Monday, October 06, 2008

America at Home

Ordinary People Provide the Best Glimpse into Everyday Life

If you’ve ever seen the book series, A Day in the Life or America 24/7 (photos from a single, day across America) you get an amazingly broad and deep sense of how people spend their days. Now, editor and photographer Rick Smolen has published a book of photographs of Americans in their homes – exploring everyday life, domesticity, and how people set up and enjoy their private spaces. Smolen believes readers get a glimpse into someone’s life or reminders of someone they know.

America at Home is a beautiful book, and, to my mind, the kind of social documentary that will eventually be a great historical record. At the same time, it’s an amazing document full of data about how people live, their relationship to the material world, the variety of ways in which we consume, construct domesticity, leisure, and community. Ikea, one of the book’s sponsors, is both sincere and savvy about what the book provides for the company and Americans in general. As they describe it,

IKEA is dedicated to HOME. We reached out and asked questions. And what we learned is 94% of polled Americans said that Home is the Most Important Place in the World. This finding is at the heart of the IKEA ‘HOME IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PLACE IN THE WORLD’ campaign that includes a compelling documentary film, a landmark study, and the America at Home photo-journalist book of everyday Americans taken by the world’s top photographers.
The interesting thing about this campaign is that everyone from market researchers to ordinary folks can get engaged in questions about how others live. Besides providing a glimpse beyond the living room window, the book situates the information in an easily accessible context about our world. Each set of images is tied to relevant statistics. The juxtaposition of fact and home image gives the exact type of context that marketers are always looking to find (did you know the average house costs ten times more than it did in 1970? Sure you did. But look what a variety of homes it buys!) This general information is then deepened with the inclusion of essays by Amy Tan and David Pope and an introduction by Matt Groening of The Simpson’s fame.

Finally, while I don’t want to reduce the book to fodder for the retail machine, it’s worth considering how Ikea and others might use it to see what people want and how they use products and spaces in ways other than they were intended for. It embodies the “active listening” that the Advertising Research Foundation has been pushing in its recent workshops, but does so in a way that is interesting, informing and entertaining all at once.

For more than you ever wanted to know about America At Home, there’s a terrific podcast interview with editor Rick Smolen on the IT conversations website.

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