Built to Trash
Is ‘heirloom design’ the cure for consumption?

As the middle-class daughter of a refugee mother and a Depression-era father, I grew up straddling two worlds. My parents could afford much more than they were willing to buy. Most things that broke could be and were repaired. My German grandmother’s aphorisms lingered in the air: “Waste not, want not,” “A penny saved is a penny earned,” “A stitch in time saves nine.”

By the time my own children were born, America was flooded with cheap and cheaply made goods. So while my parents continued working at the sturdy antique desks they inherited from my grandparents and sleeping beneath a hand-crocheted bedspread, my children and their friends became the first and last owners of a seemingly endless supply of plastic toys and particle-board furniture.

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Tags: China, consumerism, consumption, economy, imports, planned obselescence, purchasing

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I can speak to this point as it comes to one of my own particular vices: high-end stereo. The equipment which I have listened to in the past and currently use in my sound system has names you may never have heard of: Mark Levinson, Dahlquist, Luxman, Martin Logan, Bryston, NAD, Audio Research, and Infinity. The hardware from all these manufacturers generally share three things in common:

  • They can be PRICEY.
  • They are generally VERY well built.
  • They are designed to do the job of reproducing sound very well first and matching a price point second.

As example, I offer my power amplifiers, Mark Levinson ML-2's. I bought them used in 1982. They weigh 65 pounds each, are built like the proverbial brick shit-house, and can and have driven every speaker I've owned since I got them with ease and exceptional musicality. They are designed not just deliver excellent sound, but to be easy to work on and to update parts on. When I first got them, a friend of mine and I decided to insure their long life by replacing the power supply and output transistors with preferred units, then adjusted them to allow for the new transistors. That was 27 years ago, and the 2's have not given me a whit of trouble since. The rest of gear has performed similarly and indeed, since 1982, I can count the number of times I've had to send in a piece of equipment for repair on the five fingers of one hand, with fingers to spare.

Certainly, not everyone will be interested in spending the kind of money I have on their sound system or home theatre, yet in most cases I've seen, you get what you pay for ... and you pay for what you get. Certainly, there are bargains to be had, pieces which give excellent bang for the buck, but their durability more than likely will still correlate to component choice and overall build quality. The term "heirloom" used above is intriguing, as I fully expect to bequeath my sound system to my daughter when I no longer have need of it, and it would not surprise me that it would perform reliably for her has it has for me. Would you expect your average LCD TV or your car to have that brand of longevity? Pretty likely not.

To date, quality and longevity remain a direct function of price. The occurrence of the inexpensive item which outlasts its owner is rare if not non-existent. The questions to ask yourself when looking for something new are annoyingly simple:

  • Do you really want it?
  • Do you want it to LAST?
The idea of consumption as our country's economic engine continues to this day. Indeed, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush implored Americans to go shopping. And frugal as I am and as green as I try to be, during the recent economic downturn I've found myself feeling that every major purchase I make is a perverse kind of civic duty. The notion of the citizen-as-consumer clearly runs deep.

How does this excerpt sound to you? If you're clueless, try replacing 'consumption' with 'religion', 'go shopping' to 'go to church', and so on. The late Frank Zappa used to make fun of his country's greatest religion, L. Ron Hoover's 'Church of Appliantology'. He was quite an insightful cynic ;-)
Oh, one other quick note which may or may not be on point: ALL my gear (with the exception of my B&O cassette player and Luxman turntable) is built in the United States!!!
Resurrecting this thread a little. I see the comments on particle board furniture. That stuff can be toxic as well, contribute to fumes and molds that degrade human health. Maybe, I don't have proof of that.

Refinishing and rebuilding old furniture does have its place. My desk is a 100-year old kitchen table, oak, that I refinished about 25 years ago. It's solid, I enjoy the appearance of the wood, and when I'm done with it someone else can use it as well. It cost almost nothing. I have other furniture items that are the same idea, old - made - new again. I look at yard sales and estate sales for interesting items of furniture that can be refinished or repurposed, and once in a while add something to my collection. Time for me to have a yard sale as well, to clear out things that I no longer use and don't want to throw away.

I enjoy being "cheap" when it comes to items like clothes. I can't do it at work, but at home I wear old clothes that I keep for many years. I take perverse pride in the number of tears and paint splotches on my workpants and shirts.

We had dog beds from costco, big fluffy things filled with some sort of foam. They degraded in a couple of months, couldnt be washed, and wound up thrown away. Now the dogs sleep on comforters, from yard and estate sales. Fold them into quarters, stack two for 8 layers, they are as soft as the dog buds, but can weather many washes over many years. Very inexpensive, durable, environmentally responsible, and not throw-away.

The comments about quality and durability being pricey are also true. Over the long run, a durable, expensive item might be much less costly than a series of chap ones, but for people living from low wage paycheck to paycheck, or even no paycheck, that's a luxury they can't afford. Except for buying used at Goodwill and garage sales etc - and there is no shame in doing that. I do it all the time.

Well, those are my random thoughts. My parents were also of the make-it-last generation, to an extreme, and I strive to follow in their steps when I can.


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