Shiny happy Christmas

For Janice Kirkpatrick the element of Christmas is chrome, that shiny, glittering substance that promises so much, but in truth is usually just a thin polished veneer.

It’s Christmas, that vainglorious, mercurial celebration of conspicuous materialism. It’s the time for silver bells and glittering balls, for platinum landscapes and gunmetal skies.

Everything is covered in tinsel, metallic foil, shiny papers and plastics. It’s a time of illusion in which everything is not what it seems. It’s the season for crossing palms with silver coins and platinum cards.

If metals have a season then Christmas is chrome incarnate. If materials have an age, the 20th century has got to be chrome.

Chrome comes from the Greek word for “colour”. It’s rare in nature, but common in the shopping mall. It’s fond of the jewellers because the colour of Christmas red rubies and evergreen emeralds, serpentine, and chrome mica are caused by its presence. It’s alchemical, alright, pretending to be valuable when it’s not, making cheap products precious.

As well as being the seasonal metal, brilliant chrome has been the designers choice throughout the 20th century. This seamless, liquid metal envelope covered many of the products that marked our progress throughout the last one hundred years. Born of electricity like Mary Shelley’s monster, chrome typified the technology of the age – chrome was our “philosophers’ stone”, embodying all that electricity promised. Chrome was electricity made flesh.

The Modernist designers Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer loved chrome’s machine-age seamlessness. Chrome made their metals perfect, covering poor joins and crude designs, creating an illusion of machine-made perfection. Chrome made designers’ dreams come true, delivering pure surface with no beginning and no end.

Designers tolerated this awkward metal, brittle at low temperatures and difficult to cast because of its high melting point. Designers could describe, but not yet technically deliver, the perfection chrome promised. With its scintillating surface, chrome distracted the eye, masking a lack of substance within the products. Chrome was the perfect product skin, microscopically thin, dissolving rather than defining product lines. Noncommittal chrome dazzled then seduced. In reality, chrome was no more than a cheap tap or a shiny fender.

In the US, chrome delivered the designers’ dreams of go-faster, futuristic products that looked like tomorrow’s world, but were only a triumph of beautiful styling over real content. Chrome coated America, covering everything from Hollywood movie sets to pencil sharpeners. Richard Buckminster Fuller, Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy used chrome to decorate trains, planes and automobiles. Its legacy lives on in the US Airlines silver livery.

Today, chrome is a more honest kind of decoration and doesn’t really figure in the new league of desirable, multidimensional materials. Still chrome promises us much more from mobile phones, running shoes, cameras and games. We have debunked chrome, but, like Pavlov’s dogs, still foolishly slobber over the magical glitter of silver Nokias. Nikes, Canon cameras and Gameboys with all their false depths, dimensions and values. Chrome’s steely countenance continues to reflect our own materialistic gaze, delivering no more than we deserve – an empty shell and an unfulfilled promise.

It seems that chrome is still the designer’s dream, cropping up in expensive cars, cards, crackers, cosmetics and cutlery, covering plastics as well as metals. Chrome does not care whose form it reflects – a silver Santa or baby Jesus. Even Mickey Mouse, enveloped by its skin, becomes another of chrome’s false Gods. Chrome helps keep Christmas special even though few of us still believe in the real meaning behind the season. Chrome is the Christmas metal symbolising our mercantile society. Chrome celebrates credit but not cash, it celebrates the act of shopping rather than the gift of giving.

Not only does chrome shine, but chrome alum forms crystals used in tanning leather and textile dyeing. Chrome is in the warp and the weft. It’s in every shag pile carpet and Chanel handbag. Chrome is in the very life-blood of our late 20th century, materialistic society.

I love and loathe chrome because its reflective surface allows us to lie to ourselves. It’s been around for so long that I don’t think we even realise how often we’re seduced by it. This Christmas, I’ll leave out chrome’s false flash and try to buy more honest presents. I think I’ll rather stick with good old gold, Frankenstein and fake fur, just to make sure I know what I’m getting and what I’m giving.

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