The Nu Austerity (or, the filthy rich vs. the cleanly so)
September 4, 2006, 6:01 am by bottleman. Filed under: magazine watch, simple living.

Welcome to the “Nu Austerity“!

That’s the buzzword one marketer/designer came up with to summarize the apparent trend of people intentionally living simpler lives, more focused on the quality of experience than the quantity of goods they consume. If it’s real, it’d certainly be good news for the environment. But is it real, or is it just another accessory to buy and throw away?

pictures from mags and real estate ads

This simpler lifestyle’s been linked with a resurgence of interest in “clean” “elegant” modern design like the stuff you see in the design porn above [click pic to enlarge] — something that affects me since I’m remodeling a house. The industry, in the form of mags from Dwell to Cottage Living, is pushing a dream house based on a fantasy of a simple life. Is it really different than the other dream houses for other fantasy lives?

Since my house was made in the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, I compared today’s “design porn” shots to ones from that time. Check it out [click pic to enlarge]:

photos from American Memory at Library of Congress

It used to be that a model citizen had his model house crammed with crap. See that pad on the bottom right, with the tiger rug ON TOP OF the oriental carpet ON TOP of the polished hardwood floor IN FRONT OF the fireplace. Luxury was stuff on stuff on stuff.

Compare to today. Here’s that pic again. [click to enlarge]

pictures from mags and real estate ads
Now luxury is a single glass of wine on a slate table the size of a hopscotch court, a greenhouse-like bathroom with a lonely cubic whirlpool, a living room with recycled bamboo floors that stretch out to a barren brick wall, just crying out for a hockey game.

There are no papers. No junk mail. A few artfully stacked books at most. Laptops are never plugged into their ungainly brick-sized AC adapters. In fact there are no AC adapters at all in this world… none to mock the sculptural elegance of the iPod and the baby monitor and the cell phone and the teakettle. Is there any product that doesn’t have an AC adapter now? If only I could be one of those beautiful people that doesn’t need them…

The image of luxury has become the absence of stuff. It’s a sheer expanse of space that no one ever seems to have lived in. In fact one of the biggest trends in luxury accommodation seems to be the “infinity pool”. Constructed so that the lip of the pool seems to merge into the vastness of the sea beyond.

infinity pool at ibizia resort

Of course it’s all a dream. No one really lives like this. Most people exist in a protoplasmic stew of junk mail, beverage containers, and AC adapters. In fact most homes resemble Crazy Ebay Mom’s more than an infinity pool.

one shot of crazy ebay mom's house - click link for credit

Even if you have less of it than Crazy Ebay Mom, you probably have a lot more than you see in those sleek modern house pictures. After all, you need stuff to live: plates, papers, food, AC adapters…

That’s why the absence of stuff in today’s magazine features or homes doesn’t mean someone’s living simply, it means they’ve acquired those real eternal signs of luxury: servants.

picture of victorian servants from http://sensibility.com/
It’s a lot easier to be virtuously simple, clean, and angular — just like your recycled slate — when you’ve got a maid or cook or nanny fluttering about, managing your junk mail, dishes, and AC adapters. That and a big garage or “guest room” to cram all your less-than-distinguished crap in.

Which is all to say, I dream of living the Nu Austerity, but I just can’t afford it. :]




I like Shaker style—walls lined with built-in storage units. Closing the door or drawer hides all the clutter.

Comment by gmanedit on 05.09.2006 um 7:40 am

Yeah, lining the walls with storage does enable you to clean up pretty fast. I agree it’s a practical solution for real life. Some kitchens (real and design porn alike) have really gone this direction, becoming a veritable fortress of cabinets.

But that’s not the fantasy I’m talking about. You don’t see that kind of storage in the living room much in design porn. The space stretches out to the walls. Usually there’s a just a cute little box or something for storage which is obviously woefully inadequate for real life. The empty space is the fantasy.

Comment by bottleman on 05.09.2006 um 9:10 am

The ultimate luxury is to create space in your heart mind and soul for full time homemaking. This enables the quality of life to increase exponentially with the years. Careful attention to the details of skillful living create wealth beyond imagination and harmony in family and community life.

Comment by Kathy Dolphin on 11.09.2006 um 9:28 am

I think I know what you mean, Kathy, ’cause I’ve wished I could be that way. One thing I’ve found is that one of my defining qualities is I need vistas — expanses — to look out on. I much prefer an empty room to a stuffed victorian one. I love looking out across deserts and seas. I need to have some of that just to live.

It’d be so much easier for me if I could just create those expanses in my mind. But the truth is, I’m just not that mature. Perhaps that’s why I find the design porn so seductive, damn the reality..

Comment by bottleman on 11.09.2006 um 10:52 am