Consumerism is the term used to describe the effects of equating personal happiness with purchasing material possessions and consumption. Today we live in a consumer culture obsessed world. Consumption encompasses our everyday lives and structures our everyday agendas. The values, meanings and costs of what we consume have become an increasingly important part of our social and personal experiences. The main factor enforcing our actions in this way is the news media. The news media is filled with information about consumption- not only in the form of advertising but also as news about businesses, lifestyles and economic indicators. However none of this tells us how we came about as a culture that associates freedom with the freedom of consuming anything of our choice and as a means of self-fulfillment.
All cultures have found meaning in material goods. Objects resemble a social status or go further than that and have an emotional attachment with one’s self. Goods are not only consumed for their material characteristics, but even more for what they symbolize- their meanings, associations and there involvement in our self image. Consumption is not simply the acquiring of products’ predestined meanings. Instead, it should be seen as a form of social consumer culture. While consumption is an act, consumer culture is a way of life.
It is quite likely that never before in history has consumption become one of the central values of a culture. In modern society one learns merely to consume, and tasteful or appropriate consumption is only one of the numerous choices. It is this focus on consumption as a central worth that makes us a consumer culture. Consumption no longer seems to reflect our cultural values; it has itself become a cultural value. It has entered into the warp and turmoil of this fabric we call modern life. Every public space, every occasion for public gathering, every creative expression is seen as an opportunity to encourage more consumption.
To understand how we have become this consumer crazy culture it is important to understand the humble beginnings of this crazy fixation. Before the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century, what people consumed was, either goods mad by family members or a person the consumer has a personal relation with. In early Europe the form consumerism took place in the weekly markets and seasonal fairs. The historical pattern in America was somewhat different. Unlike in Europe, where markets and fairs preceded the development of shops, in America shops emerged as the customary way of buying and selling in its early colonial period. It was not until the eighteenth century that markets and fairs became popular in the United States.
Fashion is one of the key elements that fuel consumerism. Fashion not only includes clothing, but also any object where there is a concern for what is different, new and improved and which allows us to express our individuality. Fashion is so central to modern day consumption that it is difficult to imagine a culture in which it is not a major force. People throughout time have always been interested in the beautiful or in signs of status and in the pursuit of anything that brings them pleasure or happiness.
It was during the last quarter of the sixteenth century in England that consumption first took off amongst the European nobility. This powered to two important developments. First, Queen Elizabeth the first used the dramatic spectacle of fashion as a display of government power. Second, she forced social competition among the nobility by removing them from their locality where they were clearly superior and forcing them to attend the London court where they had to compete with equals. Previously consumption had always been a family matter and what benefited the family the most. But now Elizabethan noblemen began to spend less on their families and more on themselves to further show there class and status.
Josiah Wedgewood was one of the pioneers in the consumption phase. He had this new understanding of fashion and the market place. Wedgewood was a manufacturer and retailer of pottery in the eighteenth century. He was the first to recognize that if the rich and elite could be induced to adopt fashions, the other classes would follow soon.
There are only certain societies where it is possible for a fashion to spread to the higher class to the lower class. Fashion has to be affordable for those in the lower class and the classes must be close enough with some fluidity between them that those in the lower class could imagine themselves owing what those in the upper class have. In England during this period the lower class was eager to possess whatever the upper class deemed fashionable. Wedgewood understood the immense financial potential of such a social situation and learnt how he could control it. His fashion tool was pottery. Wedgewood learned to closely observe what the upper class was buying in order to predict what direction the lower class consumption habits would follow through.
Another factor adding to the consumer culture is the portrayal of this culture. In the United States consumption spurred as a symbol for rebellion rather than a symbol a homogeneous conformity. Schutte and Ciarlante describe Coca cola, Levis and Marlboro as symbols of individualism and freedom. Three phrases from Stuart and Elizabeth Ewens Channels of Desire (1982) which they see as indicative of the recent tendencies within consumer culture describe it best. ‘Today there is no fashion: there are only fashions. No rules, only choices. Everyone can be anyone.’ This suggests there is a war against uniformity, a surplus of difference which results in a loss of meaning. The repercussion is that we are moving towards a society without fixed status groups in which the adoption of styles of life which are fixed to specific groups have been surpassed.
We have been encouraged to buy in order to establish our individuality in a mass-produced culture. To express our disgust with consumption by more consumption, to purchase the latest improved traditions. Now people are encouraged to buy to convey their rejection of homogenized lifestyles. This anti-consumption attitude only fuels more consumption.
Years ago, many people imagined that life would be idyllic in the 21st century. Technology would have cured most human shortcomings, and there would be abundance of resources available for all. Population growth and overconsumption underlie many of the invasive environmental and social concerns that humans face today. Over consumption of our natural resource base is jeopardizing ecosystems throughout the world. Wealthy nations like the US amount to 20 percent of the world’s population, yet they use more than 70 percent of the earths resources and generate an even higher volume of wastes. Some of these wastes are released into the atmosphere, rivers and oceans, others are landfilled or incinerated, a small part is recycled. The standard notion of economic development envisions the rest of the world’s population moving progressively up the ladder of mass consumption. Clearly, the environmental implications of the global spread of mass consumption for resource use and environmental waste is staggering.
In present times design culture also has greatly been influenced consumerism. Cities such as Las Vegas have dedicated their entire landscape to advertising to feed the need of consumerism. For the Utopian design at hand I have targeted the hospitality sector of the economy which attracts consumers owed to the hectic and fast-paced life we live today. I have chosen the Singapore Cricket Club for my bar and restaurant. The design is held together by the concept of network. Taking into consideration that the bar is the main attraction of a bar and highest revenue earning point in an F&B. Using the concept of network my design directs all consumers towards the bar.
The bar acts as the main attraction of my design which can be viewed from all levels and spaces. The unconventional feature of the bar is that it suspends 3000mm from the ground. As people walk through narrow corridors directing them towards the bar they are suddenly engulfed by the large open suspending bar and LED lighting panels from the ceiling going past 3 floors lighting up the entire design and focusing mainly onto the bar.
The cuckoo club in London is a great example of how the bar acts as a key attraction in the premises. The entire space communicates glamour, drama and luxury. It represents a grand, dramatic film set with huge doors sweeping stairs, silk and voile drapes. The bar acts as a key feature covered entirely in gold sequins, set beneath a ceiling of diamond pattern panels of LED lighting (acrylic domes set into panels and then colour-washed across the whole ceiling), fringed with diamante beading. The lighting is flexible, varying from simulated daylight to pinks and purple in the night.
The second case study chosen is Wine tower bar in UK. A 13 meter high wine tower forms the alluring centre point of the Radisson SAS Hotel lounge and bar at Stansted airport. The temperature controlled structure, constructed out of 6.5 tons of laminated glass, a steel core and a pyramid shaped roof, is fitted with an acrylic rack filled with 4,000 bottles of red and white wine. The enchantingly lit column not only serves as a
large open wine rack but also functions as a theatre in which 4 graceful ‘wine angels’ suspended on cables collect the bottles ordered by the guests. With the help of remote control and computer controlled winches, these women glide effortlessly up and down, whilst also slipping in a few acrobatics in the between.
In conclusion Consumer culture has been incredibly successful. Not only has it been successful in satisfying our needs and desires, but it also has been successful in redefining what are needs are and expanding our desires. If we accept these desires as natural or inevitable, then consumer society seems natural and inevitable as well.
Consumerism on the other hand does not only feed our desires but has left this earth with beyond reconcilable damages. Today are demand for goods is increasing beyond the capability of what our earth can come up with it. If our greed for consumption keeps increasing we will have to very soon give up our basic needs because our demands cannot be kept up with.