Book Review — Inconspicuous Consumption: The Best of Beer Frame

Inconspicuous Consumption: The Best of Beer Frame
by Paul Lukas
(New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1997)
192 pages, $12.95

Many of us are, no doubt, familiar with the concept of a “fanzine.” It’s an informal term used to describe small­ edition magazines, usually published by “fans” of a certain subject matter. While certainly not a significant part of the popular press, fanzines have played an important role over the last 30 years, particularly in the music industry. Some early examples might include publications devoted to 1960s rock ’n’ roll bands (i.e., Tiger Beat), fan club magazines, etc.

The 1980s saw a resurgence of fanzines, specifically those devoted to underground music, art, and literature. The type of recordings and writings covered in these publications were also generally produced in small quantities, making for a natural fit between the publica­tions and their subject matter. In fact, it was not unusual for publishers of fanzines to also be members of under­ ground rock bands (or owners of underground music labels), and for these recordings and publications to be handled by common distributors and retailers. A “DIY” (do it yourself) aesthetic can generally be seen in both the recordings and publications of this genre. What these publishers and musicians might have lacked in technical proficiency was offset by a roughness and immediacy that was at times, truly compelling.

Of course, all good things must come to and end, and the ’90s have seen a wholesale absorption of under­ground culture by the mass media, resulting in a host of less worthy (albeit more popular) recordings and publi­cations, generally categorized as “alternative.” This situ­ation leaves the artistically-inclined fanzine publisher with a dilemma — does one continue with the patterns established in the previous decade, or does one strike out in new and untested directions? I’m happy to report that some current fanzine publishers have chosen the second path, and we have some interesting new efforts to consider.

One such effort is Beer Frame, the Journal of Inconspicuous Consumption, a small-edition publication that has been produced by Paul Lukas since 1993. It shares many of the traits of classic fanzines, specifically its cheap (Kinko’s-level) production, its semi-irregular publishing schedule, and its sharp wit. Beer Frame hinges on the concept of “inconspicuous consumption,” which is to say that the overlooked and oddball products of consumer capitalism not only deserve wider exami­nation, but can also make for entertaining writing and reading. Over the past issues of Beer Frame (seven at the time of writing) Lukas has proven to be a master of uncovering both obscure and everyday artifacts, and has produced many witty and insightful “reviews” of his finds.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, Inconspicuous Consumption is a collection of the “best” of Lukas’ Beer Frame reviews. The book is logically broken into seven sections: “Gadgets,” which is devoted to classic products such as the Brannock Device (the metal scale used in stores to measure shoe size); “Ubiquitous,” which includes meditations on items including the classic Etch­ A-Sketch Magic Screen and the self-cleaning garlic press; “Strange,” which profiles such truly bizarre inventions as Body Glue, God’s Armour, and Lawn Makeup; “Foodstuffs,” which includes a comparison review of four types of sauerkraut juice; “Artifacts,” which shines the spotlight on such long-forgotten devices as the McGill High-Speed Changer (the classic belt-mounted coin-dispenser); “Service & Organizations,” which in­cludes profiles of the Society for Industrial Archeology, and the Pig Improvement Company, Inc.; and “Printed Matter,” which reviews a wide range of publications, including The Pentagram Papers, Double Red’s Lucky Number Visions, and American Cemetery magazine.

There are elements in Lukas’ writing that elevate this book beyond a mere witty celebration of kitsch, however, and that should make Inconspicuous Con­sumption particularly interesting to designers. One element is Lukas’ insistence on including his personal experiences with the artifacts he profiles. For instance, he not only provides us with attempts to describe the tastes of the many strange foods he finds, but he also provides a running commentary on his experiences of encounter­ ing them on the grocery shelf. As well, he provides an extremely entertaining explanation of his method of “industrial archeology,” which essentially entails break­ ing into abandoned factories, such as the defunct Falstaff Brewery outside of Chicago (I believe, in fact, that I may know some of his cohorts from this particular expedi­tion). Lastly, Lukas has acted as an editor of books writ­ ten by graphic designers, and brings an appreciation of function, visual form, and style to his critiques, as he often makes note of the well-designed features of the objects he reviews.

What makes Inconspicuous Consumption most enjoyable, though, is Lukas’ obvious love of his subject matter. He is a true “fan” of the products of our consumer culture, and because of this affection, his work fits squarely in the tradition of fanzine publishing. His appreciation for the “greatness of things” (as it is put in the foreword by underground musician and producer Steve Albini), is something that we might all aspire to-­ certainly it’s an appreciation that all designers should cultivate.

The fact that a large publisher (Crown Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of Random House) has elevated this previously hard-to-find publication to a mass-produced level can only be viewed as positive, in my opinion. I would, in fact, like to encourage other publishers to pursue similar lines of action. Perhaps then we’ll see other collections taken from interesting under­ ground publications. My personal choices would include Shark Fear (a journal dedicated to-as one would imag­ine — spreading an illogical fear of sharks), and Nancy’s Magazine (a highly-entertaining publication from my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, that examines a variety of issues surrounding modern existence).

While such titles (or Lukas’ publication) might never enjoy mass success, they would be more widely exposed to a variety of creative thinkers-designers, artists, and many others. For that reason alone such publications should be created. Certainly they would prove more worthwhile than many of the inane products of our current-day mass media. But then again, if it wasn’t for the ill-conceived products of our consumer society, Lukas and other critics of modern life would have little about which to write.

Originally appeared in Design Issues, Volume 13, Number 3, Autumn, 1997, pp. 86–87.

Design educator + Professor @ The Ohio State University

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