The Polarizing Appeal of Clear Things

From see-through bags to glass-like puzzles and translucent pie, we've never been so obsessed with clear commodities.

by Bettina Makalintal
May 13 2020, 6:44pm

Photo Credit: James Dempsey/@jamesdempsey2005

Made of transparent lucite and seen in many design blog homes, Philippe Starck's iconic Louis Ghost chair—yes, you've seen it—has been replicated so many times since its creation in 2002 that Google now also recommends the query: "Are ghost chairs out of style?"

Clear things are everywhere. Though see-through bags have been employed since the 90s to deter school violence, 2018 saw the rise of the transparent purse as fashion, a trend that extended into clear booties, fanny packs, and even a $420 see-through tote. Clear umbrellas had a moment. Across Etsy there are clear ashtrays, trinkets, and a surprising number of tiny clear coffins. Sales of clear-framed glasses increased by 50 percent in 2019, according to glasses retailer Zenni Optical, and just a few weeks ago, NBC Today featured clear puzzles.

The trend toward clear things applies to food, too. Developed in Japan in 2014, "raindrop cakes" have made the rounds online ever since. In 2017, chefs Mike Bagale and Simon Davies at Chicago's three-Michelin-starred Alinea created a crystalline pumpkin pie that inspired many copycats. YouTuber Barry Lewis has a series making clear food: glass potato chips, transparent tacos, clear tomato soup.

Clearly, there's a longstanding interest in taking things that are otherwise opaque and reimagining them as transparent. It's hard to see the clear pies of today and not think of the aspics of the 1950s. In 1993, the New York Times reported that "the hot color for new products [became] no color at all" as brands associated clear with "health, purity, freshness and no-frills functionality." No matter what's turned clear, rendering something see-through can be polarizing: a source of both fascination and disdain.

To those of us who find clear things captivating, the appeal is many-fold. Motivated by the move toward minimalism, transparent things can feel orderly; clutter seems less cluttered if you can see through it. Transparent resin art, especially with flowers or gold leaf, feels like a clever merging of disparate aesthetics, as whimsy is paired with plasticized functionality. Meanwhile, a clear purse has a performative thrill as something mundane is reinvented. Clear things are an "aesthetic lifestyle," as Eater once put it in reference to smooth food, and even as they grow trendy, clarity is a choice against visual conventions.

Photo courtesy Phyllis Cheung/MyLuxeFinds

Phyllis Cheung of the Etsy store MyLuxeFinds estimates that she's sold 1000 transparent puzzles since she launched them last month. Before the pandemic, Cheung created "experiential events," a job that equipped her with a laser cutter and a backlog of clear acrylic; with those canceled, she shifted to Etsy. She thinks her clear puzzles, which range from 9 pieces to 500 pieces, rely on minimalist sensibilities.

Not only are her clear puzzles more difficult because each side looks the same, Cheung said, they have an understated type of madness. "I think [people assembling the puzzles] get to create order out of chaos. It's a lot more chaotic than looking at a regular puzzle, because you really have no idea what's up and down," she told VICE. They don't look immediately chaotic, however. "The minimalist design is very attractive to people because it's clean."

Of course, clarity also veers into fantasy. In a video of the Alinea pie by the dish's co-creator Simon Davies, the pie catches the light like a crystal in a sunbeam. About three-fingers-wide, the tiny size makes it seem as though Davies is a giant examining a small human treat for the first time.

"I wanted to pay homage to the traditional pie crust, whipped cream, and aesthetic, but challenge people with the filling," Davies told VICE. Made of distilled pumpkin pie flavor set in gelatin in a pie shell, the dish made sense at Alinea, where helium-filled taffy balloons have been a signature item since 2012. "It’s like a magic trick with food. It takes you to a sense of childlike wonder that you don’t often get to experience as an adult. How did they do that? How is that possible?"

Not all clear things are seen so positively. Sydney Morning Herald fashion editor Melissa Singer wrote last year that see-through bags were like having a fridge with a glass door: nowhere for moldy things to hide, and exposing lifestyle differences based on privilege. "Perhaps, like carrying no bag at all, the clear bag is a luxury best enjoyed by people who don't have the need to carry the ugly, banal and downright embarrassing stuff of real life," she wrote.

Translucent food inspires a gut reaction. Aspics, which encased meat or shrimp or vegetables in a wobbly layer of gelatin, are often seen as an "icky" oddity of the past; a Facebook group called "Aspics with threatening auras" markets itself for "discovering and discussing aspics that make you feel unsafe while viewing."

Last month, New Yorker food correspondent Helen Rosner shared a photo of a clear lemon meringue pie from Reddit. The pie in question was made by James Dempsey, head chef at the Leeds, England-based Blackmoor Dining Room and a fan of food illusions. The pie's meringue peaks are singed, and its crust is golden and crisp—but instead of sunshine yellow custard, a jelly-like filling refracts a view of a grassy knoll. "It haunts me," Rosner wrote.

Many commenters shared similar feelings of disdain, even referring to the slice as "forbidden," which refers to foods that are "tasty to the eye, but not to the mouth." Many of them did not seem to want to eat the pie or even behold its clear appearance. What aspics and clear pie have in common is that they look artificial, and like bright blue Slurpees and Parkay's now-discontinued hot pink squeeze butter, they couldn't possibly exist in nature. Clear food subverts the idea of what looks edible, which seems to make some people unsettled.

Despite its mixed reception online, Dempsey told VICE that the clear lemon meringue pie was mostly a hit in real life. When the standard lemon meringue pie sold poorly, Dempsey introduced the clear version, and suddenly, pie sales spiked. "I think what makes it appealing is the fact that it breaks the norm," he said. "The clear element is different and breaks the traditional look. I think people either love it or not."

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