For years, Tommy Smythe longed to own a Persian rug. The ideal size for his space was 12 feet by 14 feet, but he knew a well-made carpet that size was out of his budget. He could have compromised with a knockoff, but that’s not Smythe’s style (“getting ‘the look for less’ is by its own definition less,” he says), so Smythe began studying the rugs he admired in order to make an informed purchase down the road.
One day, his patience paid off. “I was out walking my dog and I saw what looked like a very good Persian rug on the sidewalk with some garbage,” he says. “Because I’d gained some minor expertise about regions, dye quality and knots per square inch, I ended up with a rug that, it turned out, was worth $10,000. And it’s been with me since the 1990s.”
In an era of instant gratification, understanding quality and waiting for the right thing to come along might seem quaint. But in this mid-pandemic moment of re-evaluating what’s important in the face of mounting insecurities, quick-fix materialism seems out of step. Having the discipline to be patient and invest in something that will last a lifetime may be more sustainable, but retraining yourself to take a more measured and thoughtful approach to purchases isn’t easy.
“Buy less, choose well, make it last.” Designer Vivienne Westwood’s words at the conclusion of her 2013 London Fashion Week show were considered controversial at the time, especially from someone in the business of selling new garments every three months. Seven years later, in spite of Westwood’s pleas, the global appetite for fast fashion and disposable design hasn’t diminished.
It’s actually worked itself into our shopping habits in new and strange ways. E-commerce and mobile commerce enable our round-the-clock cravings for stuff and “sleep-shopping” is on the rise. British retailer John Lewis & Partners reported last fall that 23-per-cent more purchases were made between midnight and 6 a.m. versus the previous year, with consumers clicking “buy” on everything from shoes to sofas in the middle of the night.
This kind of void shopping is the practice of buying to satisfy an immediate need, whether practical or emotional, with an “it’ll do for now” mentality. Whether it’s a chair to fill out your living room’s new seating configuration or a spring coat to match the jeans you bought last week, these purchases follow the trajectory of any hasty relationship: We’re committed for the short term but hoping something better comes along.
“For consumers, there’s brain circuitry forming all the time,” says Dr. Ying Zhu, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of British Columbia who studies digital marketing and consumer behaviour. “So when you click and get the product in a week, or use Amazon Prime and get it even sooner, that instant gratification creates a difficult loop to break.”
It’s an impulse made even more tempting in the midst of COVID-19 isolation. “In the academic community, we define it as ‘compensatory consumption,’” Zhu says. “If people perceive themselves as having a deficit, either in their situation or status, they turn to consumption to compensate themselves.”
According to Smythe, who founded the Toronto interior design firm Tom, it’s time we practice patience and favour well-crafted pieces over trendy placeholders. “We should be celebrating things that are made with skill and attention to detail,” he says. “If you invest in a chair and it serves you the way it should – the legs don’t wobble, the arc of the back is comfortable – why would you ever replace it? Instead, you’ll pass it down. Good design is about playing the long game and thinking beyond your own use of an object.”
So how do you flip the switch on your own shopping habits? “Ask yourself of any purchase, ‘Do I need this? Do I love it? What does it do for me?’” Smythe says. “Value is both a monetary and emotional concept. It’s about meaning, and when you understand what things mean, it helps you make wise decisions.” Smythe says we should think of the things we live with in the same way we think of the people we live with. “Do they have integrity?” he says. “Do they nurture and enhance my life?”
On the financial side, it comes down to simple math: “I have friends who say they don’t have disposable income for good furniture, but they’ll spend $15 at Starbucks every morning,” Zhu says. Instant gratification can impact our ability to achieve long-term goals. “What the world is going through now is a wake-up call not to rely on materialism,” she says.
As maker culture and artisan-focused markets rise in popularity, more brands are approaching design with long-term ownership in mind. For its first beauty collection this spring, French luxury house Hermès made a splash with chic, tri-coloured white, black and brushed gold lipstick tubes. Designed by creative director Pierre Hardy, the containers are plastic-free, meant to be refilled, and envisioned as objets to be displayed on a vanity table rather than lost forever at the bottom of a handbag.
Smythe says the Hermès initiative reminds him of his own collection of antique ebony cosmetic containers that date back to the late 1800s. “When consumables are so beautiful that they become the collectibles of the future, it speaks to a very modern idea of reuse and recycle,” he says. “And that’s where the real, lasting satisfaction lies.”