I come not to bury, but to praise Argos. I’m a big fan. I had an argument at home recently when my girlfriend suggested throwing out my Argos catalogue collection. I was outraged! The Argos catalogue is an important archive of popular taste.
This year, the store is 35 years old. The latest catalogue is vast - 1891 pages which include everything from diamond engagement rings to two person saunas to jump leads. Where to start? Perhaps with the Spring issue of Argos’s stand alone Home catalogue. This seems a good place to look at high street design taste in 2008. Well, it would be if it weren’t for the fact that it is still 1997 in the Argos catalogue.
A desperate urge to be tasteful pervades the pages. The belated victory of polite modernism has created an atmosphere fearful of any kind of furnishing faux pas. The living rooms echo not particularly hip bar design from a decade ago. Low leather armchairs, big vases and lots of dark wood predominate. Back in the actual late ‘90’s, Argos was a much weirder place to be, full of enormous armchairs that looked like volcanic eruptions of fake leather and lurid pattern. The sort of thing you might find in a Bavarian guesthouse. The predominant tone today though is a kind of risk free modernism-lite, Ikea without the forced Scandinavian jollity.
Occasionally, amidst the beige, there is an object that has floral decoration creeping over it like fashion ivy, a tentative nod to more contemporary tastes in furniture. There are even black chandeliers, which means that the neo-baroque revival is now officially over.
Back in the big catalogue things are a lot more exciting. Take for example the Antony Worral Thompson 4 gas burner barbeque, a commercial size stainless steel oven that has grown wings, wheels and robotic arms. Or George Foreman’s lean, mean, grilling machine, the ultimate technological derivation of the toasted sandwich maker. Perhaps they’re both hoping that Kirsty Gallagher might pop by for a sausage after burning off some fat on her digital talking skipping rope. Argos has always been big on celebrity endorsement.
Fans of kitsch might like the solar rock garden lights, LED’s disguised as boulders, like a cross between Archigram’s rock plug and an ACME cartoon asteroid. Argos holds a mirror up to our bizarre materialist tastes. There are three pages devoted to dog settees one of which has a union jack on it and is shown next to its owner: a large bull dog. There are 37 pages of TV’s but only one slimline dishwasher. I know because I just bought it. There is also a mind-boggling amount of jewellery including a whole page just for Goths.
The Argos queue is a truly democratic place to be. In there you’ll be standing in line with a 14 year old buying a skull and crossbones necklace, a middle aged man buying all 26 figures in the Doctor Who micro universe collection, a very large family with a 20 person tent and a thirty something man struggling with a dishwasher.
Argos deserves to celebrate its 35th anniversary. From its love of crap celebrities and Status Quo to the humbling utility of its queuing system it has a bracing populist appeal. In an age of pseudo-ethical shopping designed to ease our troubled consciences, Argos belongs to a more optimistic era of consumerism. It remains an utterly un-pretentious way to shop. Plus there’s a part of me that will never quite lose the desire to have a racing car shaped bed.