Idi Amin had shag carpeting and a red push-button phone. And so can you, according to Peter York's Dictator Style (Chronicle, $24.95), a scream of a coffee-table book spotlighting the tiled sinks and pink curtains of Manuel Noriega, Ferdinand Marcos, Nicolae Ceausescu, et al. It includes a how-to section called "Get the Look."
Or you could do a tiki thing instead, or a toy thing, or carry a purse made of glued-together popsicle sticks painted gold, or you could outfit your workspace with dollar-sign medallions, chrome rims, and fake gang graffiti, as suggested in both Kelley L. Moore's Cube Chic (Quirk, $15.95) and Smoothello G. Debaclous's Pimp My Cubicle (Running, $14.95). "Transform your cube into an urban paradise," Moore urges. "You gotta be a first-rate pimp to wear rhinestoned, fur bedroom slippers," Debaclous muses, before giving instructions on using gold pushpins and framing your computer screen with leopard-print fringe.
It's all about getting the look these days. All the better if you make the look yourself, if a flood of new DIY/craft books is any evidence. Spawned in most cases by popular Web sites, these books imply that a vast tribe of crafters is out there knitting poodle-shaped toilet-roll covers, assembling desktop tepees and Zen gardens, and cross-stitching samplers that say "Fuck Off."
Never has crafting been less necessary than in America today. A glut of cheap products everywhere, thanks largely to Chinese prison labor, pretty much precludes the saving of scraps. And who has enough attention span left to hammer nails? Hordes, apparently. They visit ApartmentTherapy.com, where Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan author of Apartment Therapy (Bantam, $14) helps disgruntled dwellers turn "sick homes" into havens, even if it means giving half their stuff to Goodwill and painting things orange. They visit DigsMagazine.com, where Yee-Fan Sun author of First Digs (St. Martin's, 19.95) offers wall-bracket and contact-paper magic. "As a studio arts major at a college far better known for turning out future presidents, Pulitzer Prize winners, and Nobel laureates than famous artists," Harvard-grad Sun confides, "I endured a fair amount of flack [sic] for choosing a 'fun' major."
They watch TLC's Clean Sweep for tips from licensed contractor and soap-opera actor Eric Stromer, named one of People magazine's "Sexiest Men Alive." His Do-It-Yourself Family (Bantam, $20) includes blueprints for headboards shaped like giant bones and for other projects, illustrated with unsexy sketches.
Oh, the sanders of driftwood, the spray-painters of pasta. They flock to Craftster.org, where Leah Kramer, author of The Craftster Guide to Nifty, Thrifty, and Kitschy Crafts (Ten Speed, $17.95), asserts: "Viva la handmade revolution!" and "If you've been known to run with scissors, you can break the rules of crafting with your fellow rebel DIYers here!" Showing how to melt toothbrush handles into colorful bracelets and 45s into ruffly nut-dishes, the book features actual projects clipped from vintage crafting guides along with others that Kramer made up.
And they go to SubversiveCross-Stitch.com, where Julie Jackson, author of Subversive Cross Stitch (Chronicle, $14.95), sells patterns by which fabric can be adorned with such messages as "Happy Fucking Birthday," "Please Kill Me," and "Beeyatch." It started when Jackson realized that regular stitchery fare, "all those cheerful little bears and happy smiling babies ... was just too much sweetness in one place," she writes. "It needed to be messed with." She started creating her own designs, practicing first by altering store-bought kits to make the babies look deformed and as if "the cute little bears were humping each other."
Subversive. Revolution. Viva. Most of these authors feel compelled to keep reminding you that crafting isn't dorky anymore well, yes it is in flyover country. But not here, where hipsters with braided-yarn headbands know that felt Christmas ornaments and homemade snow-globes and bleach-bottle piggy banks and disco balls are ironic. When Auntie decoupages, we want to die. When we crochet, it's kitsch.
It's like a liturgy in these books. Irony. Kitsch. Because otherwise you might glance down one day, notice that you're gluing beads to Styrofoam, and commit suicide. Crafts from the '50s and '60s, Kramer chortles, "are unmistakably retro and often hysterically kitschy not on purpose!" "Unique, colorful containers and a funky lamp contribute to the kitschy feel," Moore muses in Cube Chic, adding later that "Nothing screams kitsch like bright colors and fun collectibles," thus: "Cover shelves with kitschy pink vinyl."
In principle, a rickrack revolution is really cool. Save cash. Create. But what's weird and kind of sad is how the same handful of themes pop up in book after book. Tikis. Zen. Space, not as in the Mars Rover but as in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Cowboys. India, à la Cube Chic's "visual mosaic of paisley and pop" and Pimp My Cubicle's "Taj Mahacubicle," sporting "broomsticks with white painted basketballs as minarets at each corner." Disco. Pirates. And pimping. (Whom exactly do the authors envision gluing fake jewels to a coffee mug to make, as Moore puts it, "a cup pimped out in bling for lattes"?) What marketing director died and made these the themes? Why not, for a real insurrection, a James K. Polk-themed kitchenette or a workspace encrusted in faux rock salt? Hunkering down on hands and knees, Astroturfing your fridge for the jungle look, or stenciling planets onto chairs, you have to ask yourself one question: Is this fun or just cynicism with scissors, poking fun at places and passions alien to me and long lost anyway; spinning snark about what once might have been sincerity; painting and pinning but it's still prefab because some writer told me that tikis are hilarious, that the hustle and bump I never danced are all that passes for iconic in a globalized, homogenized today? You just have to ask yourself. Because you could collage your closet door with pictures of bagpipes or prawns or Charlemagne. You really could.
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