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Cake Decoration is America's New National Pastime: What Does That Say About Us?

in case you hadn't noticed, there is a lot of frosting on TV these days. Should we be concerned?

Over at Design Observer, Jessica Helfand observes a sub-theme to the nightly onslaught of reality TV: "nearly half a dozen programs devoted to extreme displays of, well, frosting."

Between the Food Network's Ace of Cakes and Cupcake Wars, TLC's Cake Boss, Ultimate Cake-Off, and DC Cupcakes, and WE-TV's Amazing Wedding Cakes and Wedding Cake Wars, we are undoubtedly living in what Current TV calls, with only a tinge of sarcasm, "the golden age of cake television."

Those of you who have been trapped in a cave without cable TV (or live in countries where sprinkles and buttercream are not a national obsession) will have no idea of the extremes of design and engineering involved in these cake creations. As Helfand notes, these are most certainly not your grandmother's cakes:

Who among us knew, for example, that Rice Crispy Treats provide reliable structural foundations for life-size confections, or that chocolate comes in a flexible consistency akin to plasticine? Or that fondant—that smooth-as-glass icing that graces the surfaces of so many layered masterpieces—can be stretched and torqued and thinned to quarter-inch perfection through a giant metal machine? There are airbrushes and carving tools and colors not found in nature, sheer pastes and gilt powders and best of all, digital printers that, improbably, produce perfect little edible photographs.


But what does this outpouring of cake decoration say about our society?

It's easy to dismiss these fondant fancies as text book examples of capitalist decadence. But for Helfand, the rise of cake decoration is symptomatic of "the degree to which the civilian world has, in the last decade, become a population of artistic wannabes." The popularity of frosting voyeurism, and the allied explosion of the cake decorating tools at art supply stores across the country, reveal, she says, two assumptions that underpin contemporary American culture: "that everyone either is or aspires to be creative" and that "all of us have a sweet tooth."

All this reminds me of an exhibition on display at MAK Vienna last fall, which investigated hairstyling, cake decoration, and tattoos—crafts whose sole purpose is ornamental. In response to Austrian architect Adolf Loos' pronouncement that all ornament is crime—a ruinous waste that keeps civilization trapped in a wasteful cycle of obsolesence—designers Mischer'Traxler created a cake-decorating machine that allows each visitor to choose the amount of ornament they wish to apply to their cake.

Each of the resulting cakes is a unique personal expression of taste, created on a mechanical production line. What's more, the process, write the designers, "forces people to think about the amount of decoration they actually like." Judging on the evidence gathered so far, Loos—and with him, civilization itself—is out of luck.

Images: A cake made by Cake Boss's Buddy Valastro, via Design Observer, and Mischer’Traxler’s “Till You Stop” cake-decorating machine and sketches, via Dezeen.

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