Old-style malls in the U.S. are still operating, even if they are not thriving. Little by little, however, with the rise in popularity of Main Street and village complexes, whether built from scratch or renovated, one can say that the roof is being taken off and the elements restored. "The mall was a little too hermetically sealed for our tastes," writes Underhill. "This trend renews my faith in humanity."
Moreover, according to Underhill's research, when consumers in the U.S. are given a choice between a mall and a Main Street, they choose the latter because that kind of shopping complex not only is exposed to the natural elements, but has smaller, cozier buildings that encourage serendipitous browsing and don't overwhelm shoppers.
Looking into his crystal ball, Underhill sees the best and most agile of American malls surviving and the others receiving makeovers as convention sites or even ethnic hubs. The most successful transformations so far have involved the latter -- malls repurposed as specialty centers catering to immigrant cultures. Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Caribbean, and Latin malls, or a mixture of all these, are attracting not just their target group but Americans curious about global differences and hungry for anything new.
In The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel tells a different story about the evolving sophistication of the average consumer. She argues that through television, the Internet, and catalogs, the middle classes have become literate in the language of aesthetics and its history, once realms of an elite, and they are increasingly aware of its ability to help them "work hard, play hard, and live well," as the promo for the cable television show iDesign trumpets. Businesses, pressed by customer demand and shrinking profit margins, have wised up to the need for greater product differentiation, and are hiring more design professionals than ever before. (The number of industrial designers employed in the U.S., Postrel records, has increased by 32 percent in the last five years, and membership in the American Institute of Graphic Arts has shot up from 1,700 to 15,000 since 1995.)
Postrel presents another harbinger of what's to come in her description of what is happening at GE Plastics' R&D center, which is staffed by engineers who listen as designers and marketers "talk about their dreams" and respond by providing them with customized new products in a plethora of colors and special effects. Because these new plastics command high prices, General Electric's engineers are working overtime to invent new ones. At the moment, the company is able to ply its customers with an array of hues and tints that make a Pantone color chart look anemic. In the future, its engineers predict, plastics will feature dazzling visuals -- the shimmer of water or the sparkle of diamonds -- or have the sort of weight and texture that conveys quality. GE hopes to eventually invent plastics with evocative smells, such as that of a summer beach or the air after a rainstorm. In the words of a company spokesperson, "The sky's the limit."
In her brainy yet accessible book, Postrel describes GE's ambitions and other manifestations of the surge of interest in styling, capping it all with a thesis contending that in the U.S., design has been held back by a confused attitude toward aesthetics. In a culture that is shot through with Puritan values, she argues, the pleasure derived from aesthetics is suspect because it is immediate and emotional; only afterward can the intellect be applied. Postrel quotes a mid-century designer's definition of aesthetics as "the art of using line, form, tone, color, and texture to arouse an emotional reaction in the beholder." Americans fear being suckered or regarded as superficial if they succumb to aesthetics. "The trick," she writes, "is to appreciate aesthetic pleasure without confusing it with other values." Aesthetic style now comes in many forms, from which Americans are learning to pick and choose to give shape to their identities.