Went to Bar Pitti last night with Malu and Will, and at some point one of them asked, regarding the many waiters running in and out, “Do you have to speak Italian (or be Italian?) to work here?”
I replied, “Imagine if they weren’t. Imagine if the menu and the specials scrawled on the little backboard were all in English—and there’s no reason they couldn’t be—would it be the same experience?”
I wasn’t making a value judgment—I hope. I wasn’t saying it was right or better somehow that this restaurant, and many others, are about way more than the food. Or, that the food is any more or less tasty because of the faux Italian ambience. But what difference does it really make? If the wait staff were all NYU gals and the menu said lamb shanks instead of stinco, would they taste any different? Would our enjoyment having dinner be lessened if the quasi-theme park illusion were shattered? How much of an illusion is enough? How much is an enhancement? And when, if ever, does it slide into an over-the-top Vegas simulation, in which the Eiffel tower and the gondolas and canals of Venice are thrown in as well? When does a little bit of illusion connote authenticity to us by enhancing our enjoyment and our experience (illusory as it might be)? When does it either not ring true at all or go so far and become so perfectly accurate, as to enter the creepiness of the uncanny valley? (The theoretical place where robots and animation are almost good enough to pass as real, but just a hair shy—in which case they totally creep us out.)
I’d argue that some ambience does enhance our dining experience—and we are prepared to pay extra for it, as well. I’m not just talking about noise levels, or whether the wait staff is rude or attentive— I’m thinking more about the physical context. A re-creation of a country inn or a trattoria in Roma is bogus—it’s bullshit. It doesn’t really make the food any better. It is even somewhat inconvenient (having to have the blackboard specials translated), but I think we have to admit we love it.
Would a rose smell as sweet by any other name? It seems Shakespeare’s Romeo was partially wrong. Out of context, the smell of a rose (accurately rendered, chemically, and presented in a glass vial) wouldn’t evoke quite the same feelings. How about Juliette? Would she be the same if she were not forbidden fruit? Hardly. That’s to say nothing of the bouba/kiki effect:
This picture is used as a test to demonstrate that people may not attach sounds to shapes arbitrarily: American college undergraduates and Tamil speakers in India called the shape on the left "kiki" and the one on the right "bouba". (Source)
This research seems to imply that maybe the names of things aren’t arbitrary and switchable—not always. But there are shadings and gradations of restaurants’ (and other institutions’) illusory authenticity—and how do those work? How do we read those? A dumpy storefront restaurant off Roosevelt Ave. in Queens, or in a strip mall in Los Angeles, might have the best Thai food in town, or so we believe. In which case, the banal setting acts as a kind of reverse authenticity indicator—it’s got to be good because the place looks so bad. There’s the McNally brand (Pastis and Balthazar)—over the top recreations of French brasseries that are accurate to a fault. The carefully chipped paint, worn lettering and aged mirrors are often shipped over or painstakingly art directed. In these places, we enter a movie set and we’re the actors living out a scene with our friends—and a few hundred extras, some of whom we might even recognize. Those are extremes, but there are hundreds of less elaborate recreations all over town.
My friend Sally thinks that if these semi-faux places don’t change, if the details and food stay as we remember them for years and years, then they become something else. They enter a meta layer of illusion. They become ‘real’ because they are a part our own histories—part of our personal memories, but we still know we’re not a restaurant on a street in Rome or Paris. That may be true for the places in NY (and elsewhere) that have stood the test of time, but I’m just as interested in the ones that do the blackboard menus, exposed brick walls, some imported country knick knacks, and European staffs that are more ubiquitous and sometimes transitory. These are everywhere. There is the Greek equivalent, the Spanish, the French, the Mexican, and, wait—where are the faux British country pubs?
We have homemade versions as well—faux diners, roadhouses and barns. A lot of American diners were shipped off to Russia, I heard. Little virtual worlds, where taste, smell, music, language and décor evoke a distant (and sometimes long gone) world, transported to four corners of the globe. A constantly shifting shell game of cultural virtual realities—a bit of Mexico now in Osaka, a bit of China in Lyon and a bit of Russia in Manhattan.
This love of illusion applies outside the world of restaurant interiors, too. One form is called a skeuomorph (thank you, Danielle), which is when one material mimics another—usually older and originally functional material. These elements of design serve no useful purpose, but they make the object, even a virtual digital object, feel familiar and comfortable. Plastic items often would imitate the metal, leather or ceramic original (I have plastic sandals in which the “weave” imitates the earlier leather version). Fake wood grain counters, fake marble in many fancy houses. Skeuomorphism is not new—the ancient Greeks and Romans added architectural details to their houses and temples that were fake versions of earlier practical elements, but which were no longer needed.
Digital and web-based skeuomorphing is rampant, especially at Apple—the fake brushed aluminum of the old iTunes screens (some ‘aluminum’ elements have been retained), the drop shadows and shadings of app logos to make them seem like 3D objects, the buttons that look like little round lights, sunken into a virtual panel (which has shading around the edges to make it seem to float on top of the panels/windows ‘underneath’ it), the desktop folders (also shaded and with drop shadows) and the sounds of email—whooshing into the ether. The amount of work that goes into all this is not inconsiderable, and the time these elaborate virtual surfaces take to be rendered must lag a teeny tiny bit as well.
The digital music world is rife with this kind of stuff. Software that emulates the harmonic distortion of a guitar amp (itself evidence of a desire to sound comfortable and familiar) is often designed to look like a physical guitar amp—with knobs and switches and lights that go on when it is in use (that part is actually useful). Other bits of gear mimic pedals, tube limiters, vinyl and other bits of coveted archaic gear.
Maybe those early friendly user interfaces on Mac computers that used icons, folders, and drag and drop motions to imitate physical activities got us hooked. Our intuition leads us to know what to do with these familiar shapes and objects—push a button, open a folder, stretch a picture, turn a knob. How much do the skeuomorphed aspects of the design actually help us? Does creating the illusion that we’re dealing with physical objects make the experience more satisfying?
Wouldn’t you have thought we’d slowly and gently ease ourselves out of the world of illusionism—of digital fake aluminum, virtual buttons and faux wood panels, at least? That a design sense would emerge that is completely unique and integrated with digital interfaces and computer (and phone) software? It hasn’t. Maybe it never will. Maybe these interface designers realize that we function best in our illusory words, be they restaurant interiors or the virtual buttons and bits on our phones. Maybe videogame controller designers will find that what we’re most comfortable with in their world are controllers that resemble the sticks, bows and spears we evolved with—or at least devices that mimic those motions and require those skills.