We all know that nothing looks more dated than last year’s red-hot style.

What’s not so obvious is why consumer styles–whether clothes, curtains or cars–come and go with such cyclical certainty. More often than not, the seeds of new design trends are carefully nurtured by their respective industries to spur sales, and then disseminated via design magazines, television shows and the like. Clever marketing encourages consumers to believe that they’re the ones driving these trends, when in fact it’s more often the other way around.

Once a hot trend inevitably runs its course, another comes along to replace it. Those who literally bought into the previous fashion cycle are left with outmoded items that once again beg to be replaced with more current ones, thereby starting the cycle anew.

The American auto industry brilliantly exploited this marketing ploy during the postwar era. Back then, Detroit’s enormous, chrome-laden cars were heavily restyled each and every year, ensuring that the driver of last year’s model would be acutely aware that his near-new car was already out of date. While most people are now wise to the role of planned obsolescence in selling cars, not so many are aware that the makers of domestic products play the same marketing game.

Take kitchen appliances, for example. Since a washing machine or refrigerator will ordinarily last decades, the simplest way to coax consumers into buying a new one is to make them embarrassed at how dated the old one looks. Accordingly, over the years, we’ve seen a whole succession of color fads come and go, each by turns energetically touted as the ultimate in chic. They’ve ranged from the basic sanitary-white appliances of the late 1940s through Turquoise, Coppertone, Avocado, Harvest Gold, Almond, Black Glass, and eventually back to white again.

Of course, merely ending up right where you started wouldn’t carry much urgency as a fashion statement, so appliance makers found a new sales angle: why, this wasn’t just plain old white–it was White on White.

Given that any fashionable item is doomed to look uniquely dated in a very short time, one wonders why people continue to be so easily swayed by the artificial dictates of fashion, rather than recognizing it for the finely tuned sham that it is.

At the root of this susceptibility lies, I think, an unfounded lack of confidence in our ability to judge for ourselves. Dig even deeper and we may find a reluctance to trust one of our most important design tools: our own intuition. For instance, when clients bring me a range of color choices for, say, countertops, they’ll dutifully run through the ones they perceive to be in step with current design trends. But at some point, they’ll show me the one color that really makes their eyes light up, which they’ll resignedly dismiss with some comment such as, “I absolutely love this color, but I know it’s way out of fashion.”

I couldn’t think of a better reason to choose it.


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