how to spot a trend


Here are two rules and an example for trend spotting:

Rule 1:

Take any possibility seriously. The new wouldn’’t be new unless it defied expectation. All ideas, even crazy ones, are to be taken seriously.

Rule 2:

Install a good SETI system. This is about pattern recognition. Rule 1 means that we are going to have lots and lots of ‘trend candidates.” We need some culling system that allows us to get rid of false positives. In the case of the real SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), there are 5 steps: 1) collect data, 2) find candidate signals, 3) check data integrity, 4) remove radio interference, 5) identify final candidates.

Clearly, these two rules are related. The credulity of Rule 1 exposes us the chaos of too many trend candidates, and obliges us to embrace a Rule 2 that sorts out the real trends from the apparent ones. Indeed, the wider we cast the credulity net, the more formidable must be our powers of pattern recognition. Or, to put it the other way round: the better prepared we are intellectually to spot a trend, the more widely we may cast the net.

In fact, we could say that these two rules force an intersection in a Venn diagram: where the circle 1 of dreamers/droolers/utterlyingenuous overlaps with the circle 2 of hardheaded/toughminded/cleareyed. This is a very good place to be, not least because in a culture in which anything is possible no longer finds much of interest in someone who sees that everything is possible. (“The world supplies that, we don’t need you.””) The real question is whether any given possibility contains any trace of plausibility, whether it might visit us, that is to say, not just in the imagination but in the world. But, I am missing the obvious (comme toujours): the intersection of circles 1 and 2 is for certain purposes precisely the characteristic intersection of culture and commerce (not to mention the place this blog sits).

An example:

I’’m reading the New York Times today, and there is a story about a guy who’s renovating his place and decided that he will have no chrome, steel, aluminum, nickel or any brushed, satin or polished metal in his home.

As he put it, “No visible metal has become my new obsession.””

Rule 1 says that we must consider this as a new trend candidate. No more metal. No more homes that shine, gleam or even glow. Good bye to all those bright, shiny bits in the kitchen and bathroom. Good bye to anything sleek or polished. Good bye to anything light bearing.

At first, this seems ludicrous. What are the chances that North American householders would ever forsake “visible metal?” But if we are reacting simply against sheer implausibility, this must give us pause. Sheer implausibility is, in fact, good grounds that this trend candidate deserves a hearing. The really new new must always offend us in this way. (If someone had tried to tell us in, say, 1965 that middle class householders would someday install industrial strength stoves in their suburban kitchens, we would have laughed at them.)

Rule 2 says that we must root through the intellectual toolkit to see if we have anything that would provide “skids,”” a way to “dock”” the candidate trend with what we know and a future we can imagine. There are lots of approaches here, but one particularly jumped out at me: brightwork. Brightwork is the name for the bits of metal on North Americans cars. It was especially current in the 1950s.

The term is sufficiently arcane that my Microsoft spell checker does not recognize it, and now shows it with that accusing red underline that says, summon your best imitation of a highly judgmental Bill Gates, “you have made a mistake”” or, as it will be understood for the remainder of this blog entry, ‘this is a trend candidate for which we cannot vouch. Proceed at your own risk. Low Headroom.””

One of the points of brightwork was to make cars look fast. It helped to create the impression that the car was “streaming”” forward. It was brightwork, among other things, that helped give the impression that cars were “moving even when standing still,”” a phrase of high praise for cars at mid century.

I cannot prove, but I do nevertheless believe, that there was a deep cultural connection here: the appearance of motion that brightwork supplied and a temporal orientation that prized the idea that individuals, corporations and countries were “moving forward,”” “racing into the future,”” and otherwise, “on their way up.”” The confusion of movement in space and time was, I think, a key article of mid century modernism. (I have substantiated this claim to some extent in Culture and Consumption II, in an essay on the 1954 Buick.)

Anyhow, the “brightwork”” idea gives us a way to think about the trend candidate presented by the NYT author. If he is removed brightwork from his home, we might suppose that other individuals will do so if and when they decide that the home should be stripped of these important traces of dynamism, that they wish to retreat from a culture that prizes individual and collective mobility, that one of the new objectives of interior design is aesthetic stillness. Naturally, I can’’t even begin to imagine whether any of these things are true. But I know have a set of auxiliary trend candidates, the encouragement of anyone of which would help reinforce the “candidacy”” of the “no metal trend.””

This is not a great example, perhaps. The brightwork notion will test your credulity even more than the “no metal”” one. But it does suggest how “rule 2”” might apply here. And this gives weight to the notion that trend watching should be left not to the hippest person in the room but the person who actually knows something about the culture in question.

We all know who I am talking about. The cool hunters who take good corporate dollars in return for a recitation of all the things you end up taking for granted if you live in TriBeCa. These poor creatures don’’t have intellectual depths. They only have tabloid-like surfaces. They can only reflect what is. They cannot reflect upon what is. One of these days I am going to name names. I really am. It is time to remove this “radio interference”” that we might examine the future with new clarity.


Marin, Rick. 2005. Heave-Ho, Silver! The New York Times. April 7, 2005.

7 thoughts on “how to spot a trend

  1. Steve Portigal

    If these cool hunters are the reflective surfaces of the cultural insight biz, are they then the brightwork that gives the field the illusion of moving forward?

    I for one welcome the day that Grant starts dishing, right here on this blog.

  2. Tom Guarriello

    I attended a very interesting trend tasting session in Soho yesterday. A firm, which I won’t name, was giving us a teaser of their approach: mostly Jungian (via Myers-Briggs, etc.) with a smattering of McKinsey thrown in. Net net: subscribe for $2k/month to get some megatrends, scenarios and descriptions of “colors, materials, shapes and sensations.” I hasten to say, these were sincere professionals. Imagine what else is out there.

  3. Rob

    Well, I think the guy is going to have trouble with the “no metal” theme. There are several bits of visible metal that I can think of that don’t have good alternatives:

    Faucets and spouts: there might be ceramic or stone alternatives, but they probably suck when it comes to using them over time. This is a very good reason that this stuff is solid brass on the inside: it lasts.

    Ceiling light fixtures: unless he goes with all recessed lighting, I don’t see much alternative to metal for light fixtures. They just don’t make them in wood or, for the ceiling, in ceramic. Possibly he can find something all glass, but I’ll bet it has metal at the base where it attaches to the electrical box.

    Door knobs: even the glass ones have metal bases and even the glass ones generally have metal escutcheons.

    Appliances: I’ve never seen a stove that wasn’t metal (although it may be coated with procelain). There may be refrigerators that don’t LOOK like metal, but I’ll bet they are metal. When you think about it, LOTS of kitchen stuff is just better in metal: knives, pots and pans, mixing blades and so on.

    Fans, airconditioning grilles, ductwork, heating elements, ceiling fans: most things that heat or cool your house involve lots of metal. Not all of it is exposed, but some of it is.

    Electronics: Good luck finding a wooden flatscreen TV or stereo. Some electronics you can hide, some you can’t.

    This guy is going to have a tough time with his obsession. I think that makes it an unlikely trend.

  4. MEL

    “Install a good SETI system.” How about a SETI@Home system? Distributed coolhunting / trendspotting via the blogosphere?

  5. liz

    Metallic free…lessee

    Brightwork comes from boating,

    Brightwork Related Terms • varnish

    Definition: Today, usually refers to wooden surfaces that have many coats of varnish resulting in a high gloss. Formerly, referred to metal parts or fixtures on a ship that had a high brilliant gloss due to constant polishing by the crew.

    Don Casey writes,

    “My next boat won’t have a single piece of wood on deck.”

    For 20 years I have been hearing this refrain from sailors exhausted with the tyranny of brightwork…. Exterior wood seems to be going the way of mast hoops.

    Is this a good thing? I don’t think so.
    [snipped out long lovely paean to boats]

    I lament the decline in the importance of beauty in sailboat design. The omission of brightwork is just one factor. Wood trim does not make a boat sail any better, but it can have a huge impact on the boat’s appearance.

    I acknowledge that nonessential wood on a boat is a matter of taste. There is nothing inherently wrong with stainless-steel hand rails. On the contrary, they are admirable for their strength. And maybe you like the way they look. But I think of steel handrails on a “yacht” as a response to those who want a boat to be “maintenance free,” or as nearly so as possible. The motivation is noble enough, but given the true nature of sailboats, we would do well to ponder the ultimate cost.

    All non-sailors love brightwork on a sailboat. Sailors, however, can be divided into two groups—those who find brightwork attractive and those who find it superfluous. Sailors who revere brightwork can also be divided into two groups, those who think it is worth the effort, and those who don’t. Some in this last category hire others to maintain their wood. Others neglect the brightwork, paint it, or own boats with little or no exterior wood.

    No visible metal…what is the NYT guy saying? REALLY no metal, or no reflective surfaces? (That lops off a lot of non-metal surfaces — like the polished dark granite that’s popular. Does he want wood? Does he want a fuzzy, soft surface instead of the coldish, hard surface?

    I’m also wondering about second home design. What do people want? What’s the trend? does it vary by locale, or is it sort of driven by exterior forces?

    To me, (traditional boating) brightwork has the implication that you are an admiral; you have armies of servants at your command to keep the brightwork untouched by the elements.

    I’m not sure what it says in the kitchen.

  6. liz

    I have to remember to enclose things in quotes or put in blockquotes. Most of the words above are quoting Casey.

  7. dave

    On whether “no visible metal” is a trend-candidate — it seems to me that even cars themselves have a lot less visible metal than they used to. Large parts of auto exteriors may still be metal, but they are not “brightwork” anymore. And I don’t think “aesthetic stillness” is the aim of that trend.

    The car manufacturers’ designers are now copying the folk art/vernacular designs of hot rodders and tuners — recycling cool into pre-customized products. And one thing the custom guys decided long, long ago is that brightwork (on cars) is not cool.

    Perhaps, SETI-wise, we can see the NYT author’s quest for a home with no visible metal as a leading edge indicator of where the blobject-sensibility will go next. Blobjects are the New Dynamic? Perhaps it is not “aesthetic stillness” as much as “organic dynamism” that he’s going for. As other commenters have pointed out, the real challenge for this guy will be in the very small details — light fixture bases and the like.

    As for cool-hunters . . . Do companies actually pay for stuff like that? One would think that the really cool cool-hunters are too cool to commercialize their observations. Sort of like a true star-to-be would never show up on American Idol. . .

Comments are closed.