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Trendy or Timeless

May 4, 2012
I was recently asked, “Since patio furniture is so expensive, how can I be sure I don’t buy something trendy which could be out of date in just a few years?” To be honest, I was at a loss as to what to say. As I considered my answer, I realized I didn’t have a good feel for what is “trendy” in today’s outdoor industry. In fact, I am not sure I can tell you what is “trendy” in any industry. So, I started looking around and here is what I decided.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart describedhis test for pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) as, “I’ll know it when I see it.” Perhaps “trendy” is like “pornography.” We know it when we see it; but, do we - - - really? For example, I thought big bell bottom pants, four inch platform shoes and Quiana shirts were timeless examples of haute couture in the 70’s. Now, when I see a picture of myself from then, I can only wonder, “What the hell was I thinking?!” It seems when one is so close to the tree they can’t see the forest.

In many cases, what we purchase for next season is based on what sold this season, (and the season before, and the season before that). Our instinct is to depend on what worked in the past as a predictor for what will work in the future. This instinct naturally prevents us from buying “trendy.” Many would label us conservative for doing this. Others might call us good business people.

Other times, we make buying decisions on what I call “mob rule.” First, one friend buys something and tells us about it. Then someone else tells us they bought the same thing. Peer pressure mounts and all of the sudden we are buying something not because it is good design but because peer pressure has convinced us this is a good thing. Whether it is or not remains to be seen.

Clear chair with classic design cues             Bird's Nest Chair

To show how hard it is to distinguish between trendy and classic look at these two chairs above. The clear plastic chair has used classic design cues in an entirely new material. The “bird’s nest” chair is something completely different to what we have seen in the past. I think both are quirky and I like both. Unfortunately, I think both will have a limited life and are good examples of “trendy.”

Outdoor Wicker Lounge Chair
On the other hand, look at this outdoor wicker lounge chair in a “driftwood” color. I first saw something like this at a mall store of a national home decor chain. It stopped me in my tracks. More important, consumers snapped it up. The difference between this and the clear plastic and bird’s nest chairs is the design is pleasing in any context. In addition, it doesn’t use quirkiness to appeal to us. Finally, it is something we haven’t seen before but we immediately recognize. This design “has legs.” Perhaps the color, shape, and spline size/shape will change over time; but, the overall look will be something that will be in style of years.

There is an old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times” which applies here. An “interesting” design may have a very short life shelf. There is nothing interesting about a wrought iron spring chair or a Chanel suit with a pillbox hat; yet both are timeless. Monoblock chairs were “interesting” when they first came out. Soon, because of “mob rule,” they became ubiquitous, and we finally realized the design was bland, not very pretty, and short lived.

Which brings us back to the question of how to avoid “trendy.” Here are my answers. First, buy designs that are pleasing to the eye. Second, don’t buy “interesting,” “quirky,” “neat,” or “groovy.”  Third, buy something that goes with the style of your home and aesthetics of your city. Neither of these are going to change over time. If the furniture you purchase mimics these designs, it will stay current for years.  

On the other hand, buying “trendy” is not necessarily a bad thing. A unique, groovy, or quirky group placed so it is the first thing customer’s see when they come in your store can be a real eye catcher and mood setter. And, if the price point is low enough, customers won’t mind buying trendy since it can be thrown away and replaced as soon as another “hot” design comes out.

Yours in confused retailing, BruceClear Chair With Classic Design CuesBirdOutdoor Wicker Lounge Chair