Downmarket Deluxe


Credit: Reason Magazine

Target, the downmarket discount chain, has lately added a few dozen more housewares to its "Michael Graves Design Collection." More than 500 are now available; three new items (a toaster, a tea kettle, and a phone) are pictured here. These are witty designs that deal playfully with familiar shapes, and it is not surprising that they have proven a great success for Target. Yet when the Graves line started last year, The New York Times turned sour. Target's shoppers, the paper sniffed, would likely confuse Graves with a corporate prop such as Betty Crocker.

Graves, as it happens, is an architect, and the elite cultural press was once a very big fan of his. His buildings have often been cited as exemplifying postmodern design at its best. Signature works such as the Denver Public Library and his Florida hotels and apartments featured unusual juxtapositions of mass, and surprising, bright colors. In other words, the same playful sensibility at work in his famous buildings, embraced by elite critics, is at work in his Target housewares, which has left the same critics sneering.

When Graves designed objects for Tiffany, nobody sneered. But then Tiffany is part of the same taste culture that New York critics inhabit; Target isn't. Or so they still think. But though such critics remain stationed as gatekeepers, their concerns about taste proprieties are increasingly beside the point. Cultural castes are being obliterated by the increasing ubiquity of cultural choice-whether in literature or in housewares.

The Times may not realize that, but Michael Graves does. So does Target, as do its shoppers.