Merchandising takes Command: Thomas Kinkade and the Future of Architecture

In the verdant hills north of Vallejo, California, Thomas Kinkade’s latest business venture provokes the question – is he the future of architecture?

Andy Warhol would likely have been proud of Thomas Kinkade. More than just a painter, Thomas Kinkade has established himself as a life-style brand whose equally fierce embrace of Christian values and the magic of merchandising has earned him the self-proclaimed title of "Most Collected Living Artist." Indeed, it is not entirely surprising to learn that there is little apparent separation between Thomas Kinkade and "Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light," a trademark owned by the publicly traded Media Arts Group, Inc. (NYSE-MDA) in which Kinkade is a primary investor. Produced in limited numbers, the works appear in various sizes, on various media, and with varying degrees of participation by actual painters, making the merchandise available at numerous price-points and levels of collectibility. This sophisticated production scheme is buttressed on the retail side by a network of 4,500 dealers across the country, a show devoted entirely to his work on the QVC television shopping network, and licensing agreements with companies as diverse as the Franklin Mint and La-Z-Boy. The end effect of this saturation is that Kinkade’s depictions of hazy cottages set in flower-filled landscapes are becoming increasingly pervasive signifiers of the ideal community. Though his subject matter is not exclusively buildings, architectural subjects dominate his works. Kinkade’s website breaks down his paintings (more properly lithographs) into seventeen categories, including Bridges, Churches and Cottages, all surrounded by lush thickets of Miracle-Gro vegetation.

Given the frequency of architectural imagery in Kinkade’s paintings, it is not entirely surprising that one of his most publicized commercial ventures has been actually building one of the Arcadian communities that appear in his paintings. In partnership with international construction firm Taylor Woodrow, The Village at Hiddenbrooke "builds the vision of Thomas Kinkade" in the most idealized form that housing can take – a gated community. Strategically located between San Francisco and the Napa Valley, it snugly nests the eighteen holes of an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course. Kinkade’s vision is available in four models, starting $355,000, a populist price for the Bay Area. Slightly more distinguishing collectors can purchase the most extravagant model, the Merritt (all four models are named after Kinkade’s daughters) at $400,000 – turreted guesthouse not included. Like his paintings, whose authorship is complicated by the fact that they are actually lithographs highlighted by members of his atelier and dotted with Kinkade’s DNA, the design work is outsourced to the Irvine-based architecture firm, William Hezmalhalch Architects. The unimaginative firm portfolio shows them capable of reproducing the nostalgic utopias imagined by Kinkade.

There is a qualitative disconnect between the idealized communities depicted in Kinkade’s paintings and the development itself. An abbreviated landscaping budget prevented the yards from achieving the full bloom of the paintings and, aside from a scattering of turrets, it would be hard to distinguish the four house models from those in any other suburban development. Capturing picturesque effect in built form is a notoriously difficult exercise for architects working in their chosen medium, let alone painters provoked by the market to build. Architectural shortcomings of this sort are commonly corrected for publication, and many will recall times when a visit to a project admired in a glossy publication, like El Croquis, is disappointing in person. Whether through the agency of photographer or painter, architecture often yields a more pleasing countenance when, like a yearbook photo, it has its blemishes removed.

A visit to The Village reveals that the standard criticisms about exclusivity, lack of public transit, and homogeneity apply equally to the Kinkadian community as to any gated development. Although the scope of Kinkade’s "vision" wisely avoids notions of class and racial segregation, that purified vista is revealed on the interiors of the houses – subject matter rarely seen in his paintings. Here, in a remarkable feat of salesmanship, the model homes are outfitted with a clever array of prop furnishings -– wedding photos on dressers, the sounds of Glenn Miller and the smell of bread baking leave the impression that each house is only temporarily empty while the Jones family attends church for the morning.

As much as these complaints serve to distance Kinkade from the serious work of "big A" Architecture, they also conceal how much he has in common with those same signature architects. For just as Kinkade’s business ventures lead him from painting buildings to building them, the seduction of commerce leads the rock stars of architecture gradually away from building.

For what the two seemingly diametrically opposed groups have in common is "branding" – a word which now is finding itself atop architecture syllabi everywhere. For some academics, this new interest in branding is a hopeful new justification for architectural quality, one which will render design essential for the wealthy corporate clients name-brand architects prefer. Best represented in built form by Koolhaas’s recent Prada adventures and, ideologically, by The Harvard Guide to Shopping, this endorsement of the architect as brand-builder has increasingly been accompanied by architects themselves behaving like brands. Individuals such as Michael Graves are engaging in areas of commerce heretofore foreign to architectural practice and managing their names with the same aggressiveness that has put Kinkade on La-Z-Boys.

Apart from the occasional designer/developer such as Luis Barragàn or John Portman, architects have been largely confined to the sidelines of merchandising. Like painters working prior to the canvas, the size of architectural works, their site specificity, and the difficulties encountered through mass production have made architecture’s relationship to commerce one of facilitating it through built works, but never fully participating in it as a commodity. Preston Scott Cohen’s limited-edition digital prints entitled "Toroidal Architecture," marketed by the Thomas Erben Gallery, OMA’s inexplicably vacuous book on color, or any other project in an ever-growing list, marks a shift towards an architectural product that is easily purchased and consumed.

Will the architectural embrace of commercialism be used as a new vehicle for architectural ideas? The response from Ye Olde Architecture Profession is tough to gauge. One just has to get one whiff of Fountainhead to know that Capitalism versus Social Responsibility is a common design dilemma. Our painterly guide gives some sort of answer. With the imperative voice of a bumper sticker, Kinkade manages to use his products as a medium. He conveys his faith in each coffee mug, mouse pad and lithograph sold.