No business like snow business

Plastic snowstorms are inexplicably fashionable again. And, as Lucas Hollweg finds out, it's not just the anoraks who are putting them at the top of their Christmas lists
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The Independent Culture
Last Christmas, when Channel 4 sent out a snowstorm souvenir featuring its new London headquarters in a blizzard of silver glitter, the company was inundated with calls from people asking for another one they could give to their aunty. At around the same time, the Halifax building society ran a press campaign showing one of their branches wrapped in a similarly frosted coating. And in the spring, the shoe designer Patrick Cox brought out a range of jelly shoes with see-through heels in which Big Ben, the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower were anchored in an ersatz snowstorm that fluttered with every step.

Snowstorms were suddenly everywhere - ultra plastic, ultra cheap, and somehow inexplicably fashionable. There could well be a similar flurry again this year: already the pre-Christmas television ad for House of Fraser shows elegantly turned-out shoppers draping themselves over abstract forms inside a snow-filled hemisphere.

This isn't the first time the snowstorm (snow-dome, snow-globe - call it what you will) has been elevated from the realms of meaningless kitsch to near iconic status. In 1940, sales of snowstorms in America tripled after one featuring a girl on a sledge was used as the link between major scenes in the Ginger Rogers movie Kitty Foyle - though it was doubtless only coincidence that the following year Orson Welles gave a glass snowstorm a starring role in the opening sequence of Citizen Kane.

But the current renaissance is the biggest since plastic snowstorms from the Hong Kong and Taiwan invaded seaside souvenir shops in the Fifties. In the States, contemporary designs are being marketed as collectables by mail-order catalogues in much the same way as porcelain figurines are touted through the colour supplements over here; and a snowstorm newsletter, called Snow Biz, has been set up to provide information and a trading forum for collectors. Snowstorms have also become the favoured feel-good publicity tool of an unlikely spectrum of some serious organisations - the Wall Street bank Warburg's, for instance, recently sent out a glass globe featuring the Manhattan skyline, with a musical box base that gave a jingling rendition of "New York, New York".

As always in matters of dubious taste, America is ahead of the game. But the spate of sightings over here is indicative of a wider trend. For enthusiasts, this new-found popularity cuts against the trailer-trash image that generally dogs the world of kitsch. Collecting snowstorms is no longer a badge of cultural inadequacy, even if the fear of ridicule still lingers. "Don't make us look sad," entreated Greg Day, a press officer at Channel 4, as he gave me a guided tour of the 200 snow storms he keeps in his loo and on his landing. "It's not sad, it's eccentric."

Greg Day has a point. Today's collectors aren't the anoraks and middle- aged housewives of myth: they are film-makers, television stars, stockbrokers and journalists; grown-up people with responsible, often glamorous jobs. "The world thinks that collectors are abnormal," says Harry Rinker, author of Snow Globes and a leading authority on the American collecting market. "This is not true. Everyone is born with a collectiong gene. The average snow-globe collector is aged 20 to 40, college-educated, middle-income."

So what is it that prompts these otherwise right-thinking individuals to fill their shelves with plastic tack? Greg Day blames an American: "A friend from New York sent me one as a present about three years ago. I thought it was a silly thing to give me, but then I started seeing them everywhere. I knew I had a problem when I went down to Brighton just to look for one." Day now can't depart from a city without first scouring the souvenir shops for a local example.

Visually, the appeal is akin to that of a Pierre and Gilles picture: vibrant, colourful and, in many cases, exceptionally witty. What sick- humoured marketing genius, for instance, came up with the idea of a snowstorm to proclaim the merits of a patent psoriasis treatment? "Snowstorms have a classic kitsch appeal," says Pete Ward, a TV comedy producer and author of Kitsch in Sync, who keeps his collection of 200 on the windowsills in his office. They are very attractive, but also quite repulsive. I've got some with horrible, ugly dwarves in them. They're a bit unpleasant. But people who collect these things are very design- conscious. You need an eye and a sense of irony or else you're nowhere."

Like other kitsch, part of the snowstorm's charm is that it is utterly useless. The only point is a childish fixation with the flutter-effect. Left on a shelf, the snow collects in the bottom like the sludge churned up by snow-ploughs, the water gradually dries up; and it doesn't actually do anything until you pick it up. But while Pete Ward gives his collection "a quick wobble from time to time", Greg Day rarely shakes his at all, preferring instead to look at the designs inside. "When I started everyone said it was obviously something I had lost from my childhood, but once I've got them I don't play with them," he says. "It's like the stamp collector wouldn't dream of licking the back of his stamps."

But is collecting snowstorms really any more acceptable than, say, McDonald's Happy Meal toys or Star Trek memorabilia? Harry Rinker believes it is. "These are much more sophisticated," he says. "They are adult toys. Some of them are like miniature works of art." Rinker's view is supported by the fact that, in America at least, serious art institutions are prepared to bring out their own editions. The Guggenheim Museum in New York, for instance, sells two globes featuring the museum by day and by night. It is hard to imagine the V&A doing the same.

With hundreds of thousands of variants produced over the years, there are few subjects that have not been immortalised in plastic and flitter (as "snow" is properly termed). Variations on Santa Claus, red-nosed reindeer and Christmas trees have given rise to thousands; cartoon characters, film merchandise and different animals to thousands more. Most seaside resorts and tourist destinations have also at some time used them to celebrate their particular charms. The results are quite often comically incongruous: Torremolinos and Cairo haven't seen real snow since the last ice age. But who cares? It's all part of the fun.

Each nation has its favourites: the Germans like their fairy tales, the French (apparently) have a strange fondness for fish, the Italians are partial to religious themes, architecture and execrable, shell-encrusted bases. But some countries simply fail to come up with the goods. "I went to every single souvenir shop in Prague, but I couldn't find one," says Greg Day. "They said it was the effects of the Cold War." Britain also provides meagre pickings. London only has two contemporary examples; Brighton no longer has one at all.

Many of the most gaudy offerings are religious: the snowstorm equivalents of the bleeding heart that actually bleeds or the lachrymose Virgin Mary that spouts tears on demand. One quirky Internet home shopping company (whose other services include an interactive prayer server and a virtual wedding chapel) provides a range of options for a broad church of snowstorm fanatics. Called Praise the Lard, the collection includes Mystic Guadalupe, Beautiful Buddha Blue Boy and the intriguingly entitled Soul in Heck.

Each collector has their own holy grail, a glittering prize among glittering prizes. Both Greg Day and Pete Ward covet a Los Angeles "smog storm" which was produced in the Seventies. Harry Rinker is on the look-out for a piece of snowstorm erotica. No doubt they will turn up eventually: if snowstorms have one thing going for them, it is the ability to deliver the comic, the odd, even the downright weird.

Not that this is an epithet collectors would use to describe their particular foible. "The thing about snow globes is you fall in love with them," says Harry Rinker. "They can be kooky, they can be tacky, but there is nothing strange about them." Perhaps not. Even so, you can't help feeling that the people who collect them are a bit unhinged. As an irreverent bumper sticker from America so neatly puts it: "Snow-dome collectors are a little flaky". !