If you’re ever up for a slightly depressing tour of yesterday’s design fads, mosey on over to your local architectural salvage yard. There you’ll find a whole galaxy of onetime architectural must-haves, from stoneware sinks, pinstriped toilets and gold-plated faucets, to rocket-ship fireplaces, wet bar cabinets, and heaven knows what else.
At one time, somebody somewhere paid dearly for each of these moldering castoffs in order to be at the forefront of architectural fashion.
Fast-forward a decade or two: Since the fads that originally impelled homeowners are now stone dead, and since there’s nothing quite as dated as a formerly hot fashion, these once-coveted items are unceremoniously ripped out and demoted to recyclables.
It’s surprising how quickly a design fad can make the transition from emblem of taste to architectural albatross. Case in point: Think back to one of the popular trends of the 1990s: concrete countertops.
Made with indisputable artistry, often with sinks or lavatories beautifully integrated, these were strictly custom items commanding astronomical prices in their heyday. Yet on a recent visit to my local salvage yard, concrete countertops seemed to be lying about in every corner, complete with their $600 faucets.
Granite countertops — ironically just about the most durable items found in the average home — often suffer an equally ignominious fate. The material itself is timeless enough, to be sure, but the favored colors of the moment aren’t. Once those mirror-polished pink slabs have joined the ranks of yesterday’s high-end kitsch, another topnotch product ends up in the salvage yard.
Whirlpool tubs are another architectural fad with a high price tag and a short life. Like so many fashion items, architectural and otherwise, they’re sold using a classic materialist ploy: We’re told that we can’t be truly fulfilled unless we have one, too — hence the romantic advertising images of couples lounging under chest-high bubbles with glasses of white wine perched beside them.
Nowadays tub makers even offer remote controls, so you can turn on your tub before leaving work and have it ready for a steamy rendezvous when you get home.
These are appealing images, yet they fly in the face of how real people actually live. We might well aspire to sitting around soaking and getting plastered, yet how many of us can actually manage this in lives already harried beyond belief?
The manifestly impractical whirlpool tub, like so many architectural fads, owes its success mainly to advertising-induced fantasies of the good life and our cravings for status. All that idyllic marketing is sooner or later exposed as a pipe dream, explaining why countless whirlpool tubs are ripped out and end up you-know-where.
There are two lessons in this unending cycle of aesthetic boom and bust. First, it’s a virtual certainty that the hotter a design trend is, the less real substance there is behind it, and the harder it’s going to fall.
Second, and perhaps more useful: Your local architectural salvage yard is a great place to pick up yesteryear’s most extravagant fads for pennies on the dollar. You just have to wait until the "trendoids" are done with them.
What’s your opinion? Leave your comments below or send a letter to the editor. To contact the writer, click the byline at the top of the story.