Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Groping for the Platonic TV Set

It's often interesting to examine design from the point when a type of product makes its first commercial appearance until things settle down to a "best" general solution that persists with relatively minor variations until the class of product becomes obsolete or a major technological advance requires a renewed design evolution.

Designers are literally making things up as they're going on, uncertain what the ultimate general solution will be. There are trials, errors and successes (measured by market acceptance) along the way.

Today's post deals with television set design evolution in a sketchy way from the late 1930s till nearly 1960. Call it 20 years -- 15 if the "time out" for World War 2 is factored in. By "sketchy" I mean that entire classes of TV sets such as tabletop or semi-portable examples are omitted from this review. Perhaps I'll get around to dealing with them another time.

Marconi - 1937
RCA sets displayed at 1939 New York World's Fair
For some reason many of the very earliest television sets that people could actually buy had a top with a mirror underneath that could be propped open when one was about to turn it on (the controls were under that top along with the cathode ray tube - CRT). The CRT was set up so that it projected a reversed image that the mirror then righted so that the image was normal -- that is, so any text images could be read normally. Actually, the reason is pretty obvious: the console containing the television set was simply another sort of cabinet when not in use, just another piece of furniture. (See below for later examples of this design strategy.) The problem with the mirror feature was that viewers had to be positioned almost exactly opposite the set and have their eyes at the correct height to be able to view the image properly. Direct-viewing TVs were less restricted. Even so, CRTs were small in the early days, so viewers still had to huddle and stay closer to the screen than later on. Mirror-top televisions were still being sold in the late 1940s, but then disappeared from the marketplace.

Advertisement showing Dumont console - ca. 1950
For many years television sets resided in living rooms, where families tended to gather before the "family room" gained popularity in America starting, say, in the mid-1950s. Therefore the expensive TV set (and they often cost more than today's largest flat-screen TVs, adjusting for inflation) was a major item of furniture that many wives wanted to fit well with the rest of the décor. Note that the console has doors than can be closed to hide the screen when not in use.

Crosley TV with radio/record player - 1950
This Crosley is a pretty typical less-than-a-console TV with respect to price and style. (Actually, the ensemble shown is contained in a console -- but the set itself in the upper-right corner could just have well be freestanding, and probably was in most cases.) It just sits there on one side of the living room and its big "eye" stares back at you all the time. Of course, this is how most television sets were over the last 60 years, console models having gradually faded from the scene.

Zenith with round screen - 1950
For some reason Zenith built a line of sets with round screens for a few years. They seemed odd at the time, but at least a few people bought them. Why a round screen? Well, cathode ray tubes were round in those days and perhaps designers felt that a round "frame" for the image was "functional," the holy grail of purist industrial design and architecture. But source images were essentially rectangular, so the round format clipped off parts that might be of interest to the viewer.

Philco Predicta - ca.1959
This TV set was built 10 years before the moon-landing image being shown on the screen. But hey, this design was really super-dooper space-age! Actually the modular screen/innards box concept wasn't a bad one; most desktop computers until recently followed the same practice. Philco's problem was that this line of TV sets was unreliable, thus helping to kill sales. Another negative might have been that the design would clash with traditional-style living room décor; TVs tended to reside in living rooms in those days, as noted above.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Crumbling Egos

Eric Felten's De Gustibus column in the 24 September Wall Street Journal (link here) has the intriguing title "Pardon Us, But Our Museum Is Falling Apart."

He cites defect examples that include the new Modern Wing of Chicago's Art Institute and I.M. Pei's National Gallery East Building -- the latter apparently needing an extensive re-skinning.

Then there are the cost over-runs. Felten mentions an addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum that was budgeted at $35 million but came in at $125 million, nearly four times the estimate.

What is going on here?

Radically designed buildings are essentially massive inventions produced and sold without prototypes. Is it any surprise they tend to be glitchy?

There have always been building failures (you would not want to have been standing in the choir of the Beauvais Cathedral the evening of 29 Nov., 1284). But the impractical nature of much current architecture has made it a pressing modern problem.

And then there's this bit that warms the cockles of my black little modernist-distrusting heart:

"The forms of traditional buildings, such as pitched roofs and moldings, almost always contribute to proper weathering, shedding water, and protecting the structure," says Steven W. Semes, a professor of architecture and academic director of Notre Dame's Rome Studies Program. "Modern buildings often assume shapes that do the opposite, directing water into the building rather than away from it."

I've been aware of the last point by virtue of living most of my life in the drizzly Pacific Northwest: essentially flat roofs are harder to drain than peaked ones.

But the point about large, flash, ego-statement building being engineering experiments hadn't sunk into my brain even though it should have years ago. Thank you, Eric, for highlighting this.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Costumed in Carmel-by-the-Sea

It was a typical foggy morning as we lined up outside the mess-hall door waiting our turn for breakfast. A newsboy hawking San Jose papers moved along the line but got few takers, as usual.

I'm normally a news junkie, but the rigors of Basic Training seem to have killed most of my interest; the Army kept me too occupied to spare the time and effort. But I did scan the headlines if they were large enough. Not long ago there were huge ones about Russia testing a 50-megaton H-bomb.

But today was going to be special. We were more than halfway through the eight-week training cycle, it was Sunday, and this afternoon we were to get our first pass. We could do as we pleased, provided it was legal, from noon till 10 that evening.

Many guys planned to head for the Soldiers' Club, a large, wooden structure near the beach where one might order a real hamburger and down some beer. Others, me included, opted to go off-post for the afternoon. Of course we had to wear uniforms -- our green "bus-driver" style Class-A kit complete with no rank or unit indicators, we being of the lowest class of Private and too temporary to bother having a Sixth Army shoulder patch sewn on.

Where to go? Perhaps to Seaside or Marina, in those days off-post purveyors of booze and other imagined necessities for those who found Fort Ord's Soldiers' or NCO clubs too tame. But we might have been told to keep away from Seaside and Marina; I don't remember, perhaps because they didn't appeal to me in the first place. Otherwise, given that we had to take a bus, the only real possibilities were Monterey and Carmel. I went with the Carmel-bound group, which was a pretty small share of our training company: let's say six of us.

Since then, I've visited Carmel quite a few times and have a rough feel for the place. It's a former art colony that remained pretty arty. Immediately to the northwest is the famous Seventeen-Mile Drive part of the peninsula. It has a number a well-known golf courses including Pebble Beach, Spanish Bay, Spyglass and Cypress Point. Some housing near the north part of the Drive was originally modest, middle-class, but near the west and, especially, the south there are plenty of ritzy digs. To put it another way, the area in and near Carmel is crawling with money. And it probably was when our bus finally dropped us off near Ocean Avenue.

The "downtown" (business district) part of Carmel is small now and about the same size when we set off to explore it. Even the buildings are pretty much the same. Nowadays, there's a small, three-floor open mall at the top end of the Ocean Avenue commercial strip and here and there are other buildings that were added since that Sunday when the Army invaded. One thing that definitely has changed is that Fort Ord is now essentially closed. There are no more young men going through Basic and I haven't seen anyone wearing an army uniform in Carmel in years. The closest I came was when I was chatting with a retired Navy Rear Admiral at my wife's college sorority alumnae club Christmas party in a house near the number two green at Spyglass, and that's not close at all.

Anyway, since we had little money and virtually no place to store any purchases, we simply wandered around, gazing at the storefronts, Spanish-style buildings and the occasional odd Storybook Style structures that can still be found there.

Perhaps we had something to eat and maybe drank a Coke or Pepsi someplace. But after two or three hours, we'd wrung the place dry several times over and caught the bus back to Ord. Once there, we checked out the Soldiers' Club. It featured a big, smokey hall where beer was served, but I'm not sure if I bothered to wait in line to buy a glass. The next day we'd be back to training, so we hiked back to the barracks to get our gear in shape and have some sleep.

Besides the lack of money and storage places, our visit to Carmel was limited psychologically. Yes, were were on pass and off-post, but we weren't really free from the Army thanks to the pass' deadline and the possibility that Military Police might flag us down and offer some hassle (one reason I passed up seeing Monterey, a less classy place than Carmel). We were guys about 20 years old wearing "Army Green" -- not a bit like the older, much richer and better-dressed locals. We eyed them and they eyed us, quite likely gazing down their mental noses in the process.

In a nutshell, I felt out of place and distinctly uncomfortable. I had pretty much the same reactions two years later by the beach at Waikiki on a short pass while our troop ship paused in Pearl Harbor on its way to the Far East.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Watch This Designer Try Too Hard

I really should get around to writing about industrial designer Richard Arbib. But for now, I'll present a couple of his designs for wrist watches and make a few remarks about wrist watch design in general.

I referred to Arbib as an industrial designer. But his work reveals him to have been mostly an industrial decorator ... to be charitable, "industrial stylist" can do.

The period 1945-60 was an odd one in the annals of American design. A case might be made that cars sporting tail fins, Formica kitchen counter tops with squiggly, linear patterns and molded plywood chairs with spindly metal legs represent a daft era where our national characteristics shone through. Or perhaps it was a "whadda we do next?" phase following the design-purity (with lots of streamlining) public relations poses from the generation of industrial design pioneers. Whatever it might have been, Arbib contributed in spades.

A word about wrist watch design (I'll leave digital watches out of the discussion and stick to analog watches -- those with hands). Watch hands sweep in a circular motion, suggesting that the face of the watch should match this. On the other hand wrist bands, especially rugged ones preferred by men, are flat and basically squared off. A watch following that theme would therefore have a square or rectangular case. Between those extremes might be rounded-off rectangles, ovals and so forth.

Arbib, however, tried something very different in his work for the Hamilton watch company. Something very wacky 1950s.

Hamilton Flight II prototype
Hamilton Altair Electric
Arbib's designs are, well, distinctive. But totally at odds with either the hand-sweep or the watchband. He was involved with styling Hamilton watches for the better part of a decade, so presumably sales were acceptable. I think they look awful and apparently others agree because most watchmakers have avoided such styles for the past 50 years.

Cartier Tank Solo
The "tank" design, dating from the Great War, is a popular example of design that favors integration to the band over honoring the sweep.

Movado Men's Museum Watch
Movado made its fame with ultra-purist sweep-oriented designs such as this. Actually, style trumps functionality here too; the absence of hour indicators requires the owner to guess the time -- and often be off by a minute or even more.

Swiss Army "Renegade"
Confession-time. This is the watch I've been wearing for more than 10 years. Not the same one, actually; I buy a new one every three years or so when I figure the battery is about to fail.

Advantages: It's electronic and so keeps good time. It's not very expensive, currently still selling for less than $150. The hands, hour marks and numerals glow in the dark which make it handy for checking the time while in bed at night. The face cover almost never scratches. While it isn't classy like a Rollex, it looks nice. Disadvantage: The band grooves and holes start to clog after a few months use.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Spotted: A Hyper-Fan

I don't know about the rest of you, but the older I get, the less passion I feel about sports and hobbies. I recall pacing back and forth in front of a television set at age 30, agonizing over every play of a playoff or championship football game where one of the teams was a favorite of mine.

As a teenager I went through similar agonies during Gold Cup hydroplane races held in Seattle. The deal at the time was that the winner of the race could choose the site for the following year's race. I and many other locals desperately wanted a "home" boat to win so that Seattle would continue to host the event. It boiled down to a matter of local good-guys versus evil boat owners from Detroit, the other main hub of the sport.

Life went on. I eventually spent about ten years away from the Seattle area, losing touch with hydro racing in the process. Nowadays we sometimes wander down to Lake Washington to catch a few race heats, but I have no special favored boat and don't get cranked up over who wins or loses.

The world is big and not everyone is like me, it seems. From time to time at a place where I occasionally breakfast, I spy this:

It's an old Lincoln sedan with boat wakes painted all over it. On the top is a model hydro complete with simulated "rooster tail" spray. The hood holds models of three hydros -- the pink one is of Edgar Kaiser's "Hawaii Kai" which raced in the late 1950s. Flanking models sport faux-rooster-tails, but have no livery paint-jobs.

The owner of the car is a gent of about my vintage who clearly never let go the passions of his early youth. And he has a truly understanding and supportive wife who's sometimes willing to ride with him in that car on a breakfast jaunt.

Parting thought: I wonder if this is his only car.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Where Do I Find These Artists' Works?

In a couple of weeks I'll be off to Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Of course I'll do my best to hit the Prado and other important Madrid shrines such as the Joaquin Sorolla home/museum. I'll be in Barcelona for a few days towards the end of the trip as well as in-between places such as Toledo, Lisbon, Seville, Granada, Marrakesh and Fez.

Here's a list of a miscellany of late-19th, early-20th century Spanish painters whose work I'm curious to see in person. Has anyone out there been to museums in the cities noted above and noticed any works by these artists?

  • Hermenegildo (Hermen) Anglada-Camarasa
  • Manuel Benedito Vivas
  • Ramon Casas i Carbo
  • Raimundo Madrazo y Garrata
  • Luis Muntane Muns
  • Antonio Ortiz Echague
  • Francisco Pons Arnau
  • Santiago Rusinyol
I'm particularly interested in works by Casas. Also of interest are suggestions you might have regarding other not-so-well-known painters whose work can be seen along my itinerary. Expect some reports once I return towards the end of October.

Should the Detroit Symphony Die?

Not being anything close to an expert on such swaths of art as music, drama and literature, I tend to use articles by people who know the stuff as hooks for my posts on these matters. Perhaps my favorite go-to guy is Terry Teachout, who wears many arts hats including that of theater critic for the Wall Street Journal.

In his bi-weekly non-theater "Sightings" column for the Journal's 18 September issue he discusses the plight of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra which is running an operating deficit to the tune of around $9 million this year and facing a strike by musicians unwilling to take a proposed pay cut to help the balance sheet.

He notes

The numbers tell the tale: Nearly two million people lived in Detroit in 1950. The current population is 800,000. Forty of the city's 140 square miles are vacant. Downsizing is the name of the save-Detroit game, and Mayor Dave Bing, who is looking at an $85 million budget deficit, wants to slash civic services drastically and encourage Detroit's remaining residents to cluster in the healthiest of its surviving neighborhoods.

Can a once-great city that is now the size of Austin, Texas, afford a top-rank symphony orchestra with a 52-week season? Does it even want one? The DSO, after all, is not the only one of Detroit's old-line high-culture institutions that is sweating bullets. The Detroit Institute of Arts and the Michigan Opera Theater are also in trouble...

Sorry Terry, but the numbers you're using are misleading. You are citing data for cities based on populations within city limits. But city boundaries define the political city and not the physical city which is best represented by urbanized area or metropolitan area data. For example, the 2000 census had the Detroit metro area with near four million people (Wikipedia link here) -- nothing to sneeze at. It is that population, not just the population within the city limits, which comprises the pool of potential supporters and attendees of the orchestra, art museum and so forth.

Even so, the orchestra is in serious trouble. Terry concludes

But the players' decision to respond to the orchestra's financial crisis by voting to strike is a classic symptom of the cultural-entitlement mentality—the assumption that artists ought to be paid what they "deserve" to make, even when the community in which they live and work places a significantly lower value on their services. Any economist can tell you what has happened: In Detroit, being a classical instrumentalist is no longer an upper-middle-class job.

We like to think that great symphony orchestras and museums are permanent monuments to the enduring power and significance of art, but in the 21st century, we are going to learn the hard way that this is simply not true. Great high-culture institutions reflect the fundamental character of a city. In America, most of these institutions were founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as manifestations of civic pride. But when a city's character undergoes profound changes, as has happened in Detroit, the institutions are bound to reflect that transformation. One way or another, they'll follow the money—and if there is no money to follow, they'll go out of business. The sad truth is that the Detroit Symphony is no more "permanent" than . . . well, your average auto company.

I am with him on this. We have to earn our keep.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Dinnerstein: Long-Haul Realist

Harvey Dinnerstein (born 1928) has been able to carve out a long, New York based painting career without ever compromising his devotion to realism (for a little background on this, click here).

Many of his subjects related to New York City, though there are exceptions. Matthew Innis discusses one, "Parade," at length here.

A 2008 book about Dinnerstein and his art can sometimes be found in bookstores and might be available here.

I respect Dinnerstein's courage and tenacity in not following the New York art market herd. However, I've yet to encounter any of his paintings directly, so will not offer commentary at this time.


After winning Portrait Society of America award - Burton Silverman at left and Dinnerstein.

Brownstone - 1958-60

The Wide Swing


Sam and Bill - 1997

Sundown, The Crossing - 1999

Underground Together - 1996

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Subtle Grille

Some automobile grilles are glorified mesh -- just a little too open to actually keep bugs off the radiator.

Others are sculptural, of a design intended to give the car identification as a specific make or model. Back in the 1950s the goal of design management for most American car companies was to have a grille that would indicate the make for a viewer half a block or more away.

Put another way, subtlety in a grille's close-up view was of almost no importance. So I was a bit surprised when I finally noticed that certain models of the Lexus RX crossover SUV series possessed grilles with features that could only be appreciated at close range.


Lexus RX330 ca.2005 - photographed in Australia

RX300 grille closeup view

Note the converging vertical bars and the small insets running up to a point about 40 percent of the height of the grille. Subtle and elegant -- fitting for an upscale car line.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rustic Without the Mildew

I snapped the above photo at a garden shop in an nearby upscale shopping area. Outside the shop's main building was the wooden garden shed whose interior is pictured.

The intention is that this is all so rustic and charming -- a lovely touch for that half-acre back yard of yours.

As sheds go, it's nice. But it reminds me of the real sheds of my childhood it was patterned after. Those sheds were old, unheated and might have had smaller windows. Here in the soggy northwest the interiors would often develop mildew. As for those "distressed" pieces of furniture in the photo -- the real shed furniture I remember was old and genuinely beat-up.

In a nutshell, as a child I hated old, mildewed garden sheds and all that they contained. So the upscale, sanitized version at that garden shop charms me not at all.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Cliche, Refurbished

Unisphere, shown during the 1964-65 New York World's Fair

Today's Wall Street Journal has this article about the refurbished Unisphere built as the centerpiece of the 1964-65 New York World's Fair.

The article by Tomas J. Campanella, "Icon of a Fair, a Borough, the World," provides a capsule history of the Unisphere and then offers examples of criticism leveled against it when new.

The 1964-65 World's Fair never lived up to its own high expectations, drawing only a fraction of the projected visitors. To critics, the Unisphere symbolized the banal, corporate atmosphere of the event. Newsday called it "deathly dull. It looks like an ad for Western Union." ...

Architectural Forum called it "a heavy, literal version of the ancient armillary sphere, with decoration by Rand McNally." But the people loved the Unisphere from the start.

No reference supports the assertion regarding public "love." I never heard any spontaneous expressions of it in the years I lived in the striking-distance zone of the city. But then, the subject of the Unisphere never came up in any conversations that I can recall.

My opinion? I admired the Trilon and Perisphere, symbols of the 1939-40 world's fair on the same site. In comparison, I thought the Unisphere was a gross cliché, poverty of imagination in the extreme. And I still think so.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Exit Pino

Pino Dangelico (known professionally by his first name only) died 25 May. He was 70 years old, having been born 8 November 1939 in Bari, Italy.

My 2005 2Blowhards post about him can be found here (at least for a while). In it I note that biographical information about him is sketchy. For example, here is the bio page on his Web site: it doesn't say much.

In a nutshell, Pino was a commercial artist who did lots of romance book covers before evolving into a fine arts painter whose main subject remained beautiful women. His signature style (and most artists who rely on their painting for most or all of their income develop one or a few styles that are instantly recognizable by potential buyers) was smoothly-painted skin contrasted with bold brushwork over the rest of the painting. He tended to inject odd bits of color (often a bright red) even on parts of a face or other flesh, this perhaps to help tie the bold and rendered parts of the painting together better.

Possibly in reaction to criticism that all he painted were pretty women (and sometimes their children), he later added men as subjects -- typically older, life-worn gents.

I happen like Pino's work for the most part because of his virtuosity and skill, things I value highly all else being equal. If I had $30,000 or so to spare and collected art, I'd be tempted to buy a Pino original.

But not a Giclée -- especially not Giclées "enhanced" by the artist whereby thick strokes of oil paint are added here and there to the reproduction surface. The impression I get is that these supplemental strokes aren't as well thought out as those for the original painting; the usual effect of this added impasto is to degrade its integrity.

Moreover, I'd only buy one painting. That's because of the similarity of examples of an artist's work -- it easily becomes too much of the same sort of thing when more and more are added. I suspect that a roomful of Rembrandt portraits would become hard to live with too.

Below are some examples of Pino's paintings.

Photo of Pino in his studio

A Momentary Glance
This is a fairly typical Pino painting. He often did face-on views of pretty young women doing mundane household tasks.

Dressing Table
A very nice study. Note the contrast between the treatment of the figure and the rest of the scene.

Ditto what I noted regarding "Dressing Table."

Old Man
Here Pino diverges from the usual pretty girl subject matter. The man shown looks similar to Pino, but without a moustache. For what it's worth, one subject I can't recall him painting is mature or older women.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

An Unneeded Restoration

The photo above shows an idealized version of Restoration Hardware's new showroom look. (The company's Web site is here and the Wikipedia entry here.)

The somber, pervasive decor has attracted some negative blogger comment this past week. But the showroom makeover is more pervasive, a huge mistake in my opinion.

Yesterday I was in the University Village store looking for light switch and socket covers. Restoration Hardware used to have a nice little display of such items, but not any more. A clerk told me I could order such hardware items through a catalog. I do not want to look at a catalog; I want to see and touch the items before buying. The store was missing lots of other cute and nifty items.

It has become Just Another Home Furnishings Store -- one currently with little choice of color and decorative theme if my first impression was vadid.

What on earth was management thinking?

Monday, September 6, 2010

New Heinlein Biography

Twenty-two years after his death and nearly eight years after the death of his wife who launched the project, the first volume of a two-part official biography of Robert A. Heinlein (1907-88) has been published.

Fine print -- Learning Curve 1907-1948 ... In Dialogue with His Century. Amazon link here.

Heinlein was a major light in what has been called science fiction's golden age, when the field crawled from the pulp magazine side of the cultural tracks to mainstream "slick" publications. This transformation was marked by the appearance of a Heinlein story in the Saturday Evening Post. A lengthy summary of Heinlein's career can be found in this Wikipedia entry.

I got hooked on his "juveniles" a few years after they first appeared on the shelves of the local library. I was especially taken by "Rocket Ship Galileo" and "Red Planet." I also liked a number of his books and short story collections that appeared before the mid-1960s. (A Heinlein bibliography is here.) The later books that I tackled didn't hold my interest and I failed to finish them.

As for the new biography, I found it interesting and finished off its nearly 500 pages in short order. I agree with early Amazon reader reviews that the author gives every appearance of being fair-minded, delivering warts as well as favorable information in his coverage of Heinlein's life up to his marriage to Virginia in 1948.

I never delved deeply into Heinlein's life, so I was surprised to learn that he grew up holding prairie socialist beliefs and, during the mid-to-late 1930 was very active in the left side of Democrat politics. Apparently he never liked Communism and opposed Red efforts to hijack his faction of the party in California. He also was a world-government fan.

Author William Patterson, Jr. suggests in a footnote that Heinlein didn't change his political view all that much in life; presumably this will be dealt with in Volume II. I'm inclined to think Heinlein held on to certain core beliefs and changed his overt politics as political parties changed their stripes. (An example of stripe-changing is Democrats moving from Harry Truman's robust defense policies to today's reluctance to fight under almost any circumstance.)

One thing I would have liked to have found would be capsule synopses for each story and book mentioned in the text. No reviews, literary criticisms or that kind of thing. Just a paragraph or two outlining the plot. I needed this because I've either never read the material or read it so many years ago that I've forgotten most of the plots and characters.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Wings Over Rochester, NY

I lived in the Albany, New York area for several years and got to know the eastern half of Upstate pretty well. Because of my population forecasting job and the fact that I had a cousin living nearby, I occasionally ventured to Rochester and other parts of western New York.

Downtown Rochester, aside from the Genesee River cutting through it, always seemed standard-issue to me. Aside from one building.

That building, designed by Ralph T. Walker and completed in 1930, was originally home to the Genesee Valley Trust Company.

What distinguished it were huge, Moderne-Deco wings that capped the design.

In the top photo, those wings don't seem particularly out of proportion. But both in person and in memory they strike me as being huge. And a little odd, even though I'm a fan of Art Deco.

I find it hard to put a finger on the problem. The best explanation I can come up with is that, compared to the wings and supporting tower, the rest of the building is a little too plain. It seems to need more Deco decoration -- perhaps in the way of spandrels linking the windows vertically and more sculptural-relief elements on the part of the building below where the tower sits (not necessarily on the "back part" on the left of the top photo). In other words, transition elements are needed.

In any case, if you happen to travel to Rochester and are anywhere near downtown, take a short detour and give it a look.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Retail: To Niche or Not to Niche

A number of years ago -- in the 1990s? -- I walked into an Eddie Bauer store shopping for a windbreaker jacket. And discovered that they no longer sold winter jackets; their entire product line was now sportswear.

I staggered out in shock (slight exaggeration), long-term memories of Eddie supplying Mount Everest climbers and all sorts of other out-doorsey folks their garment needs rattling around my skull.

Rather than hitting its sales mark, Eddie Bauer eventually hit the wall. A couple of ownership changes later, the company is now returning to its outdoor togs roots with a vengeance, stressing Jim Whittaker's Bauer-clad Everest exploits to the point of adding a Whittaker product line.

Let me add that, after ignoring Eddie Bauer for several years, I'm shopping there again. Whether enough others are doing the same remains to be seen. But at least the company is distancing itself from the run-of-the-mill sportswear crowd.

I have no direct experience in retail rag-trade marketing. I rubbed elbows with marketing staffs as a data supplier, but that was about it. My perspective is that of a casual customer, so take what follows with that caveat.

In retrospect, the Eddie Bauer strategy of forsaking its outdoors roots in pursuit of a supposedly larger market segment was a mistake. Casual observer me has trouble sorting out distinctions between store chains selling sportswear. To some degree I can identify companies that strongly focus on the youth segment (Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch, etc), but otherwise I have no strong images regarding product-line "personalities."

This is not to say that each retailer doesn't make at least some effort to be distinctive and that hard-core sportswear shoppers indeed understand and appreciate such differences. But not all shoppers are hard-core, and failure to attract enough of these can damage a balance-sheet.

Eddie Bauer's new risk is that it's facing a set of competitors that have had years to recruit loyal customers that Eddie had lost and now must peel away. Recreation-wear is a smaller niche than sportswear, and competition is equally fierce. This is why Eddie Bauer is going to great lengths to stress Mt. Everest, World War 2 aviation gear, sports fishing togs and other strong outdoors-related themes. The company may yet "auger in" as test pilots put it, but it's taking a tack that makes more sense to me than its previous efforts.

Conclusion? The thought of working in any aspect of the rag trade scares the hell out of me.