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Building cachet by association

With sleek elevations and drama to spare, out-of-the-box modernism manifests itself on a massive scale. But when a prominent work becomes a backdrop for blouses or set decoration for soda, does commerce dishonor art or can both come out ahead?

January 29, 2006|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

LONG before Skyy Vodka put the finishing touches on their new ultra-premium elixir, Chad Farmer was jotting notes and planning studies to figure out how exactly to market the stuff. "We look at culture," says Farmer, president and executive director of the Carlsbad-based ad agency, Lambesis. "We look at what's happening in industry, what consumers are doing, we look at the rational and emotional reasons for why people drink vodka." Farmer and his team chose five potential advertising themes -- exotic; aphrodisiac; old world, old stills; clinical; and high design -- and spent months researching, whittling the list to one.

"We decided on high design," Farmer says, "because it's the biggest cultural opportunity right now. The masses are starting to have a higher aesthetic; just look at Philippe Starck at Target. Now that the masses are buying TVs and electronics not because of picture quality but because of high design, our choice becomes very obvious."

Skyy Vodka, meet Walt Disney Concert Hall. Frank Gehry's slopes of polished steel, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, play a primary role in the marketing campaign for Skyy 90, to be unfurled in coming months across all variety of media. "We searched around the world for instant classic symbols of modern design," Farmer says. "Disney Hall is one of the most iconic symbols of modernism."

It has also become one of the more prominent images used in advertising, along with other local buildings such as the District 7 headquarters for the California Department of Transportation, the Pacific Design Center, the Los Angeles Convention Center and the Southern California Institute of Architecture. "High-end architecture is getting hotter," says Ron Smothermon, a Newport Beach ad producer. "More and more modernistic, high-end architecture is flowing through the advertising industry." A wide swath of companies has filmed and photographed Disney Hall for ads since the building opened in 2003, including Microsoft, Sony, Supercuts, Macy's, Vidal Sassoon, Nokia, M&M's, Bass Ale, Oral B and many automobile brands.

Architects are generally flattered by the attention, says James S. Russell, editor at large for Architectural Record. "Buildings exist in a public space, and if they get used as the backdrop for ads, if anything, the architects are tickled," he says. But there are those who cringe when they see temples of modern design used to hock cars and toothbrushes, who bemoan the unchecked commercialization of their craft.

Some of the executives and producers behind these ads, such as Skyy 90's Farmer, are scrupulously aware of the architecture they feature; each shot is meant to convey specific social, aesthetic and economic values and to associate them with the brand. In these productions, the architecture is usually clearly recognizable, rising in full form as a backdrop to poured vodka or a gleaming luxury sedan. "High architecture -- like Gothic cathedrals, English accents and classical music -- is shorthand for beauty, sophistication and aspiration, for confidant urbanity," says Bob Garfield, ad critic for Advertising Age magazine. "It can be useful to sell credit cards, insurance and high-ticket items, especially for well-heeled people who imagine themselves worthy."

Other executives and producers are less interested in borrowing architectural prestige than in using blurred shots of walls and ceilings and architectural details to subtly compliment foreground products. In this case, buildings are often barely recognizable. "I loved the lines at Disney Hall," says Deborah White, senior art director at Macy's, who arrived there to shoot a section of the store's fall 2005 catalog. "The lines were just perfect. Our trend of clothing was burnt-out velvets, and beading and so forth. Disney Hall lent itself to the whole look -- sleek and elegant."


The phenomenon goes public

JUST down the hill from Disney Hall, the ultra-modern Caltrans building is another mecca for advertisers, receiving 36 commercial film and photo shoot requests in 2005, more than any other state-owned building in California. Last year it played host to Nintendo, Sony, MasterCard, Clairol, Mitsubishi, Samsung and others. Which didn't surprise its architect in the least.

"We could anticipate that this would take place," says Thom Mayne, who unveiled the massive Space Age project in 2004. "We had film crews in the building before it was even occupied.... I think this reflects society's continued interest in the present, in something contemporary. Architecture tends to be put under forces that are fairly conservative, and advertising has a different set of rules. It's much more open and willing to explore.... This is another way that buildings are absorbed by the public; it's not a problem -- it's not even a good or a bad thing. It just is, and should be."

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