Whatever happened to planters like these two? They may still be in production, but wherever they are still available, and that’s nearly nowhere, they’re civic-sized, weigh 500-1000 pounds, and are out of scale for people’s home gardens. Why? Whither modernism for domestic landscaping? After a golden age of simple, sophisticated design in the 60s and 70s, the commercial design industry is taking us in the direction of cheapness, ornateness, bad nostalgia and the whole philosophy that goes with it. Think this argument is overblown? See what artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer says about design and cities in this great talk here (start at 1:15 if you’re in a hurry). “What civic politicians mean by [civic] regeneration is putting 19th-century lampposts and Starbucks and a nice kind of 19th-century kind of faux originality.” His comments aren’t specifically about commercial design products but they point to a widespread mindset that encourages stuffy Edwardianism all over the place. Luckily someone went against the faux-Olde Worlde trend in Vancouver’s Yaletown, as you can see here, but this type of simplicity is getting rarer and rarer.
I’m writing this in response to my friend Gavin, who took the above photos in Vancouver’s Yaletown and wanted to know where to find objects like these. And he’s not alone. But the answer is that you can’t these things. Last year I looked everywhere for both types of planters above—cement or aggregate concrete planters free of detail, totally plain, no curves, no angles, no tapering, no lip. Impossible. What you get these days is more or less what you see in the photo below. The salesperson at Sanderson Concrete near Vancouver couldn’t understand why I made such a strong distinction between the two, but to me it’s European modernism in a fight with a B-movie version of Sherlock Holmes’ London. The planter above is pure, minimalist and cool; the planter below is stuffier, non-modern, bourgier, not to mention its two finishes are at war with one another. If the planter is cast, why not cast it of all one material? What meaningful relationship do the two tones have to each other? The overly smooth interior is poured into what was a relatively attractive exterior if you can ignore the pointless lip. Nowadays everything has weird curves and tapers and that dreadful, plasticky edge. Each of these formal decisions radically changes the object’s aesthetic and historical associations.
This planter reminds me of a line from the Eels song from the cult Brit TV show The Might Boosh: “Elements of the past & future, combining to form something not quite as good as either”:
My neighbour, seeking a modern aesthetic but not finding one in concrete, finally ordered the fibrecrete planter from DWR, below. It’s a nearly cuboid, nearly detail-free, faux concrete planter. Too bad about the mild flare, though, and it’s not cheap either. Sadly, when the shipment arrived the colour was the farthest thing from the concrete-colour in the catalogue, and was instead a sort of Edwardian blue. See the photo. The DWR planter may pretend it’s “concrete” in colour but the house’s real concrete steps and foundation are a silent rebuttal. They know what concrete looks like; they are concrete. Even after a year, the blue finish of those planters bothers me.
If someone would please give me a credible political/aesthetic economic explanation of why the industry doesn’t think the market will support pure concrete minimalism I’d appreciate it. Whatever happened to niche markets? Even fairly large niche markets? Maybe don’t answer that.
Given recent world events this may all seem a trivial concern, but it’s just one small example of problems endemic in the whole design/homewares industry and by extension across our entire built environment. It’s an example of the way in which mass production and concentration of ownership married to lowest-common-denominator market research are cheapening design, and filling our surroundings with a sort of crass, faux-historical conservatism that will look even worse in a few years’ time. It’s wasteful, and it’s unfortunate that just when people are willing to buy fewer things but spend a little more on better-designed products, design products are getting much, much worse—they’re too pointlessly detailed, they’ll never be classic, and they won’t be aesthetically long-wearing. There’s nothing wrong with historical styles, if they make sense in context and are done faithfully, but how often is this the case? This is even true with historical modernism – say goodbye to chrome and clean lines, say hello to powder coated chair legs in eccentric shapes; IKEA I’m talking to you. I wish people would insist on better design by refusing to buy this dreck. Tell Sanderson Concrete & friends to go back and make at least a few products the old way. (They’re tired of hearing from me.) If you agree, email them here or badger your local dealer.
PS To all those who are asking – that’s a wasabi plant in my garden, in the foreground of the photo above. Below are some great custom-cast planters by Vancouver’s Considered Design.