Virginia Postrel: Keen Observer

The author, social commentator, and ‘dynamist’ riffs on the omnipresence of style and the importance of open-market competition.

August 1, 2006

Your book The Substance of Style (Harper Perennial, 2004) talks about this being The Age of Aesthetics. Why does style matter so much more today than in the past?

POSTREL: It matters because competition on price and function is so intense that businesses need new ways to distinguish themselves. The growth of “fast casual” restaurant chains such as Chipotle and Corner Bakery is a good example. They compete with traditional family restaurants by offering better decor and higher-quality ingredients, but less service. Customers seem happy to make that tradeoff.

The phrase “substance of style” seems oxymoronic. If you were in real estate, how would aesthetics affect the way you do business?

POSTREL: I’d make sure all my marketing materials looked both distinctive and professional. I’d also make sure the properties I was marketing looked attractive and polished; the trick is to strike a balance between being so generic that the property looks bland and being so stylized that you appeal only to a small market. People want to personalize their spaces.

You often talk about the wonderful plethora of choices we have today. But in a recent article in The New York Times, researchers said the increase in choices has left many consumers feeling anxious and dissatisfied. What’s your reaction?

POSTREL: It’s great news for real estate professionals, who exemplify what I call “mediated shopping.” Consumers want the advantages of choice—the ability to find what suits us exactly—but become overwhelmed by unfamiliar options. We increasingly value experts who know both their field and our specific needs and personalities and who can narrow the choices for us.

In The Future and Its Enemies (Free Press, 1998), you warned against a central authority that tries to control the market. How can standards be maintained without central authority?

POSTREL: The short answer is through competition and criticism. The long answer is that you need to match the right level of standard to the activity. Standards for registering property titles are general purpose rules that allow different property ownership arrangements. By contrast, aesthetic regulations that work for a planned community would be stifling if applied to an entire state.

The Future also talks about the conflict between “stasists”—status quo types—and “dynamists,” who favor an open-ended society that advances through creativity, enterprise, and trial and error. As a dynamist, how do you perceive real estate?

POSTREL: It’s an information business. Now customers have, or expect to have, a lot more information available to them. As a dynamist, I see this as a learning process on both sides, with practitioners constantly pushed by competition to figure out how to give clients more value: What are the unaddressed dissatisfactions clients have? What frustrates them? Practitioners have to do what customers can’t do as well for themselves, which is sort through all the information efficiently.

For more on Postrel, visit

Chuck Paustian is a former REALTOR® Magazine senior editor.