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Searching for style

Culture | Trendy toasters and brushes, e-cards, and the last cowboy hero

Issue: "The Morning After," Jan. 15, 2000

Target goes artsy
Ever go looking for contemporary art in the housewares aisle? Postmodern architect Michael Graves is giving people the chance to do that with a commission from the Target chain to design his own line of products. So now the shelves are stocked with blenders, toasters, and even mop buckets all intended as a new marriage of form and function. Even though the typical housewife has never heard of Mr. Graves, a Princeton University professor, Target is trying to blur the line between "upscale" and "downscale" shopping. Only product and price tag survive, so a guy who designs hotels for Disney can create pots and pans for Target. What Mr. Graves created are heavy, rounded items with egg-shaped elements and retro-1950s styles. Thus trendy objects bypass midtown Manhattan and head straight for suburbia. Classy and kitschy come together in art deco-styled clocks and teakettles sporting coach's whistles. Many modern artists of previous generations dreamed of pulling off such feats, creating practical art for the common man. The infamous Bauhaus school thrived on the idea, even though it specialized in inhuman, ugly work. Mr. Graves's toilet brushes and lawn furniture at least face real customers in real stores. With standards of living rising, people expect more even at the low end, so the world of generic, no-frills goods is slipping away. Discounters still cut corners, but they try to make the cuts less noticeable. Bloomingdale's and the bargain basement meet head to head. When you care enough to send the quickest
Last Christmas, some people discovered they received more cards over the Internet than in the mail. The so-called "e-cards" are exploding as a cheap way to touch base. They're usually free, ubiquitous, and don't require good handwriting or a trip to the post office. Senders simply surf over to a site with cards, pick one out, fill out a form, and click "send!" Massive selections of occasions are available that would drive even the Hallmark store mad. Sites give the cards away for free so they can attract users, who come by, send more cards, and notice the advertising. The electronic cards are a huge hit. A survey commissioned by Yahoo found that more than half of American e-mail users said they received e-cards during the Christmas season. Like paper cards, they usually feature some sort of picture or other graphic with a canned message and space for some personalized words. But unlike paper cards, they can also be animated. E-cards are a lot like Internet culture itself: Any subculture can surround itself in its own imagery. Devotees of endangered species, Chopin, or ice hockey can greet each other online. Like email and bulletin boards, all this helps bring back the art of letters. People must talk to one another in sentences, even if it's just a few words below a cartoon caption. The keyboard is catching up with the telephone as the premier communications tool. Adios, Kemosabe
Who was that masked man? While several actors played the part of the Lone Ranger, none focused on the part as much as Clayton Moore. For decades after his TV role came to an end, he made endless personal appearances in full costume: white hat, powder blue shirt and pants, gun belt with silver bullets and twin holsters, red bandanna, and boots. "The Lone Ranger is a great character, a great American. Playing him made me a better person," said Mr. Moore, who died of a heart attack at age 85 last month. He loved the character so much he went to court to keep appearing in the mask after the character's owners complained. The series, which ran on TV from 1949 to 1957, lives on in cable TV reruns as a reminder of the days when pop culture was full of straight-shooting good guys who rode off into the sunset. The Lone Ranger dates back to 1933, when WXYZ, a struggling Detroit radio station, decided to gamble its future with a western series about a mysterious man with a six-gun. Every episode seemed to repeat the same basic storyline, but no one cared. The simple stories sucked kids in like magnets and they kept coming for a quarter century, eventually moving on to movies and TV. Attempts to revive the Lone Ranger in the 1970s and 1980s failed, as the white knight in the white hat seemed out of step. The icon as role model is now a museum piece.

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