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This text is by Rebekah Modrak in her capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

Bougie* Crap

Art, Design and Gentrification

Rebekah Modrak

*bougie [boo-zhee] derived from bourgeois

Start with a neighborhood or city that lacks economic incentives or that is populated by minority groups, which are underserved by municipal services including education, transportation, street lighting, police response time and maintenance. Enter a mainly white, middle-class population. Investors clamor to underwrite new businesses, sponsor grants or to secure real estate. This triggers a spike in real estate prices and a flood of new commercial ventures that sell expensive bougie crap that only the new residents can afford. Services are improved and capital investment flows, directed primarily to the now “safe” and shoppable neighborhoods.1

In this scenario, one of the first signs of gentrification is the bougie crap. If you use the term, we may have different definitions, and mine is entirely subjective and, regrettably, intimately linked with art and design.

Bougie crap is expensive consumables that evidence wealth, power and discriminating taste under the pretense of an evolved palette, a demand for higher quality and the development of a social conscience that values local goods. Bougie crap contributes to the economic strength of the bourgeoisie and distinguishes this group because the failure to consume such elaborate products would be, in the words of Thorstein Veblen (speaking of conspicuous consumption), a “mark of inferiority.”2 The brands encourage us to see these products as an extension of our worth; though the exorbitant expense is profit driven, paying the high price deepens our sense of self.

Bougie crap uses the design aesthetic of “calculated authenticity” and elements of hand-craft or personalization to suggest that the product is motivated by these values and not by crass economic gain.3  Bougie crap often claims connection with rural or urban traditions of manual labor and work, evoking the mirage of the artisan in his studio, the farmer hard at work, the pioneer tending his wilderness campfire or the grittiness of life in Detroit. For that reason, Bougie crap isn’t the Rolex watch or the Gucci bag, luxury items that act as luxury items. This is key for me in defining bougie crap.  Bougie crap sells itself as a product inspired by manual labor, either related to the work of a craftsman, artist or designer or to the physical exertion of, say, a farmer, woodsman or rancher. Yet, bougie crap’s high sticker price ensures that only those with significant discretionary income may participate.

Bougie crap uses the pretense of “quality” to create a two-tiered system: the people who can afford to buy these products and the people who can’t. In that sense, bougie crap is a “means of laundering privilege,” of determining who has access and who does not.4  When immigrants move to a new country and neighborhood, they bring with them the products of their culture, which, eventually, everyone partakes in, and the city is a more enriched place. When middle-class people move to a lower-class neighborhood, they bring bougie crap that is accessible only to themselves.

One of the scary parts of this equation is the increasing mutual dependence between bougie crap and aritsts/designers. What you’re really buying is the mirage of a “special,” “authentic” experience created by savvy, contemporary design.

A prime example of bougie crap is Shinola’s products, especially their watches ($500 - $1500) and bikes ($1950 – $2950) that undergo “precise, custom-level assembly by experts in our Detroit Flagship retail store…. Because we believe there's only one way to properly build” a watch or bicycle and that's “one at a time, by hand, with rigorous attention to detail and using only the highest quality components available.”5 Shinola’s French style bicycle (with American-made frame and fork) is designed for “urban riding, commuting and running errands … in any weather” and costs $757 more than the $2,193 Detroit 2013 median household monthly income.6 But, they reassure you, if you care for your bike, you can “pass it on to your children and grandchildren”; bougie crap promises a legacy of permanence via consumer culture in contrast to the decay of Detroit.7

Wandering through a new independent bookstore in New York City a few months ago, I looked down to see stacks of stylish black journals emblazoned with the words “SHINOLA … DETROIT.” The surprise of this union froze me for a second. In the sixteen years that I’ve been visiting family in New York, this was the first time I’d seen the word “Detroit,” and, now, here it was, as part of Shinola’s branding. Texas-based Bedrock Manufacturing notoriously attached their Shinola venture to Detroit after test studies showed that consumers would pay three times as much for a product associated with the tenacity of a bankrupt city.8 What do you call the adoption of one culture by a second group whose only culture is profit? “Cultural appropriation” sounds too innocent and even potentially transformative (like a cool mash-up) and doesn’t convey the imperialism at play. A better description is consumer culture scholar Jeff Pooley’s “the colonization of the apparently earnest."9

As artists and designers, we are complicit in gentrification-by-bougie crap, not just as consumers, but as collaborators with gentrifying agents. The College for Creative Studies (CCS) houses Shinola’s watch factory and Detroit corporate office on the fifth floor of the Alfred A. Taubman Building, a building that started life as the Argonaut Building, constructed by General Motors in the 1920s-30s as their research lab, vacated by GM in 1999 and donated to CCS in 2008. The building was reborn with Taubman’s name during renovations in 2008, funded by a $2.5 million donation from GM (a year before they received their $50 billion U.S. government bailout), $64 million in tax credits, $56.8 million from CCS’s trustees, private foundations, corporations and individuals and $18.6 million from the Henry Ford Learning Institute and the Thompson Education Foundation that chartered the middle/high school housed in the Taubman Building.10 The tenants of this building, named after the mall developer and self-described “luxury retail pioneer”, reflect the clash between art/design, education, corporate interests, social responsibility and their competing and allied values.

More than just an occupant, Shinola is a “partner” in educating the CCS students and a collaborator in their curriculum.11  A Shinola promotional video celebrating this “partnership” showcases the Shinola-sponsored, student-design workshops as a means to “give students real life experience working with a brand.”12  At this pivotal time in their lives, young people privileged to attend college stand on the threshold of exploring, redefining and identifying their interests and values. William Deresiewicz describes the opportunity of college as the best chance to learn to think, to develop moral awareness, self-awareness and intellectual growth.13  Instead of establishing an environment where artists and designers defy established perspectives or rage against the machine, CCS connects them with a brand. No, CCS redesigns the curriculum with the brand, and presents this as innovation. Says one student in the video: “… just trying to get out of who I am and aligning myself with this brand and really falling in love with it, which we did, I think I grew as a person and as a designer.”

In expression, demographics and tenets, the Shinola video and a second promotion by CCS personify the values of bougie crap in reinforcing the status quo. There are larger questions here about how higher education, in general, perpetuates privilege but, for now, I am focusing on the connections between a very specific confluence of art, design, class and education in Detroit. To begin, participants in the CCS/Shinola union enact the racial and class divide at play in the gentrification of a Detroit that’s “rising from the ashes” but also pre-existed within the Fordist automotive industry. All Shinola executives and CCS professors in the videos are white men; almost all the student representatives awarded speaking parts are white males, with just enough black people in the background or supporting roles to provide the “veneer of class neutrality.”14  CCS’s student population is 9% African American in a city that was 82.7% Black in 2010.15 While (white) Bachelor-degreed Watch Designers, Brand Coordinators and Production Engineers “explore ideas quickly,” participate in a “fast paced environment” and “create exciting content featuring the people, materials, and story that make Shinola unique,” the “non-confrontational” (the second Personal Attributes qualification for this “career”) High School-degreed Line Assemblers and Industrial Sewers depicted in Shinola’s representations of their watch “workers” “sit for long periods of time” and have the ability “to understand and follow instructions.”16 The physical mobility of employees in their “careers” reflects their social mobility.

Second, CCS collaborates in casting the Shinola brand as a cultural agent associated with craft, makers, creative innovation and youthful perspectives. This is done by positioning the business within the school itself, but also by emphasizing the union between craft and industry. At a certain point in their promotional materials, the two groups and their language become indistinguishable from each other. Echoing Shinola’s pitch in his own presentation, one student declares: “We want to show design that’s informed by hand-craft. We use bright colors throughout and spirited imagery, uh, that will reflect these fresh ideas and expressions.”  A CCS product design student sporting the archetypal urban-woodsman beard says: “I’m really into, you know, making stuff by hand.” Jump to Shinola Creative Director Daniel Caudill, who reminds us “We like to feel like we’re individuals and we like to personalize our stuff,” just as the video cuts to a scene of him sitting next to a bearded, tattooed man, presumably from Shinola, who looks like he wandered in from the set of Little House on the Prairie (1974 - 1982).  The rhetoric being taught here is that of bougie crap: use techniques and aesthetics that evoke “hand craft” to suggest originality and individuality. Presumably, Shinola is aware of marketing studies revealing that consumers attribute “higher moral status to traditional craft processes” in which artisans work with their hands and create “out of some inner need, not focused on some external demand.”17  Their questionnaire assessing consumer responses to cities reveals that their branding strategy originated in studies such as these. Find the target market, discover how they define authenticity and then appear genuine in intent. In the Shinola/CCS videos, CCS students, looking like younger versions of the Shinola executives, present “fresh” versions of the brand — material qualities, color choices and font styles — unaware that they are simply replicating alternative forms of calculated “authenticity.”

The look of the urban woodsman isn’t just a fashionable digression. These urban woodsmen in thermal underwear, plaid shirts, beards and wool caps perform roles of masculinity and bravado imagined about the lumberjack of the American West, a fiction recently exposed by Willa Brown who sees the lumbersexual as a trend for the modern man in crisis, “on the edge of losing their birthright”.18  In CCS and Shinola videos, drawing attention to these figures fortifies their claim of authenticity; these products are born, not of executives stuck behind their desks, but of men in touch with their hands and the virtues of manual labor. Yet, the pioneer is a complicated symbol in Detroit with many residents and business owners of color disturbed by the media and fiscal attention paid to new, white “pioneers” when they’ve struggled for decades to maintain the city’s culture and trade.19  You won’t see men of color playing urban woodsmen or pioneers — perhaps because they don’t find that historic period one that merits revisiting or the colonizer a role that’s enjoyable to play.

At issue in this union of art, design and commerce is an ethics that encourages students to stylize bougie crap and customers to buy more stuff.  In this case, CCS teaches students the visual and verbal cues to create and establish bougie crap as a normative principle, without imparting a consciousness about the economic and social agendas being served and legitimized in these representations.20  When design is confused with styling, students aspire to produce bougie crap. As design scholar Steven McCarthy laments in his book The Designer As… (BIS Publishers, 2013),: “The function of much design now is to lubricate the exchange of currency, not to provide affordable housing, healthy foods, efficient transportation, accessible information, a cultured citizenry and more.”21 Art/design schools should take the lead in challenging and empowering students to become attentive to critical social, political and economic problems. Joseph Beuys argued that all of us should use creativity to engage with capital — not profit-based private capitalism — but in the form of human capacity, growth and democracy in forming alternate productive systems.22  Innovation? — CCS putting the fifth floor to use in developing entrepreneurial activities that support real Detroiters at the heart of industry creation, a sustainable economy and equitable distributions of power and engagement.

These questions of design arose recently on Core 77 in a feature about Soulcake Creative’s Kickstarter campaign for their new product. In his statement, Soulcake industrial designer Geoff Ledford lamented a “society obsessed with stuff”: “…sadly, the only inexhaustible part of the [consumer] loop seems to be consumers' incessant demand for more.” “What’s a designer to do?” asked Ledford. “As designers, we can't do much to discourage society's obsession with stuff…. If designers do our jobs well, we actually encourage customers to buy more stuff, not less.”23  This is the rhetoric art and design students come upon: “We as designers can’t stop designing stuff, so let’s adopt the language of bougie crap and connect it with art/design as a model of “hand-craft” or “personalization.” Ledford doesn’t answer his question “how can problem-solving designers confront consumerism and the environmental crisis?” by encouraging consumers to redefine “capital” or by empowering people to live more modestly. His solution: manufacture designer walking sticks from recycled golf shafts.

Beyond the complicity of artists and designers in the consumption, production and exhibition of bougie crap, the final culprit is the failure of artists as cultural critics. As socially-aware, creative people, we tend to agree that major corporations such as ExxonMobil, McDonalds and Starbucks are politically, environmentally, culturally or economically corrupt. As artists, we address these social issues through interventionist projects and tactical media. We may be wary of Columbus Day celebrations, knowing the genocide of Native Americans that resulted from the hands of white colonialists. Yet, we are often leaders of the Christopher Columbus Syndrome, a phenomenon Spike Lee described in reference to the gentrification of Fort Greene, Brooklyn.24  Let’s pursue “big-time” corporate and environmental offenders like Dow Chemical and Wal-Mart, but let’s remember to look within our own community at the ways in which art and design serve the wealthy classes, undermine economic equity and contribute to gentrification. Let’s widen our perspective to include criticism that may be directed back at our own consumption and productive patterns.

link - footnotes

1 Detroit businessman R. Christopher Prater advocates for more inclusive economic initiatives for local entrepreneurs. Many existing programs seem to offer noteworthy opportunities, yet, upon closer inspection, exclude smaller businesses. For example, Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses requires applicants to have earned a business revenue of more than $100,000 to apply.

2 Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Oxford University Press: Oxford, England. Originally published 1899; reissue 2009: p. 53

3 Jeff Pooley’s term “calculated authenticity” in his essay “The Consuming Self”, Blowing Up the Brand: Critical Perspectives on Promotional Culture. Edited by Melissa Aronczyk and Devon Powers. Peter Lang Publishing: New York, NY. 2010: p. 80

4 Stevens, Mitchell L. Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA. 2009: p. 248

5 Shinola, Our Story.  http://www.shinola.com/our-story/about-shinola

6 United States Census Bureau.  http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/26/2622000.html

7 Shinola Video: “This Built America”, 2014. http://on.aol.com/video/this-built-america---shinola-518153651

8 Duggan, Daniel. “Fossil Founder Digs the D,” Crain’s Detroit. May 27, 2012. http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20120527/FREE/305279963/fossil-founder-digs-the-d

9 Pooley, Jeff. “The Consuming Self” from Blowing Up the Brand: page 80.
Here, Pooley references Lionel Trilling's Sincerity and Authenticity, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA: 1972

10 O’Brien, John. “CCS Receives $2.5m GM Grant.” Car Design News. June 28, 2011. http://www.cardesignnews.com/site/home/display/store4/item233361/
The A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education: A Case Study About the Adaptive Reuse of Detroit’s Historic Argonaut Building as an Education Institution

11 Industry partnerships in design programs are common, though more often involve internships and job placement where there is slightly greater distance between pedagogy and commerce. I would argue that any commercial involvement in degree programs distorts instructors’ capacity to teach and students’ ability to learn. CCS has a long history of involvement with the automobile industry, particularly the Ford Motor Company and General Motors. This is the larger irony here in that CCS’s early partners, the white owned automobile corporations, contributed to Detroit’s decline by re-enforcing segregationist practices that encouraged whites to move to the suburbs, by disinvesting in the city’s infrastructure and by shifting manufacturing to the South and overseas. Now, CCS’s current partner, Shinola, is being credited with saving the city. (In reference to Detroit’s postwar history, see Thomas J. Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, [Princeton Studies in American Politics, 2014]).

12 Shinola & CCS Design Partnership video, 2012. https://vimeo.com/48559272

13 Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Free Press: New York, NY. 2014

14 Stevens, Mitchell L. Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites: p. 11

15 College for Creative Studies, About Us. http://www.collegeforcreativestudies.edu/about-us
United States Census Bureau.  http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/26/2622000.html

16 Shinola, Careers. http://www.shinola.com/careers

17 Michael B. Beverland, Adam Lindgreen & Michiel W. Vink (2008) "Projecting Authenticity Through Advertising: Consumer Judgments of Advertisers’ Claims," Journal of Advertising. 37:1, 5-15, DOI: 10.2753/JOA0091-3367370101: p. 11

18 Brown, Willa. “Lumbersexuality and Its Discontents.” The Atlantic. December 10, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/

19 DeVito, Lee. “George N’Namdi Talks ‘Psychological Gentrification’”. Metrotimes. July 23, 2014. http://www.metrotimes.com/detroit/

20 Paul Freathy and Iris Thomas (2014), “Marketplace Metaphors: communicating authenticity through visual imagery,” Consumption Markets & Culture, DOI: 10.1080/10253866.2014.968756

21 McCarthy, Steven. The Designer As…: Author, Producer, Activist, Entrepreneur, Curator and Collaborator: New Models for Communicating: p. 139

22 Beuys, Joseph. “Conversation Between Lama Sogyal Rinpoché and Joseph Beuys, 1982” in Joseph Beuys in America: Energy Plan for the Western Man. Basic Books: New York, NY. 1993: p. 207

23 Ledford, Geoff. “Rethinking Design, Consumerism and the Environment.” Core77. December 8, 2014.

24 Coscarelli, Joe. “Spike Lee’s Amazing Rant Against Gentrification: ‘We Been Here!’“. New York Magazine. February 25, 2014.

Goffe, Leslie Gordon. “The Harlem Gentrification: From black to white.” New African Magazine. June 25, 2014. http://newafricanmagazine.com/harlem-gentrification-black-white/2/

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This article is part of a series on art and gentrification organized in partnership with the University of Michigan Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and infinite mile running from January – June 2015.
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link - issue 14: February 2015