A collection of four modern boucle armchairs and sofas.
Making a Home

Globally Ubiquitous

Words by KATHERINE ORMEROD

An unsettling look at the emergence of identikit, bland interiors and the steps we can take to create a home that makes our hearts (and creative inclinations) soar.

It’s been termed the AirBnB aesthetic, the Starbucks factor, the Insta-interior. Cherry-picking design inspiration from regenerated hip enclaves – think Williamsburg, NYC, Shoreditch, London, Fitzroy, Melbourne— then pairing them with a broad mid-century vibe via West Elm and finishing it all off with a minimalist palette of greige, our era’s defining design look is a mishmash of easy to shop design snacks. Subway tiles, exposed brick walls, Edison bulbs, a 1970s style occasional chair, bouclé cushions, a potted Monstera, a trio of mass produced Scandi-look vases. Tick, tick, tick. What’s for sure is that belonging everywhere has translated into conveyor belt of identikit spaces, no matter where you are in the world. Commentators believe we have reached peak décor homogeneity: originality is out, blending in is in.

So how did we get here? Wasn’t social media meant to be the dawn of a brand-new age of creativity? Of course, the existence of similar looking homes is hardly novel. Décor trends have long existed and though they have been much slower than the revolving door of fashion, every decade or so one falls out of favour with another ready to step in. Over the years we’ve seen chintz rise and fade, shabby chic have its time in the sun, Scandi minimalism prevail and fuse with mid-century modern to evolve into today’s Japandi look. The current renaissance of English maximalism, is based on one of the most significant décor moments of all—Victoriana and the Arts & Crafts movement.

What is different about this chapter is both its global nature and vast reach. Energised by the revolution in travel (particularly designing spaces for lowest common denominator taste via AirBnb), digital template culture (when only 40 templates are offered, everything understandably looks like one in forty), the explosion of big box décor retail and the tentacles of social media (particularly Pinterest and Instagram), this shift in décor desirability is more prevalent and far-reaching that ever before.

A wooden bookshelf with ceramic and marble vases and multiple design and art books.

Warm wood often takes centre-stage in today's living environments and combines traditional materials with modern design. Elwood Shelving by Soho Home.

Two brown leather sofas and a brown wooden coffee table on a large cream rug.

Aimee Song's Home featuring the Mario Belini Camaleonda chairs in a rare natural leather, table by India Mahdavi, combined with unique flea market finds.

“So how did we get here? Wasn’t social media meant to be the dawn of a brand-new age of creativity?”

Zooming out and looking at design more holistically, it’s been argued in the age of social media that standing out too far—even with broad cultural praise— comes with the inevitable risk of damaging backlash. Designers have responded by abandoning distinctive design and swapping brand branding for brand blanding. When our lives are algorithmic, it doesn’t make business sense to burst our echo chambers. Breaking the internet might shine the spotlight, but it also might break a designer’s reputation—far better to cultivate familiarity, and endorsement by association.

“I remember in the mid-teens (2010-2020) everyone was talking about industrial design and suddenly we all wanted exposed lightbulbs, distressed wooden tables and mismatched chairs,” recalls Kate Watson Smyth, author, design consultant and the inimitable interiors polymath behind @MadAbouttheHouse and its empire of media channels, “Instagram took these ideas and helped their creators grow their accounts which, thanks to the algorithm meant the same ideas were endlessly recycled. Before long, you could buy sets of mismatched mass-produced ‘vintage/industrial’ lights and ‘rustic’ benches. We then all moved on to a new collection of design tropes—this time it was the marble worktop, brass taps on the ubiquitous kitchen island, behind which sat a velvet banquette with a view of the garden through the bifold doors. I wasn’t immune myself.”

A minimalist living room with a brown wooden and wicker chair and low coffee table.

A Swedish forest retreat, design by Norm Architects. Neutral and natural materials with a focus on texture take centre-stage in modern homes.

A cream boucle armchair on a large geometric rug.

Olivier Sofa by Soho Home.

“But take heart. Things might not be quite so bleak as they seem. The other side to this argument is of course, the fact that more people than ever are engaging with design.”

Cream boucle swivel chair on large cream textured rug.

Babette Swivel Chair by Sofacompany.

A large living room with a l-shape boucle sofa and wavy wooden coffee table.

The iconic B&B Italia Camaleonda Sofa in off white bouclé as featured in 'The Wing House' by LOAK Design.

But when Kate decided to buck the trends and go her own way, the silence on social was deafening. “Early in 2018, I painted my kitchen cupboards chocolate brown. I added some soft pink walls and waited for the likes to roll in. They didn’t come. It was tumbleweed apart from, ironically, the professional designers among my followers. Looking back, all the Instagram kitchens were green and navy blue. Basically, if you’re on social media it’s almost impossible to escape global blanding. You see lots of the same thing and, even if it’s subconscious, you are influenced, not least because once it’s deemed a trend it can be hard to buy anything else. Have you an olive-green sweater when the high street wants you to wear emerald?”

We were sold the idea that social media would lead to an explosion of self-expression and creativity as niche subcultures connected across the planet. Instead, we’ve found ourselves in a safe, standardised world in which even the smallest spark of originality is extinguished by collective censure or else simply ignored for ubiquitous competitors. This is desperately depressing.

But take heart. Things might not be quite so bleak as they seem. The other side to this argument is of course, the fact that more people than ever are engaging with design. True, Eames knock offs might not be the ideal reflection of an authentic engagement with aesthetic history, but swathes of the internet have now heard of the surname and might even recognise a chair by Charles and Ray. Opening up seams of knowledge which were presided only by elites to a mass audience is always going to dilute the essence of the original. That’s democracy.

A minimalist kitchen with a marble top, wooden cabinets, and a wood-framed chair.

A classic returns: The CH24 Wishbone Chair by Hans J. Wegner.

A modern wooden bookshelf displays a half-circle lamp and stacks of design books.

Beautifully re-imagined versions of the iconic String Shelving are being created by independent artisans, often showcasing books as objects rather than literature. – Display Shelf by Teak New York.

Marine Edith Crosta co-founder of Crosta Smith Gallery, which specialises in furniture and object d’art from the 1920s to the late 40s agrees that, ‘our homes do look better these days, due to the constant exposure to curated interior images,” but she adds, “they tend to have a lot less personality too. It is so much easier to reach for a Zara Home vase than to wait until you have found the perfect handmade one at a flea market. Don’t get me wrong, Zara do a great job at hiring talented stylists and rehashing vintage designs, but I reckon the key to avoiding the Instagram look is to stay away from that.” Of course, shopping this way for a home is far more labour intensive than simply buying a repro straight off the rack, “I find in my own home, until I can splurge and invest in pieces such as the ones we sell, I don’t buy much, especially anything new,” Crosta admits.

So where is that mid-way balance? How can we avoid living in empty rooms waiting for elusive collectibles while ensuring we don’t pack them with ersatz replicas which we’ve copied and pasted from the ‘gram? As ever, it’s got to be both in the mix of what you select and in our opinion through the personalisation of generic homewares. If a bespoke 20th century sofa is out of your price range, why not buy a style on the high street and get it reupholstered with a fabric you adore to make it totally unique? Cheap wood can be painted or stained, curtains and cushions can be trimmed, and hand-altered to suit to your very own taste. Save up for the design classics which make your heart soar over time and never miss an opportunity to rummage through a market stall to find something that no-one else is ever going to have. There is no shame in mixing Ikea with Soho Home and a lust-worth piece from 1st Dibs and no-one should feel ashamed for having to cut their cloth. Watson-Smyth offers some parting words of advice, “If you want a home that reflects your personality and tells your story you have to put some time and effort in. Otherwise, it’s just a set of rooms.”

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