When shopping for a new household appliance, the aesthetics of the product is often the deciding factor. For example, a modern, sleek looking microwave will give us the impression that it is more technologically advanced than the more basic model sitting beside it on the shelf. However if you actually opened up both the products, you will often find very little or even no difference in the actual functional capabilities. This illusion is the result of stylistic obsolescence.
This approach to product design has been used since the early 1920s, however it was first applied to the household appliance industry in 1934 by French-American designer Raymond Loewy. Loewy is often considered to be the creator of western consumer culture. He was one of the first designers to become a ‘celebrity’, often featuring on the cover of Life magazine. His design of the Coldspot refrigerator is a great example of style over substance, a distinguishing feature of the stylistic obsolescence approach.
The fridge has a very futuristic appearance, enticing consumers to buy into the idea of the newest, on trend product. The design prioritised appealing to emotions over the actual ergonomics and function of the product. Each new version of the refrigerator gave the impression of a completely transformed model from the last, however the technology inside often remained the same. The outer shell was constantly changed to keep up to date with the current trends and as a result people felt the need to keep buying a new fridge in order to stay cool.
The Coldspot refrigerator was the first household appliance that soled solely on its appearance rather than its function and this continues to be a strong selling point today. This idea of using appearance to trick consumers into thinking they need to buy the newest version of a product really annoys me. Modern aesthetics make the consumer think that they are buying something that has the newest technology and will therefore operate better than their current appliance. In many cases this is not true.
You may be wondering why the idea of stylistic obsolescence formed in the first place. The Great Depression was the main reason why designers decided to start to design products to deliberately go out of style. In order to boost the economy, it was important that consumers bought more stuff. Therefore they were encouraged to buy products that they didn’t necessarily need. Obviously this would be a hard selling point so they needed to trick consumers into thinking that they actually did need these products. This is where stylistic obsolescence came into play. People were convinced that they needed to keep buying the newest version of a product and as a result the economy started to recover.
So if you look at to from a financial perspective, stylistic obsolescence is a great thing, especially for ensuring continuous profits for a business. However, I would argue that the disadvantages seriously outweigh the benefits in this case. Firstly I believe this approach is unethical as it manipulates consumers into spending their well earned money unnecessarily for the financial gain of big corporations. My biggest concern however, is the detrimental impact it is having on the environment. Have we considered what happens to the old, rejected products that are discarded when we buy new ones? That was something that was seriously over-looked when stylistic obsolescence was introduced. The problem is when this ideology was developed, people were very naive about the strain we were putting on our environment. There was little to no concern over how our actions would impact the climate. That is no excuse though, we are now well aware of the current climate disaster we have on our hands. Now that we are more informed we need to change our approach to consumerism entirely. We cannot continue living in this consumer culture built on stylistic obsolescence, it’s simply not sustainable.