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A headline in the New York Times is:

"The Designer Birdhouses of Brooklyn"

What is a "designer birdhouse"? Is it a birdhouse made by a designer?

I've never come across a phrase like that. I would have said "a stylefull birdhouse", because "designer" is a noun.

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    Aside: if you actually did need an alternative, meaning "having style", the typical choice would be "stylish" not "stylefull".
    – tkp
    Jun 9, 2022 at 13:11
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    Even if stylefull was a word (it isn't), it would be spelled with one L, not two. When you use -ful as a suffix, it's one-L-of-a-suffix
    – Flydog57
    Jun 9, 2022 at 23:41
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    Doesn't the article make the meaning clear?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 10, 2022 at 14:51
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    Designer jeans (back in the 1980s), designer sunglasses, designer sneakers...articles which have been styled by a designer. Yes, designer is a noun but when placed in front of another noun it becomes an attributive noun or noun adjunct, think of goat cheese and table mat.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 10, 2022 at 15:01
  • @Flydog57, +1 for giving the correct spelling of a non-existent word 🤓. So, in the same vein, could you confirm that "paradiscombobulatingosity" has only one "m" and no silent "q"?
    – tkp
    Jun 10, 2022 at 18:29

6 Answers 6

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The adjective designer is meant as an analogy to "fashion designer", like Marc Jacobs or CristĂłbal Balenciaga.

A "designer" product is a fashionable, stylish, and usually expensive luxury product. So a "designer birdhouse" is a fashionable, luxurious, and probably expensive birdhouse.

Sometimes it's used in a mildly pejorative sense, implying that the buyer of a "designer" product is vain, materialistic, and/or financially irresponsible.

I think that using "stylish" as a synonym might work in general, but misses some of the connotation.

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    The term designer is not an adjective, if it were we would be able to say: "That's a very designer birdhouse" or "Which birdhouse is the most designer?" Please cite a source which clearly says the word "designer" is an adjective. Instead it is used as an attributive noun aka noun adjunct Think: apple pie, table mat, bus stop, goat cheese, summer dress etc.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 10, 2022 at 15:07
  • My bad, Cambridge and Lexico both say "designer" is an adjective. Argghhh, 35 years of grammar down the drain.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 10, 2022 at 15:21
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    Indeed. There are a number of tests for adjectivehood, no one of which is decisive. There are other adjectives which cannot be used predicatively, or can only be used predicatively. I would say that in its origtinal sense designer was indeed an attributive noun, but in its transferred sense it is adjectival.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 10, 2022 at 16:33
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A quick search shows that one of the meanings of the word "designer" is as an adjective or, more accurately, an attributive noun (see @Mary-Lou A's comment below, and this article) and is something like this:

To have been made by, or to have the expensive sophistication of, a famous and prestigious designer.

But there is a variation on that precise meaning which might apply in this context. It is something like this:

Appearing to have been made by, or to have the expensive sophistication of, a famous and prestigious fashion designer.

In other words, it might not be unreasonable, in this context, to interpret "designer" as a form of marketing BS; what the Wikipedia Manual of Style might call puffery or a "peacock term".

Note that I say only that it might be marketing BS. For all I know, the birdhouses in question were designed by Michael Kors, influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, and have four floors, twelve bedrooms, pool, servants quarters, and grand entrance hall complete with gold-trimmed furniture and a swing.

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  • I read the article. They are designed by various people, including artists (professional and amateur) and architects. Jun 9, 2022 at 15:49
  • Fair enough. But would you agree that the word "designer" is often used in the additional sense I mentioned? That is in an attempt to give something the appearance of (without actually having) the class, or style, etc that a good designer would produce. A similar thing happens with words like "Professional"; as in, say, the Moleskine PRO range of notebooks. Hmm -- but there it's even worse. These days the various meanings of "professional" have all strayed very far from its original roots, and none of seems applicable to a notebook! I believe there is a word for this phenomenon.
    – tkp
    Jun 9, 2022 at 17:16
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    I thoroughly agree. In fact, before I actually read the article, I thought the NYT was sneering at fashionable pretence. I have seen a sneering UK use of 'designer', e.g. my sister-in-law is so up herself she uses designer toilet paper. Maybe it's used like that in the US. Jun 9, 2022 at 17:30
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    Designer birdcage, designer birdhouse, the term designer is not an adjective, if it were we would be able to say: "That's a very designer birdhouse" or "Which bird cage is the most designer?" Please cite a source which clearly states that the word "designer" is an adjective. Instead, it is used as an attributive noun aka noun adjunct. Think: apple pie, table mat, bus stop, goat cheese, summer dress etc.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 10, 2022 at 15:14
  • I see Cambridge says "designer" is an adjective when it's used before a noun. Harumph, never heard anyone say of something: "They are (very) designer."
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 10, 2022 at 15:19
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A designer birdhouse is either one made by a fashionable or famous birdhouse designer, or a fashionable looking birdhouse.

The article (by Winnie Hu, New York Times 9 June 2022) says:

During lockdown, birdsong replaced traffic noise. Those who miss it can visit Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which just installed 33 new designer birdhouses.

I stopped by for a first look

The article discusses birdhouses ('bird houses' in British English, I should think) designed by various artists for a Brooklyn, New York City public garden.

designer

adjective [ before noun ] MARKETING, PRODUCTION

made by a famous or fashionable designer: designer jeans/sunglasses

made to interest or attract people by being new and fashionable:

Designer (adjective) Cambridge Dictionary

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We sometimes transform nouns into adjectives in English and use them to describe other nouns. Often this is done playfully, as in these common examples: work wife (someone you are not married to but spend a lot of time with at work.) man hands (This was made famous on the old television show Seinfeld where it described the large man-like hands of a woman.) television show -- a show on television.

A designer is a person who designs something: "Thelma is a designer. She designs living spaces."

Using "designer" as an adjective in front of another noun, means that noun was designed by someone. It often denotes that object as special, artistic, fashionable, unique, etc. Examples: Gloria Vanderbilt was a pioneer of designer jeans. The condo includes a designer kitchen with upscale appliances. The dress she wore to the ceremony was a designer original.

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"designer" in "designer birdhouses" is not a noun, but an adjective, as @MichaelHarvey mentioned. You could call it a "stylish/fashionable/elegant birdhouse" instead, there is no such word called "stylefull". These birdhouses are probably made by a professional or a famous birdhouse designer.

Lexico gives this definition of "designer":

  1. Made or designed by a famous and prestigious fashion designer.
  • ‘designer clothes’
  1. Upscale and fashionable.
  • ‘designer food’
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  • Good to know that you are adding attributions in your answer! Thanks!
    – user150280
    Jun 11, 2022 at 4:47
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'Designer' as a prefix suggests that the product benefits from professional design, and usually sets it apart from cheaper, mass-produced equivalents. For example, a 'designer handbag' would be one from a known luxury fashion house, as opposed to an unbranded, or 'off-brand' product.

However, it is also common to use the word more glibly, such as for products where there are no well-known designers but when the product appears to be more expensive than comparable ones, or there is an attempt to make it more elaborate so as to appeal to a different market. It can even be used to show disdain for overly-expensive products and 'showy' people that may buy them simply because they appear expensive. Your quotation may be an example of this, as birdhouses are not something known to be a 'designer' product. In fact, the majority of birdhouses tend to follow a 'classic' design and are made from simple timber products. The article seems sincere, though, so in this case, I would read 'designer' to mean they are high-quality artisanal products.

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