Whatever happened to the days when a gas station looked like a gas station? And a supermarket was exactly that, not a spacious hall with skylights and plants hanging over the lamb chops, and silver-framed posters lining the walls over the canned goods?
"The simplest, most mundane places and products are being decorated these days," says Heidi Dizer, an interior decorator from Buffalo, N.Y.
Sides of old buildings are ornamented with portraits of ballerinas leaping over jutting bricks and creeping ivy.
Dishwashers, refrigerators, and ovens enhance kitchen color ans style schemes.
Room deodorizers, small and sleek, come in hues that complement interiors.
One Boston tells of a gas-station that "looked more like 'ye olde carriage house.' The sign out in front certainly held the company name and prices high enough, but wrought iron 'gas lanterns' lit the shingle housed gas tanks. the station building was fashioned out of hand hewn shingles and worm wood trim with plastic rock panels along the bottom." (She decided to hold out for a "normal" gas station.)
"In an effort to euphemize and disguise all the necessities of life, tissues and paper towels look like designer fashions, napkins look like Monet paintings, and restaurants look like barns or greenhouses," says Ms. Dizer.
Richard Schneider, the manager of industrial design for Digital Equipment Corporation, explains that this trend in design is not new. "At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution basic tools were made with ornamental etchings, and household equipment, such as sewing machines, was manufactured with elaborate enameled designs."
Somewhere along the line, says Mr. Schneider, this ornamentation became passe , and the more severe functional designs took over.
"Ornamental detail is making a comeback," says Charles Harden, president of the New England Society for Interior Designers. "The increased attention to design is a sign of what's happened to our economy. As we become more affluent, we pay more attention to detail. We have more money to spend on the niceties of life."
Peter Lawrence, director of the Design Management Institute of Massachusetts, praises the increasing decoration: "Consumers are more aware of what they're buying and where they're buying it. Functional designs are giving way to more visually attractive designs that complement the home or neighborhood."
Mr. Lawrence feels that colonially styled gas stations, neatly landscaped banks, multicolored five hydrants, and lanternlike street lights are efforts to visually integrate communities. For instance, "A typically designed gas statio looks out of place in an old whaling town," he says.
Stores, warehouses, factories, and restaurants are being designed not only to attract customers, but also, according to Mr. Harden, to make the place nicer for employees who spend a large amount of time there.
Even the most blase, utilitarian household items are being jazzed up. Tissues come in floral patterns as pretty as the designs on lace handkerchiefs. Glass jelly jars are etched and shaped so they look like fine crystal. Telephones are Trimlines, cartoon characters, or gold-trimmed "antiques."
Traditional phones are still selling well, but novelty and decorator phone sales are on the increase. "People tend to look at the phone as purely utilitarian," says a representative of New England Telephone Company."And we're trying to prove that it doesn't have to be that way."
Peter Lawrence agrees. "There's nothing wrong with wanting to make things look more attractive. People can still buy plain, generic household goods, and they can still find plain old cafeterias to eat at, and classic concrete banks to put their money in. But it's important that people have an option."
Still, the design efforts are unnecessary in the eyes of some critics. A grocery shopper in New York City shakes her head as she picks up paper towels with birds and vines vividly printed on them, "all this is just a waste of effort and wealth," she says. "I'm going to clean the floor with these. I'm not going to frame them."