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Angles and Bangles
by Gareth Lewis| London, UK
Friday, 22 October 2010
tags: consumer culture, contributions from, europe, header navigation, lateral navigation, making sense
Sometimes, two wholly oppositional codes appear on the end of a semiotician’s fork at the same time, leaving the practice of coding culture neither figuratively nor literally straightforward. Indeed, one of the challenges facing commercial semiotics in a post-structuralist cultural landscape is to account for memetic intermingling, unholy copulations. I want to look at one such instance here.
The clothing, furniture and stationary shop MUJI is a fine exponent (though hardly an original architect) of a coding species that has become an alpha staple of the UK retail market over the past three years or so. Specialising in the streamlined production of minimally packaged, logoless consumer goods, the MUJI shop floor is a place of almost yogic quietude. Admittedly, there’s usually someone going berserk at the doodle-pad, but overall the place is calm and curative. Its unforced tidiness appeals to the Obsessive Compulsive in us all.
I’ll paint you a picture. In the MUJI Universe, nobody has a name exceeding one syllable in length. In fact, people answer to a single, lower case letter. Discussion is kept to an absolute minimum (banter is baggage, after all). It’s a place of flawless complexions and soothing smiles. Everybody’s outfit looks like it began life as an envelope, and will one day return to that blissful, postal state. There isn’t an Apple laptop in sight (No Logo's Allowed), but the whole experience is a bit like being sucked into an iPad down a black hole app. In the store itself, ask for help and it arrives in three neat steps: the employee calmly acknowledges the customer’s predicament, gently whispers the word “follow," then glides across the shop floor to The Point Of Desired Object. I exaggerate. But only a little.
Now, contrast this with the ramshackle appeal of a hipster café. Combination, miscellany and baroque-mockery is the order of the day. No room for a right angle. In my own local, every surface has an object nailed to it (many are oil paintings — think Robert Duncanson with a Dalek twist). There’s a wall-mounted ginger cat, a manikin sans abdomen that props up the bar, and a garrulous clientele with haircuts that would give M.C. Escher a migraine. (Incidentally, you can detect palpable and quite toxic opposition to this kind of lifestyle coding emerging in the UK. There’s nothing particularly idiosyncratic about wearing lime green Wayfarers — so the thinking goes — and nothing clever about orthodontic neglect). The point here, though, is that these two codes emerged in unison. Traditionally, commercial semiotics has tended to order and portion. It likes to sit on the stationer’s side of the divide. Do we need to adapt our methodologies to map an evolving cultural cloth?
The binary detailed here feels particularly extreme. In fact, it seems more than ever to support the argument for a neat and tidy breakdown. But then there’s always that guy at the doodle pad, losing his head while all about him are keeping theirs. And the girl in the hipster café draws Lego antlers in a plain rectangular notebook that looks awfully familiar.
Semiotic analysts need to remain open to the possibility of cultural cross-pollination, even in instances where it seems least likely.