A friend of mine recently gave voice to a deeply held worry of mine when she remarked:
It’s really ridiculous how everyone has a variation of plants and mid-century modern furniture. And I feel like when we get a proper place this might happen to us too. How to avoid this?
It turns out friends with similar tastes often have similar fears. She said this in a moment when I had just moved cities, just moved apartments, and I was quite aware—painfully so—of this unyielding desire to be an individual, an individual born in a moment where everyone buys the same chair for their home.
It is funny to look around and see that there’s a dominant aesthetic for our own time. And it seems to be: furniture inspired by the Eames (mostly) and Hans Wegner (rarely); monstera plants and rubber trees (the decadently sized, luxuriantly green successors to the petite, reserved succulents we all bought two years ago). Houseplants are all the rage, and why not? When you live in an apartment without a garden, in a city where your dominant experiences are in shuttling from a bus/metro/car, to a fluorescently lit office, to a cramped loud bar for your second Tinder date of the week, to a bus/metro/car home—then you’re a human alienated from nature, the last luxury of our era. But having a houseplant, a compressed circle of greenery, helps. Mostly.
I unapologetically love this look. I love all of it—the panoply of houseplants; the Muji diffusers resting on sleekly Scandinavian shelving; the Turkish kilim rug to play off a sedately tufted sofa. I love all of it and want to live in it. But I, like my friend, worry—isn’t there more for me than making my home look like everyone else’s?
Why does this idea seem so distasteful? (And how embarrassing, how painfully self-absorbed, for me to be worrying about it?) After all, every era has had a dominant interior design aesthetic. Is it so bad that this is ours?
We surely don’t dislike the mid-century modern style. These pieces have their place in our eyes and hearts, our magazines and shopping carts, because there is an unassailable integrity to them. Who, really, doesn’t feel moved by the gentle, deeply humane curve of a Wegner wishbone chair? Wasn’t there something really transformative—in the moment it was new, in the moment we first saw one—that made us feel at home with the form of it?
Instead, we resent how the mid-century modern style has been commoditized and genericized. We live in an era of Big Box MCM sold by West Elm, and Budget Watered-Down MCM from Wayfair. And so a design style with a great deal of individuality, integrity, and warmth has been subsumed into the default codes of our retail landscape, rendered into a bland, anodyne form of ‘good taste’ to be installed into every home. (Herman Miller suggests, of their $315–1,635 Eames shell chair, that it is ‘For Every Need, in Every Way, for Everyone’.✳︎)
We see a tremendous variety of houses assembled by what must be individuals—people with distinct lives and interests and hopes and so, I would assume, distinct taste—all subsumed into one look. A sanitized mid-century modern style, intended to be toothlessly appealing to everything. Toothless good taste. To paraphrase Sharon Astyk in Making Home:
The problem with beauty is that we’ve been told for a long, long time that aesthetics are the product of our “personal style”, which involve the project of putting together mass-produced commercial objects or expensive antiques in such a way as to articulate our personal, tiny variation on the range of mass-produced aesthetics available to us. That is, we can be
”country”“industrial” or we can be ”modern”“Scandinavian” or ”Shaker”“bohemian” or ”retro”“rustic”, but one way or another we have a limited range of options, ones carefully dictated to us by TVInstagram, booksPinterest, design magazinesKinfolk.
We are exhorted to establish a style, to let our homes reflect something essential about us. We are simultaneously exhorted to convey that style through assembling the right collection of consumerist talismans—letting an Eames chair (or a replica of one, should Herman Miller’s definition of 'everyone' exclude your budget) stand in for our social class, our cultural capital, our acceptably hip appreciation for contemporary design.
It’s pleasant, of course, for a home to look this way. And if our homes have not yet been colonized by this style—because we can’t afford it, because we’re tethered to our roommate’s inelegant sofa and our landlord’s dated lighting fixtures—we still see it, and live within it, with every $5 latte or $100/night Airbnb.
In 2016, Kyle Chayka wrote in The Verge about the beautiful, sterile, Airspace aesthetic that technology has made particularly prevalent and prominent in our lives:
In 2011, a New York artist and designer named Laurel Schwulst started perusing Airbnb listings across the world in part to find design inspiration for her own apartment. "I viewed it almost as Google Street View for inside homes," she says. Schwulst began saving images that appealed to her and posting them on a Tumblr called "Modern Life Space." But she had a creeping feeling something was happening across the platform. "The Airbnb experience is supposed to be about real people and authenticity," Schwulst says. "But so many of them were similar," whether in Brooklyn, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, or Santiago.
There was the prevalence of mass-produced but tasteful furniture, for one. "It’s kind of an extension of Ikea showrooms," she says. But the similarities went beyond mass-production. The ideal Airbnb is both unfamiliar and completely recognizable: a sprinkling of specific cultural symbols of a place mixed with comprehensible devices, furniture, and decoration. "It’s funny how you want these really generic things but also want authenticity, too," Schwulst says.
Chayka was writing about public places and transient spaces then, and how repressively similar they were in their ‘neutered Scandinavianism of HGTV’. But the design-minded individual seeking to decorate their apartment might encounter a similar, fatigued sense of sameness—a mass-produced tastefulness that renders their living room like any other.
A new apartment; a new home. Empty, or empty in particular functions—particular corners. Your relatives, inconveniently, don’t have an extra armchair to surrender to you. What to do?
The default is often: buy new. And when we buy new, we’re often buying mass-produced design, from corporations that are incredibly interested in selling us stuff—industrial quantities of it. This stuff is often immediately and insipidly palatable, with the textures and forms of the moment. When I moved into a San Francisco apartment in December 2016, my roommates and I experienced a world that was replete with bar stools to buy, but largely of three archetypes: barstools with weathered wood seats and slender metal-tubed legs; gently ‘industrial’ metal bar stools (powder-coated in cheery shades for the Glossier consumer—pink, yellow, or white); sedately upholstered barstools with comfortable backs, tufted or with a rim of rivets along the fabric.
If we had looked for a coffee table, one of the archetypes would have been a white marble–topped table with rectangular black legs (or thin hairpin legs, never mind that such legs felt too unbalanced, too fragile, for a ‘marble’ slab). Marble had A Moment in interior design—and beyond—and it felt everything was being reskinned in response. A marble and rose gold table lamp. iPhone cases with a marble texture. An incredible profusion of opportunistic tchotchkes, often with a distinct lack of design integrity—they were made for the moment, and often cheaply so.
I’m not a marble person, I admit. But I was very much a chipper-industrial metal bar stool person, so we purchased four, and our kitchen was suddenly the same as 25% of the Apartment Therapy homes I had pined over online.
How to avoid this? (Should I, should you, even try to?) Especially if, deep in your heart, you do love the forms of the moment, the textures of the moment, and the way they bind together in a home. How to contend with that snobbish (but deeply rooted) fear that you’ll end up a cliché, that your home will look like every other home in the end? Especially if you do have an attachment to owning things of beauty, living around beauty, interacting with it, and bringing it into your life?
What I told my friend, and what I’m trying now, as a way of buying—living—owning—furnishing—living—seeing—is that if you buy slowly, and keep space in your life for the idiosyncratic and unexpected objects, then you’ll have a home that feels like you. Yes, even if there’s the West Elm✳︎ sofa all of your friends can recognize on sight, or the IKEA bar cart all your friends can recognize on sight, and you have a monstera, and fiddle-leaf fig, and rubber plant. (It turns out that many things are popular because they’re good.) Because they’re interspersed with other objects that don’t come from a package-deal aesthetic, objects you encountered in ways that feel deeply personal and specific to your life. Perhaps they aren’t tasteful, but you love them—deeply and earnestly. Or you love the person who gave them to you—almost enough to make up for an ungainly color and curious shape. You arrange these objects, room by room, and the space between feels like a home.
Concretely, I would add—buying secondhand helps. Buying from small makers helps, especially if they're your friends. It’s quite likely that you’ll find more opinionated objects, kooky objects, ones that feel joyful and completely themselves. Why have a decor object that has merely a gloss of a pre-packaged aesthetic, instead of one that is fully formed to an opinion, that fully occupies itself?
But the most important part of this is: I believe in buying slow. So strongly and earnestly that I’ve inconvenienced my life (and my eyes) to do so. The first year I lived in San Francisco, I didn’t have a clothing rack or dresser (my closet was unusuably shallow, too shallow for a coat hanger). So I used a clothing rack left by a previous tenant—offensively ugly, but free, while I patiently waited to find the ideal rack. I stacked my books on the floor—free-range books for an untidy mind—and brought home a bookshelf one year later, after much self-absorbed introspection. I did not want a bookshelf that was merely acceptable, to buy something new with preemptive dissatisfaction.
When you buy slow, you build in a resistance to the mass-produced ‘good taste’ of the moment, the ‘good taste’ that is radiantly fickle. If you furnished an entire apartment in one weekend to be tasteful by today’s standards, it would have—Wegner wishbone chairs or knockoffs; a tufty, textured woven tapestry; a large quantity of rough-edged ceramics (you know the ones). If you furnished an apartment a year ago, it might have a print of Matisse’s blue nudes (or some hip young illustrator’s boob drawings), Diptyque candles tucked into every corner, a white shag rug, clear plastic Kartell chairs.
These things, individually, are lovely. Together, they represent a package-deal aesthetic, an all-in-one deal that imports the exact look of your Instagram feed into your own home. And next year there will be a new package-deal aesthetic: appealing, anodyne, anonymizing.
In the end, we want our homes to feel like us. We want them to reflect our taste in color, texture, form—to present to our eyes a delightful repose. But our tastes aren’t made in one day—they accrete and accumulate over time. Our selves, our preferences, are shaped by a history of experiences, interests, desires. Accumulating a home, then—one that feels individually and distinctly ourselves—happens over time.
So. Move into a new apartment. Appreciate and savor the unexpected emptiness, even if you’re eating dinners at your desk—one of the few things you brought from your old home. Savor the serenity. Briefly contemplate a life of severe and ascetic minimalism, even though you don’t have the heart for it. (You’d like to own more than one mug, for a start.)
Permit the unexpected and joyful purchase. On a radiant weekend morning, buy a cutting board with an unusual, sinuous form, from a woman whose craft makes you feel the beauty of woodworking for the first time. Step inside a bookshop at the end of a roaming, meditative walk. Buy a thick-spined architecture book, and read it slowly, and leave it on your coffee table for your future self, to remember and re-encounter. Try to find a small, lovely print for a friend’s birthday. Emerge after two weekends on Etsy with one for yourself instead. Let the serenity of space fill in, bit by bit, with the serenity of presence—things you found, and loved, and brought into your home.
Make do with the dim ceiling light, until you find the perfect (and perfectly affordable) lamp. It’s easier to fall in love with a person than it is to fall in love with a sofa (well, in your price range), so wait—and wait—and wait. Make do, and scroll patiently through craigslist on your commute home. Keep your heart open for the right thing to love.
Make do, out of pride or pickiness or to save money or to test your inchoate, uncertain commitment to a ‘minimalist home’ and a ‘sensible kitchen’, until you decide you do truly want a mortar and pestle. Buy the most beautiful one within a half-hour radius on the Tube (or metro, or bus, or car). Invite a friend over. Feel embarrassed, gratified, and touched, when her housewarming present to you is the exact same mortar and pestle✳︎.
Begin to understand and shift your desires. You don’t need a throw pillow after all—you like the bare, straightforward form of the sofa against your back. You don’t need the Le Creuset; the Instant Pot; the pristine lineup of Le Parfait jars. A lovely dinner can be made with humble things. But you’ve developed a desire for a plant to inhabit the windowsill, a stalwart and vigorously green presence—look for that.
Lean on the generosity (and excess) of family. Steal eight pairs of wooden chopsticks from your parents. Oil them so that they glow again, with gentle warmth. A small thing to retain from your childhood, but a useful one, and therefore beautiful in your hand.
Your home will come together slowly. But it will come together, as you live your life, and buy slowly, and make space for unexpected beauty. And doesn’t this feel better than buying everything from IKEA?