daniel went to get his car to bring the cabinet home. When he returned, the owner was smashing the unwanted cabinet apart so it would be easier to trash, having given up on giving it away. (Fortunately he had only dismantled a couple of drawers before Daniel stopped him, and I was able to patch it back together so you’d never know anything happened.)
All of this paints a clear picture. Why is there so much less decoration today? “It’s too expensive” doesn’t hold water. The decorated objects are out there, if you look for ten minutes. They’re often the same price as decent-quality plain objects. If they’re durable and there’s a secondary market, then they’re cheaper or sometimes outright free. Nevertheless people do not consume what’s available. Often they’re thrown out and destroyed for lack of interest.
People just don’t want this stuff. Why not? I have my guesses, but I’ll leave the speculation for the footnotes.4 What’s clear is that, for whatever reason, most people choose plain objects over intricate ones at the same price point. In some cases, such as tableware, ornate products are available cheaply and in quantity, but are ignored by most consumers. In other cases, such as streetlights, making ornate products cheaply could be done only at large scale with a serious capital investment, and this is not done because manufacturers rightly believe there is no demand for the potential products.
If this demand existed, we’d also be able to see it in the real estate market. As I mentioned, my office is in a gorgeous building from 1910. Here’s another photo I took in the lobby:
According to the demand hypothesis, most people would love to be in a building like this and seek it out, and these offices would go for at least a modest premium. In fact, offices in this building rent for below the San Francisco market average.
So what’s a man to do if he wants beautiful things? Put your money where your mouth is. There’s no sense in following lots of aesthetic social media accounts and talking a good game about returning to the days of good taste if every object in your house is a beige rectangle. A lot of people would rather hold off until someone else starts a grand movement and makes a new style popular, but artistic trends don’t start when people sit and wait, they start when people act. You can live in a beautiful building. You can have beautiful furniture. You can frame a giant print of your favorite Romantic-period painting in your living room. There’s lots of stuff like this out there for the taking.
There are also a few things you might want that aren’t being made because of a lack of public demand. But “public demand” isn’t the weather. You are the public. Demand it. But don’t demand it on social media. Demand it the way a businessman demands it. Pay cash to the local artists and the Etsy craftsmen and the antique dealers. If your taste is good, then producers of beautiful things will flourish a bit more, and the next person who comes looking will find that much more of it. If you come, they will build it.
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Wedgwood was also an ardent abolitionist who turned his factories to producing thousands of medallions with the “Am I not a man and a brother?” symbol, originating the anti-slavery movement’s most influential and enduring image.
Robert Gordon, The Rise And Fall Of American Growth, p. 107. He, in turn, quotes Edward Clifford Clark, The American Family Home, 1800-1960, p. 82.
The exception is upholstered furniture, which doesn’t survive for a century unless it’s almost completely replaced, Ship of Theseus style. The result is that even the tiny public demand for ornate seating can exhaust the equally tiny supply of adequately-maintained antiques, and bid up the price to vaguely reasonable levels on par with new, plain furniture.
To say that the fashion has changed is unhelpful. If it became fashionable to use ornate and beautiful things, then most people would change what they buy. This is just a tautology.
There are two interesting questions here. The first is why the fashion changed in this way. Some of my friends say that it’s a consequence of increasing wealth; when ornament was expensive, it was a reliable signal of wealth, and so it was a good way to show off. Today people often countersignal wealth and sophistication by avoiding the now-affordable ornamentation, similar to how rich people used to be fatter than average, but today are thinner than average. Others say that the World Wars broke people’s faith in the culture and values which the older styles express, and so people turned away into modernist styles which rejected the older ways and express very different ideas—you can arguably see similar transitions in fashion, music, and fine art. Neither of these feels completely satisfying to me but I think the latter is closer to the mark.
The other interesting question is why most people say that the ornamented style is more beautiful and more pleasant, but surround themselves with plain or minimalist objects instead. Partly, it’s because people usually buy one of the “default” options that’s presented to them in store shelves or online search results rather than hunting for something specific, and the defaults will be whatever is in fashion; you make a lot of purchases in a year, and no one has the attention to think deeply about all of them. Mostly, though, it’s because most people prioritize looking normal or fashionable above their own sense of beauty.