Purveyor. Not of goods, but of good ideas

Friday, January 20, 2006

DESIGN: The Odd Collection or Two

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to house-sit in a high-rise luxury condominium in Manhattan. I got to stay there for over two years, virtually rent free (a story for another time). Guests frequently fawned over the accomodations (while no doubt also harboring secret resentments). But my friend Joe had a different reaction...

As we sat on the balcony on a pleasant Spring evening, overlooking Damrosch Park and the Metropolitan Opera from the 31st floor, he said, "I feel sorry for you that you have to stay here."

"What? I think I've got it pretty good. Why would you say that?" I asked.

"Because it's not your space. You get to stay here, but it's not yours. It's like living in a hotel room. You can't express yourself. You can't even hang a picture on the wall. You can't collect anything."

I hadn't collected anything since bubble gum and baseball cards, but Joe had planted a seed and when I later moved out, that seed had grown into a full-blown impulse to collect, to make my space my own and surround myself with objects of my own desire.

I started with black and white landscape photography because it's an interest my father exposed me to. I've also developed more recently a small collection of electric train locomotives, specifically Old Time American Steam Engines in a 4-4-0 wheel configuration, since I had one from childhood that got the collection started. And I've begun an unusual collection of mortars and pestles; a strange thing to collect maybe, but they can be beautiful and simple tools that second as inexpensive art objects. And they're slightly naughty. See for yourself.

Perhaps oddest, though, is my collection of over-the-counter pharmaceutical products. Many people have a fetish for hardware or stationary stores and I understand those, but I also have one for old pharmacies and the unguents, salves, and sundries sold there. Something comforting to me about them.

My collection is comprised of three types of product:

1) More beautiful than they have any right to be. Examples: an enormous oval container of Borotalco, imported Italian baby powder; The Good Home Co.'s Linden Flower Body Moisturizer with an old fashioned rubber stop seal; and a bottle of Arran Apothecary's Aloe Vera lotion.

2) Undesign. This is what I call products whose packaging or conception is so naive, so completely lacking in skill, taste, or talent, that they're either unintentionally humorous or utterly compelling, making you wonder out loud, "Who the hell would BUY this?" or "What in the world were they thinking?" Examples: Day Use No-Crack (catchy name!), a Super Hand Cream; D.R. Harris & Co. Ltd.'s Original Pick-Me-Up ("...a splendid reviver in the morning...also serves as an excellent aperitif.") containing, among other ingredients, camphor and ammonia spirit. A reviver for all the wrong reasons. There's also "Arabian Scratches and Gall Salve, manufactured and sold by Our Husband's Company," which apparently also manufactured Cow's Relief, Calves' Cordial, and Cow Tone. It says so right there on the package. (Sorry no pic.)

One product straddles both of the first two categories: Tres Flores (Three Flowers) Brilliantine, colored and scented mineral oil, is intended for anyone still psychologically stuck in the 1950's. It is used for slicking back one's hair, with a nice slime finish to boot. This stuff is still available at a very reasonable (as a collectable) or unreasonable (considering its components) three or four dollars. The bottle is a bit special, though, like a little flower itself but not overly feminine or frou-frou-y. Caringly crafted.

The color of the liquid inside, however, is completely baffling. It's yellow. Well, "yellow" is generous. If it was the name of a paint chip in a car brochure, it would be "Urine Sunrise." It really is the color of pee. I have to wonder: What, oh what color came in SECOND to that? Someone, somewhere once said, "That's not the color we want for this product. This is."

And finally,

3) Products with historical, cultural, or emotional resonance. I have, for instance, a jar of Barbicide. No it's not for killing barbers, it's the blue liquid barbers use to kill germs on scissors and combs. I also have an unopened box of Mr. Bubble, and a metal tin of Pinaud Clubman Talc which preserves for me the glorious smell of my first haircut.

I don't USE these products. I collect them because they delight me. They are odd and comforting and funny and beautiful. If a box of Mr. Bubble doesn't make you smile, what would?

What do you collect? Why?

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