The Mass Custom

Ben Koditschek

September 9, 2015

Fifteen years ago, the art critic Hal Foster located an “origin-scene of modern design” in the automobile — “Once upon a time in mass production, the commodity was its own ideology, the Model T its own advertising: its chief attraction lay it its abundant sameness. Soon this was not enough: the consumer had to be drawn in, and feedback factored into production.” In response to customer’s desire to confirm their individuality, car manufacturers strive to make their mass produced products appear as unique as possible. To this end, they alter slight details every year, every so often releasing a totally new style. But despite the stupendous variations of brand, model, year and color, cars still cannot escape the homogeneity of mass production.

The industrial dream of ‘mass customization’ promises to end the contradiction between unique individuality and industrial production once and for all. In this ideal production paradigm, each instance of a product would be tailored to the preferences of an individual consumer. The phrase itself is internally conflicted. How can something be universally applied, and also totally unique? This contradiction remains present even when ‘mass’ is removed and ‘customization’ itself isolated for analysis. In a world such as ours, premised on mass production, the very impulse to customize a thing necessarily begins from the starting point of near-total standardization. Customization is thus limited to mitigating the appearance and feeling of standardization, rather than creating anything truly unique.

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But theoretical impossibility does not render the concept worthless. The success of Build-A-Bear workshops, NIKEiD, and Chipotle demonstrate mass customization’s appeal. In the world of cars, Scion and MINI are the industry’s customization leaders. Not only does this technique provide authenticity-starved consumers with a modicurm of particularity beyond what they are used to receiving — it also seats them in a play-house of production, allowing them the chance to act-out a sterilized version of the assembly process. But although the number of options has increased, the product’s form largely remains fixed.

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In 2009 BMW unveiled GINA — a concept car draped in a skin-like fabric, with expressive eyes that shut, and a gaping vulvic cavity that opens to expose its internal engines. According to the explicit, stated concept, GINA points to a future where a car’s shape can be modified by owners, to express their own individual personality. As GINA’s designer, Chris Bangle, explained in a Wallpaper Magazine interview:

Bangle: In this context, we have to offer a product that is more about lifestyle and personalization statements. The idea that variation drives consumption has been one of the dominant factors of the world of design. We need to get some of the individuality of the consumer as well as the producer into the product.

Interviewer: How do you introduce personalization?

Bangle: There is no real difference in how GINA lives with you, but it differs in terms of what it could be for you, how you could change things, even to the point where you can change the shape of the exterior.

Though certainly innovative, GINA fails to live up to the ideal. Its fabric draped skin can only perform a limited set of contortions. But the possibility to which it points is imaginable. For Bangle, GINA represents a union between the “individuality of the consumer [you] as well as the producer [BMW]”. This image of Mass Customization goes much further than its early twenty-first century ancestors in approaching the ideal resolution of individuality and mass society. It is a loving merger of an individual and a corporate body.

In both name and form, GINA takes the feminine sexuality of automobiles to new extremes. She is Mechafilia incarnate. But if GINA is designed to empower a consumer’s unique identity, why does she embody the ur-form of a traditional sexual relationship? This sounds like a remixed echo of Henry Ford: “You can have any shape as long as it’s got back”. As Bangle has claimed, great cars are “an avatar” — “an expansion of yourself: they take your thoughts, your ideas, your emotions, and they multiply it”. GINA  facilitates the expression of our fundamental drives for both love and domination. In response to the need to master others, she offers herself up as a larger-than-life-sized sex-toy to be entered, controlled, and driven, providing her owner with a feeling of sexual omnipotence. Simultaneously, she is a maternal womb that totally envelops and consumes the driver, demanding submission, in a symbolic return to fetal life. In contrast to a design that truly helps express unique individuality, GINA provides yet another way to enact ancient tropes of bodily domination.

Aesthetics Automobile Feminine Sexuality Freud