Today it works more like an aggregator. While there is staff dedicated to sourcing new and interesting things from trade fairs and other outlets, most products are offered via retailers with such catchy names as Frontgate, Signals, and the Greatest Gift that buy space in the catalog. (As a private company, SkyMall doesn’t say how much it pays to rent space in the vital seat-back pockets of its host airlines.)
According to SkyMall’s figures, the catalog is seen by approximately 90 percent of all domestic air passengers, and reaches more than 644 million travelers annually. And as SkyMall has blossomed, so have its retailers. The BraBaby, for example, a plastic globe that keeps your bra from getting tangled in the washing machine, first appeared in the catalog in 2006, and is now available at Target and Bed Bath & Beyond.
Such gewgaws have served as source material for many an artist. Michael Mittelman has created Duchampian toilet seats and Jenny Holzer–like LED screens from items ordered through the catalog. Nina Katchadourian wrote a song centered on its pet products called “Sky Mall Kitties,” which includes the lyric: “Kitty drinking from a fountain, kitty sitting on a house/Kitty will annihilate remote- controlled mouse.” But far more evocative than any artistic riff is the catalog itself. Take a look at the strange smiling face of the aggressively bald woman in her “before” photo for Toppik temporary hair replacement. Or the disturbingly sad, lifelike Cherish doll—a wrinkled baby made of vinyl, with “tiny handpainted fingernails and toenails [to] complete the illusion of life.” Either could be in the next Venice Biennale.
In fact, if you really think about it, SkyMall—with its two-foot-tall meerkat family statues and personalized barbecue branding iron—is the definitive reflection of our contemporary psyche. The place where the most warped distortions of consumer culture turn out to be real.