Marketers with luxury goods to sell have sold us a bill of goods

One consolation available to people who aren't rich is poking fun at the foolishness of those who are. Pre-recession, for instance, there flourished a whole subgenre of stories about pull-out-all-the-stops-and-damn-the-torpedoes kitchen renovations. They featured folks who'd invest unthinkable amounts of money in restaurant stoves and double Sub-Zero fridges, cabinetry in all manner of precious hardwoods, acres of virginal marble countertops and miles of custom millwork. They'd put tiles hand-painted in the South of France on the walls. They'd order up artisanal poured-cement floors interlaced with a subsurface network of cunning little copper pipes made to circulate hot water on cue so as to warm the bare tootsies of monsieur and madame as they negotiated for the first lattes of the morning with the exquisite but sometimes cranky antique espresso machine. ...

Piling detail on delectably expensive detail, the teller of the tale would build to the kicker: And these people don't even cook! They live on takeout! Their giant Sub-Zeroes are full of leftover shrimp fried rice and General Tso's chicken in the little white cardboard fold-up containers with the wire handles!

What could be sillier than paying top dollar for a lot of stuff you have no actual use for?

But the joke's tacit corollary — that it's perfectly reasonable to spring for top-of-the-line everything if you can afford to and if you'll really use it — is nearly as silly, though we tend not to notice it. I suspect it's an artifact of the American consumer culture: People with luxury goods to sell have an obvious interest in persuading us that it's always good to buy the best, and they've done a fine job of it. We take it for granted. We don't even notice we're making an assumption: Doesn't everybody want the best?

A few years ago in Buenos Aires I heard a taxi driver complain that American tourists were always asking him to tip them off to the best steak restaurant in town, the best cafe, the best wine bar. He thought it was weird. "Why does it have to be the best?" he asked. "What's wrong with eating in a good restaurant?" Eating, he thought, was about pleasure and sustenance. Why make it a contest?

He would've approved of Julia Child's kitchen. Child had a similarly pragmatic take on kitchen design, as I learned a couple of weekends ago when I came across a monograph in a stack of architecture and design books at a house sale. Published in 1977, "Julia's Kitchen: A Design Anatomy" filled Number 104 of the Design Quarterly published by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The cover shows Julia and some of her batterie de cuisine — saucepans, skillets, measuring cups, milk pitchers, terrines, etc. — ranged against a background that simulates the pegboard panels that covered several walls of her kitchen.

Think of it: plain old utilitarian pegboard, mass-produced not artisanal, vernacular not trendy, and not even mildly interesting. The same utterly unexceptional stuff you've seen hanging over a zillion basement work benches. The same stuff you can buy today for $16.25 per 4-by-8-foot sheet at your local Lowe's.

Child was America's most celebrated chef, a TV star, progenitor of Emeril Lagasse, Martha Stewart, Nigella Lawson, Rachael Ray, et al. She could've had anything she wanted — curly maple cabinets, heavy-duty industrial pot racks, rows of stainless steel rails and sliding hooks like the ones in restaurant kitchens. But she chose to hang her treasured collection of pots and pans on pegboard — each one outlined so that it could easily be returned to its assigned place after use -- because it worked perfectly well and looked fine. (The pots and pegboards are in the Smithsonian now, along with the rest of her kitchen. See for yourself at

People on the home decorating shows on cable always want to "update" kitchens with granite counters and all stainless steel appliances. Julia and Paul Child settled on a kitchen color scheme of soft blues and greens shortly after they moved into their house on Irving Street in Cambridge, Mass., and, according to Smithsonian curator Paula Johnson, they never felt the need to update. They liked the way it looked. (Johnson says visitors expecting a gleaming top-of-the-line and state-of-the-art kitchen are sometimes surprised at how low-key it is.)

Child's kitchen was "remarkably affordable," according to Bill Stumpf (later he'd design the Aeron chair) and Nicholas Polites, authors of the DQ design anatomy, because she had a "feeling for what is elegant and common" and knew that "these qualities are not mutually exclusive."

She worked in her kitchen, and she needed the things in her kitchen to work, but she didn't need them to match. She didn't need them to wow the casual visitor. So she shopped for function and long-term value. Much as she loved the copper pots she'd bought in Paris, mostly she chose the least expensive tool or material that would serve her purpose and stand up under heavy use. She bought her Garland restaurant stove used for $400, racked her wine collection on plain pine shelves, used painted pine cabinets and drawers (with professional-quality drawer slides), and protected her wooden kitchen table with oilcloth (from Marimekko). She used standard metal Venetian blinds instead of fancy "window treatments."

When it came to countertops, she didn't fuss about color coordination; she opted for "metal near the stove for hot pots, marble in the pastry area for rolling out pie crusts ..., solid maple in the cutting area for food preparation and stainless steel near the sink for washing large skillets and draining off wet vegetables."

Of course, she had the advantage of knowing how to cook, so she knew what she needed. People who don't cook don't know.


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