Katy recently heard another photographer cite a web-business adage that I'd never heard before. Apparently, ugly websites sell more. This is not all websites, mind you, but rather websites attempting to aggressively sell something. This photographer had switched print sales sites from one with an elegant interface to one that was markedly uglier, and he saw an immediate uptick in sales. There seem to be a lot of theories about this-- ugly websites are inherently simpler, ugly websites seem more trustworthy, ugly websites usually sell cheaper goods, etc. I have another theory to posit-- that these sites are more approachable, and because they're so bare bones, you feel like you're getting a great deal even if you aren't.
This is the same idea behind bargain retail-- yes, there is usually less overhead in bargain stores, but don't you think that DSW or Filene's Basement makes enough money to, say, put in partitions? Or maybe use lighting that's not ripped directly out of a high school gym? These spaces are not entirely about saving money. They're about creating the atmosphere of savings, replicating as exactly as possible the feeling of a swap meet or flea market, pulling pages out of a book that goes as far back as the Agora.
What is the equivalent domestic atmosphere? Is there some sort of stage set you can produce that will make you seem instantly trustworty? Wise? Fearsome? If so, I'm sure you can buy it at Pottery Barn. It seems like our national industry has become the perfection of atmospherics, or "lifestyles," if you prefer the vernacular. It's not too different from the future Neal Stephenson posits where the only three things the USA is still #1 in are movies, code, and pizza delivery. Not that I'm going to start wailing for a return to honesty and simplicity. But I'd much rather have things reach out and smack you every once in a while, instead of sitting in the corner and glaring. I prefer my design to be active rather than passive. This is not an aesthetic judgement, nor a social one. Maybe just more products that answer the what, how, and why rather than the where, who, and when.