October 1999
s m u g
back issues
by Joshua Allen


Pretty much every magazine is about having sex with something, metaphorically or otherwise. Cigar Aficionado, Better Homes and Gardens, The Economist, Omni — each has their own spin, approach, and volley, but their targets are all similarly fetishized. I.D. ("The International Design Magazine") is no different, although the subject of its soulless seduction is not industrial design, as you might expect, but paper.

Hefty, shiny, and pricey, I.D. attempts to supersaturate the fundamentally flimsy nature of magazines with luxurious quality. Instead of quickly flipping and skimming, your mind on a million other things, perhaps a sobbing baby on one knee or a deodorant commercial in one ear, you're supposed to delicately rub the pages against your cheek, working your fingers deep into their fleshy fibers as if you were massaging a mint facial scrub into the minuscule pores of a teen pop idol. The paper is almost embarrassingly decadent, almost obscenely labial. And the fact that a mere magazine is so dense with sensual attention is, of course, perfectly appropriate for a publication that glorifies sensual attention in everyday objects, a good designer's subtle hand behind such mundane constructions as toilet cleaner and cribs and catheters. The design of the magazine itself isn't anything particularly noteworthy, but that's the point: It acts as a kind of picture frame, containing and emphasizing the art without overwhelming it. Since I.D. has to be so restrained (instead of flaunting graphic design, as

Raygun does, making you constantly aware of its presence), it saves its abandon and decadence for the paper.

"Oh, you're getting the twenty-five-dollar magazine," the clerk at the bookstore said as I lugged the '99 Design Review issue (the annual best-of collection) to the checkout stand, lifting with my knees and not my back. "Is it worth it?" she asked me. "I don't know," I said. "I've never read it before. But feel this paper." I let the magazine open to a random page and she ran a finger idly down its crack. Her face turned bright red almost instantly. "You see what I'm talking about?" I said. She nodded and started tapping away on the cash register. "It's worth it, all right."

But the paper isn't just there for tactile arousal. It also acts as a natural extension of the magazine's vision, namely presenting the finest in design in the handsomest way possible. Good paper makes for good images, as Kodak has been propagandizing for decades now, and I started to agree as the pictures of beautiful product labels, voluptuous consumer electronics, and blindingly austere furniture bled into life, becoming even more astounding than if they'd been sitting right in front of me. The paper sells each photograph, and the shameless whorishness of the materials involved makes I.D.'s mission clear. They don't want to make you buy these items (although it does have that useful side-effect [but if every chair and remote control and faucet in my apartment were all so relentlessly designed to such a high sheen, I'd probably go insane from the sheer oppression of beautiful utility]), they want you to buy the concept of good design. They want you to appreciate its value and importance, whether it's in commercials, movie credits (I was really, really happy to see that the opening credits for Dead Man on Campus took the coveted Best-of-Category award in the Graphics section), bars of soap, computer keyboards, telediagnostic geometry interface x-ray systems, or toothbrushes. This is not out of some altruistic effort to improve the quality of life of consumers everywhere, but to justify the existence of designers.

I've seen this tack in just about every design-related publication I've ever read. There's a bitter desperation to every perfectly kerned word. Designers, especially industrial designers, always get the short end of the stick because the skill involved with their work is never appreciated, so everyone thinks they're irrelevant. "Why should I hire an unbelievably expensive firm to design my new-fangled razor when I can do it myself for free?" the clients ask themselves. "I mean, put a handle on this end and something sharp on this end. Done." If designers don't keep driving home the importance of intelligent, original design, they'll be out of a job.

And so I.D. presses their case with every exquisite page, attempting (with no small degree of success, I'm sure) to strike fear in the hearts of cheapskate manufacturers everywhere. "Goodness gracious," they will say, getting an eyeful of an irresistable snowboard binding. "That's maybe ten times sexier than our snowboard binding. Junior said he could do the design himself, but our binding looks like three nails and a phone cord glued to a Bible. This will not stand."

Sadly, though, I think I.D. tries too hard. The judges who selected the winners in this year's Design Review come across as both arrogant ("It's very pretty, but is it an exercise in cosmetics?") and dumb ("Restraint is a good thing, so a lot of restraint must be a really good thing."), which is exactly what the magazine should be avoiding. It made me not want to hang out with professional designers. So after a while I stopped reading the little blurbs and just looked at the images, those devils, giving me that come-hither look on their bed of glossy paper. The design of the products was appealing enough, and delivered a much more convincing argument than any designer could.




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