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Selling to 'Minimalists' Is Surprisingly Easy

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, August 07, 2014

It matters not whether you are sizing up, sizing down or sizing sideways. Merchants have products to help you on your way to the life you think you want.

Before L. Frank Baum published his first Wizard of Oz book in 1900, he helped create the modern consumer society by totally redesigning store windows in Chicago. Gone were the storefront piles of everything in the shop. In their place, Baum fashioned theatrical scenes using mechanical butterflies, incandescent globes and the simple presentation of select items -- all to build a mood, a desire for the whole fantastical "lifestyle" package.

Baum said with stark candor that his art would "arouse in the observer the cupidity and longing to possess the goods."

Minimalism is a movement dedicated to paring things down to their most basic elements. It appeals especially to hipsters forced by high urban rents to concentrate their lives in small spaces. But as Baum demonstrated, the clearing of clutter does not preclude buying more stuff. On the contrary.

The magic trick continues. For example, the fashion company Cuyana's website beckons visitors, "Join us on our mission to live a life filled with fewer, better things." Preaching the gospel of "intentional buying" set in beautiful nature imagery, the site exhorts all who enter "to live a life of inspired simplicity."

One way to get there is to own Cuyana's versatile baby alpaca cape or its clean leather tote -- "the embodiment of elegant functionality." I intentionally bought the tote. I told you, these guys are good.

A time-honored way to encourage those who don't want more stuff to buy more stuff is to frame the purchase as a replacement rather than an addition. It's about going for "quality," and doesn't quality pair well with frugality?

Dwell magazine's cover story on small homes features tiny homes lined with marble wall tiles and furnished with customized Murphy beds, Eames storage units and the best in new technology. I'm not being negative here. Some of these visions are very appealing. In fact, me want. Just noting that an awful lot of consumption can go into small spaces.

As for living large, the minimalist aesthetic can coexist -- though not always easily or without comic effect. Case in point is The Wall Street Journal's Mansion section, in which office-park-sized homes try to make an architectural connection with historic housing styles rooted in simpler living.

One is a luxury "log home" in Colorado trying to find commonality with the homely pioneer cabin. The property includes a replica Old West town. Price: $23 million.

A contemporary $11 million house in Connecticut -- eight bathrooms -- supposedly has a "feng shui" thing going. Feng shui is the ancient Chinese practice of arranging a home to encourage a positive flow of energy. It treats the house as a whole being.

It would seem hard to monitor the energy coursing through 10,000 square feet. But the house, we are told, "employs feng shui principles" involving the "inside-outside" design -- the outside including a greenhouse, fountains, a lily pond and a shared lake.

If you say so.

Older folks now downsizing from their gracious suburban homes to condos are stunned to learn that their children have no interest in family heirlooms -- including antiques that cost thousands years ago, the Journal reports. The children want new modern pieces from places like Ikea and Target.

The new mass-imported furniture may be cheap, but the antiques were, after all, free and the craftsmanship incomparably superior. The furnishings industry calls these unwanted wood-finished pieces "brown furniture."

The wizard of modern merchandising, L. Frank Baum, wherever he is, must be greatly amused.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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