Thursday, March 7, 2013

Best Products, SITE, and the Nature of Nostalgia



As I begin writing the first post for this blog, I find myself reflecting quite a bit on the nature of nostalgia.  I suppose this is a result of growing older, but it’s also a reaction to the digital age.  In the era of YouTube, everything seems to be on instant recall.  Videos can be experienced again and again, and I think that causes them to lose their effect.  Watch something once, and it’s special, watch it 50 times, and it becomes background noise.  The Best Products showrooms designed by the architectural firm SITE (my first topic discussed here) really illustrate the winding and sometimes half-forgotten path these topics have taken through my memory without the luxury of instant and total recall.  I have also discovered through my own research how selective the Internet can be documenting events.  There are whole swatches of history that are poorly recorded on the web. The Internet is far from the complete record of human history people sometimes mistake it for, and it seems that if something happened before the mid 1990s, it might not be documented on-line at all. 

SITE's Peeling Project, Best Showroom in Richmond, VA
I first became aware of SITE’s strange and mysterious structures in the early 1980s (probably around 1982) on the classic Jack Palance-hosted Ripley’s Believe it or Not TV show.   The buildings definitely fit the show’s theme of “the strange, the bizarre, the unexpected” (anyone who grew up in the early 80’s is probably hearing Palance’s creepy delivery of those lines in their head right now).  The show aired a segment on the SITE structures and I very clearly remember watching it with my brother.  I would have been about 7 or 8 at the time but the images I saw that Sunday night really stuck with me.  I talked about with my brother afterwards, and in my mind it took on kind of a mythic status.  I couldn’t see the segment again immediately (or watch it an infinite number of times on YouTube) so it lived on in my memory, becoming fuzzier with time, but no less potent. Why did the segment have such a hold on me?  Maybe it was because the buildings seemed so dream-like and appealed to my childhood fantasies.  Maybe it was because they were just so different from where my mother took me to go shopping.  Regardless of why these memories had such power in me they continued to live on, not clearly remembered, but never fully forgotten.



            When I chose to become an artist and went to college, these building appeared again in my art history textbooks.  My fondness for the memory from my childhood was now augmented by a different understanding of the structures and what SITE and Best Products were trying to do.  When I experienced them as a child, they were presented in the form of entertainment- oddities on a television show that dealt specifically in the bizarre.  As a child they seemed weird, precarious, and impossible and that’s what I remembered and liked about them.  As I learned more in school I started to see them in a new light.  I now understood why they looked weird, precarious, and bizarre.  I could appreciate them from an artistic and architectural standpoint, but they never lost their mysteriousness.  


            As a professional artist the buildings appeared again, and again my relationship to them changed and deepened.  My art often deals with art history, and I am specifically drawn to art that has been changed or altered through time, vandalism, or destruction.  As I re-discovered these buildings once again just a couple of years ago I was saddened to see that almost all of them no longer exist.  After Best Products went out of business in the mid 1990s the fanciful facades were torn down by new building occupants. For years (almost my entire life, really) the buildings existed in the fringes of my memory, and today they can only be experienced through memory.  The buildings were mostly dismantled before the rise of the internet in the late 90s, and their presence on the web is spotty.  Information is out there, but scattered.  Some of the buildings are hardly documented at all, others more so.  The existence of these buildings in the periphery of the internet, as well as in the periphery of memory, qualifies them as a cultural ghost.  Here I try to gather as much information as I can in one place so the memory of these strange, bizarre, and unexpected buildings lives on, perhaps for a new generation.


Best Products and SITE Inc.


The Best Products logo
            Best Products was founded by Sydney and Frances Lewis in 1957.  Begun as a mail-order business, it soon expanded into a chain of catalog showrooms.  Headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, the chain was very successful in the 1970’s and early 80’s (sales at one time topped $1 billion annually) and the Lewis family used their extensive wealth to support numerous philanthropic endeavors.  They were avid art collectors and supported numerous artists.  They amassed a large collection of art during their lifetime, often trading merchandise from the Best catalog for art.   Their collection was eventually donated to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and today a wing of the museum bears their name (and the museum's cafe is called the Best Cafe).
 

SITE's Cutler Ridge Showroom, FL
            This passion for art was carried over into the Best Products showrooms as well.  Beginning in the late 1960’s, they began a now legendary collaboration with the conceptual architectural firm SITE (an acronym for Sculpture in the Environment) that transformed some of their stores into works of art, often located in banal suburban locations.  Shopping centers are often boring affairs.  Built up quickly in the 1950’s and 60’s, they are often purely functional edifices of glass and concrete.  Rarely does one expect to find high art and conceptual architecture in the ‘burbs, but for a brief time in the 70’s and 80’s, commercialism and art were merged in a pretty spectacular and memorable way.  This collaboration yielded strange and (sadly) ephemeral results.


            In the next post, I’ll begin breaking down the individual showrooms and explaining what happened to each one.  Until then, this video (one of the few videos about Best that can be found on YouTube) does a good job of detailing most of the Best/SITE collaborations.  Thanks to YouTube poster daveiseri for putting it up.  It includes interviews with SITE founder James Wines and Andy Lewis, CEO and son of Sydney and Frances.  As a side note, SITE’s “Ghost Parking Lot” won’t be discussed here. It wasn’t commissioned by Best and was not part of a Best Products showroom (unfortunately, though, it suffered a similar fate- it was dismantled in 2006).  (As of 2015, the video has suffered the same fate of the showrooms- it has been taken down.  I will look for a replacement).



 
 
 

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