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Precious Moments

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This fall the entire first floor of the Merchandise Mart, previously home to GNC and Casual Corner, became LuxeHome, the World's Largest Collection of Luxury Boutiques for Home Building and Renovation. Talk about a makeover--the Mart's art deco corridors feel almost plain compared to the sleek, shiny kitchens that make up LuxeHome. They're kitchens as stage sets, as glamorous and as unreal as the nightclubs in old Fred Astaire movies.

Most days the showrooms are as empty as Mother Hubbard's cupboard, but this week they were full of drawer slammers and tile strokers. The Chicago Gift & Home Market show was in full swing upstairs, and if anybody could loosen up the spotlit perfection of LuxeHome it was these professional clutter junkies, wired on Starbucks and buzzing about which themes are in and which themes are out. Monkeys and palm trees are history. Leopard is ancient history. Apparently the latest theme, coming soon to a catalog near you, is Strawberry Shortcake. Heaven help us. On the elevators, every other word is cute.

In the gift show world, cute is good, darling is better, and precious is best. The Itasca-based Enesco Group is the industry standard-bearer, with its Precious Moments line of ceramic tchotchkes. If you don't spend much time in gift shops, you might not know the name, but you've seen them--those big-headed, teardrop-eyed toddlers, five inches tall and painted in sickening pastels. In a store display they're easy to ignore, but it's not so easy when one of the damn things is bigger than you are. The other day I turned a corner in the Mart's lobby and found myself looking up at a 15-foot-tall version of a figurine introduced a quarter century ago: a little girl in a flowered pinafore, nose to nose with an adoring goose. Clusters of women stood around her at intervals, heads cocked to one side and cooing.

My gut response was to freeze in horror--I imagined Mart architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White rolling in their graves like the hot dogs in the machine at the deli. But as I stood there, I noticed something strange. The change in scale gave the thing presence. A coffee-table knick knack might be kitsch, but blow it up to 50 times normal size, like Claes Oldenburg's hamburger or Jeff Koons's Puppy, and it starts to look like Art. As I studied the girl's placid face, her big love-struck eyes and her tiny smile--no more, really, than a pink line--I noticed something else. She was cute.

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