Cool by design

Dec 1, 1999 at 12:00 am

Target is the coolest store in America. Period.

Because this is what cool amounts to — seeing the design of things. And that's what Target is doing, revealing the design that makes things cool.

Start with the corporate logo and name. There's a self-reflexive joke built right in. The logo — a red target — "says" the company name, and the name — spelled out in an elegant black typeface — "reads" the logo, as if by design, which of course it is. And that is very cool. A designer label that only has designs on itself.

By way of comparison, Target's main competitors — Kmart and Wal-Mart — are not even trying to be cool, nominally speaking. Each merely rehearses an abbreviated founder's name (the Kresge Co. and Sam Walton, respectively). Utilitarian, yes. Functional and direct, sure, just like the stores. Maybe even campy. (Who can forget the blue-light special?) But cool?

Admittedly, on the surface America's big-box discounters all look alike, and in fact they all started the same year, 1962. Same generic architecture and fittings. Same scuffed linoleum and huge single-story spaces, with fluorescents overhead and a staticky PA system that never seems to work right.

The same shopping carts, and kids, and disaffected clerks. A little boy screaming inconsolably his unrequited desire for a stuffed Pokémon toy. Same air and smells and snack bar.

Except at Target there are differences. The fluorescent tubes are concealed, the ceilings lower, the space is scaled so humans might want to feel good inside. Paint colors are muted and "tasteful," and there's that tracer of unfunctional but colorful neon running around the walls. Pure design. You're treated as if you might notice the difference, so you do.

Or think about Target's national advertising campaign. In the New York Times Magazine, a rockabilly guy vamps for the camera in a full-page color photo, white shirt and socks, black jeans and grease-monkey shoes, pompadour at full plume. He's singing, it seems, into a microphone, but it turns out the microphone is really a deco-style lamp ($99.99, $21.99 for the jeans).

In another, there's a stylish model (expensive hair, little black dress) with a set of wrenches arranged as her necklace ($5.99 for the wrench set, $29.99 for the dress).

In yet another image a young man appears to be competing in a javelin throw, except he's not throwing a javelin, but a curtain rod ($14.99 for the rod; his mesh shorts are $11.99).

Everything might not be as simple, or as stable as it appears, which makes you think there must be a design at the bottom of this. And there is, which is the origin of Target's cool.

Not that this revelation is all innocent simplicity, because it's not. Take for instance what happens to Michael Graves. Target hired him to create various product lines (kitchen implements, furniture, household goods), "the former poster boy of post-modern architecture," as he was referred to dismissively by the New York Times.

So, what's this guy doing here if his fame is behind him? That's an interesting question. Walk past the Michael Graves display, with its photograph of the great man, and its explanatory text — "the highly acclaimed work of Michael Graves has restored a sense of humanity to modern architecture," et cetera — and what you'll find is a shrewd, impromptu performance piece.

The shelves are, more or less, in disarray, the product lines poorly represented, boxes open, display items askew, as if nobody is really worried too much how this stuff looks, or whether it's even all here.

And that's what turns Graves into a piece of fun, unlike Martha Stewart at Kmart, who is not fun or cool, either one.

Here, the store invites us to camp out on Graves' "importance," to consume his celebrity in a jokey, fun way, just like their morph-and-match advertising would lead you to guess, with one thing always turning into another.

Of course, it's also OK to consume his designs, even unknowingly. Some of them really are cool, and cheap, comparatively speaking: For example, his toaster with its goofy little feet and knobs ($39.99), or a set of cooking utensils with their cool-grip handles ($19.95), or Graves' knock-off of his own famous Alessi tea kettle (sold by the Italian company for $150), which will cost you a mere $112 at Target. That's way cool.

This same attitude infiltrates the whole store, by design, although somebody who isn't there looking for cool needn't be bothered by any untoward goings-on. And that's cool too, leaving people alone, letting them do what they need to. But Target also provides them with something else, just in case — a kind of consumer double consciousness.

Take, for example, the quirky little swivel trash can ($7) that looks like an iMac version of a wine bucket. Or the plastic Chinese take-out boxes ($1.99). What are these about? Even if the answer isn't clear, it seems clear that there might be one.

Commercially speaking, the store is constantly riffing and sampling, like a "Simpsons" episode. The "Uptown Collection" of furniture, for instance, with its blond wood and industrial strength wheels, might be quoting the designs of high-end Ligne Roset. The picture frames look like they come from Pottery Barn, the fire screen like something from Restoration Hardware.

In the end, though, there's more than just jokes and sampling to admire. The store is making a kind of proposal about design, and about what else might happen, while history and commerce go forward — all the usual suspects that keep things, supposedly, from ever changing.

And this is the coolest idea of all: That we don't have to wait for the "big fix" (to capitalism, Y2K, the environment, you name it). That we might spend time in the world — like it's possible to spend time in the store — just fooling around on our own, because we can, because that's what the design invites.

Like goofing on the funny spatulas at Target, or laughing at Michael Graves while you stand in the checkout line to buy his pepper mill ($14.99). I did. Not because it's better, but because it's cool.