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PWND: Antique Furniture and Digital Culture

PWND: Antique Furniture and Digital Culture
June 16, 2011 Chris

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the continued existence of the antique furniture industry is by definition predicated on stagnation. Which is another way of saying: “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” Of course, this shouldn’t surprise us: the divide between postmodernity and the modern era grows wider every day. It is becoming increasingly difficult for one generation to speak to the next: on top of the usual social and ideological differences between generations, we are now confronted with a deluge of new technologies and revolutionary ways of using them. Is Victorian furniture really any longer relevant to today’s young professionals, who are turning in droves toward contemporary tastes and away from the venerable traditions of antique furniture? Is it possible to bridge the generational gap so that our industry can perpetuate itself?

The short answer, in my view, is a resounding Yes. But to make this happen, many industry professionals—from designers, to cabinetmakers, to wholesalers and retailers—will have to entirely rethink their approach to the business. It is no longer enough to provide a good product or a good service: that product must now be socially relevant, exciting, and convenient. Cultural capital is now just as important as selling a finely crafted product.

Going Retro, Going Viral

The roots and direction of today’s ad culture.

Today’s ad culture has transitioned from the model of the “news spot” commercial to one that simulates social life itself. Consider, for example, this retro commercial for Palmolive soap:

This ad’s selling points are, by today’s standards, incredibly naive. There’s nothing wrong with that, though: because of the proliferation of mass media, basically everyone today is an expert in ad culture. So, we can laugh at the seriousness and sincerity of these old ads, which pretend to offer some kind of scientific or “objective” approach to selling the product. These days, we’re all cynics: we know better than to buy into this quaint idea of the scientifically vetted bar of soap. Instead, we buy soap because it smells good or because it has a funny commercial.

Which brings me to my industry-relevant counterexample! Many people have seen or heard of the infamous viral video produced for North Carolina-based Red House Furniture:

The retro aesthetic in this commercial is obviously updated from the era of Palmolive, Nature’s Chlorophyll. This is a great strategy, since basically everyone who wasn’t born yesterday is familiar with ’80’s ad culture and its hilariously tacky production values. And the proof is in the pudding: Red House’s ad has now reached over 3.3 million views.

Viral videos began as a quirky internet phenomena in the ’90’s, produced in the basements of bored nerds who shared videos in the sub-sub-cultures of obscure internet forums. Now, even the furniture industry has caught on. Granted, Red House doesn’t market antiques, but their video illustrates how a culturally relevant marketing approach can make even furniture seem cool.

Interior Design in Cyberspace

How a traditional profession migrates to digital space.

Bethesda’s recent post-apocalyptic RPG, Fallout, is perhaps the supreme example of nostalgia gaming. Set in an alternate reality in which 23rd-century America never moved beyond the naive culture of the ’50’s, Fallout is replete with retro cultural artifacts. Everything from the musical soundtrack (big band jazz) to the furniture itself is straight out of the ’50’s cultural imagination (except for the laser guns and mutant monsters). Here is what one player’s house looks like in the game (click for hi-res versions):

Other titles have also made the move to Art Deco design, and not just on interiors—for example, BioSchock and LA Noir, the latter of which actually takes place in 1947 Los Angeles. Art Deco in videogames is also not a new phenomenon. Thus, even cutting-edge media like videogames are obsessed with tradition and therefore…gasp–drumroll–trumpets…antiques.

The point isn’t that videogames will somehow save our industry. Instead, these examples illustrate how even a medium that is almost exclusively explored by today’s youth fetishizes traditional aesthetics. This means that there is hope for marketing antiques to youth—and what’s more, that we will have to do so in the language of today.

Nostalgia as Marketing Method

How to revitalize the antiques industry. (omg lol imho w00t)

Postmodern nostalgia is so prolific that even academics are writing about it. As Frederic Jameson argues, we live in an age that is defined by its fetishistic cannibalization of earlier periods and styles. Retro culture (from any period) isn’t just making a “comeback”: it’s who we are. Think hair styles, hipsters, and the newest Ford Mustang—or even Axe’s recent lewd soap ad, which is modeled after retro infomercials.

So, what is the lesson here for the antique industry? Adapt! The mom-and-pop model is dead. Shopping today isn’t an obscure crawl through the marketplace like it used to be—but that’s how people still think about antiques. They’re “charming.” You don’t purchase an antique: you “come across” a great “find.” It’s time for that to change.

When the antiques that we sell were first crafted, they were considered contemporary and cutting edge—just like today’s furniture, with all its curves and angles. So we learn leetspeak. We speak the language of the real world. We migrate to the web. We engage in social media. It’s not just a marketing stunt: this is how our culture thinks. Irony, humor, self-awareness. This is marketing 101. The cultural logic of stagnation, if our industry is to survive and thrive in tomorrow’s marketplace, must give way to a celebration of the antagonisms between the antique and the contemporary. Articles like this one are a start. Red House is a start. And if our culture’s love of retro styles and nostalgia is any indication, antiques will be the next big thing in marketing. w00t!