On the cusp of a new era, a look back at the aesthetic signs of recent times — For all its chaos, the pause that COVID-19 has placed on 2020 so far presents an opportunity to take stock of how we’ve been living, and the values underlying our everyday priorities. That goes for design as much as it does for economics – after all, if this year has taught us anything, it’s that everything is intimately connected. As we teeter on the brink of an uncertain future, Anna Dorothea Ker casts an eye on the pre-crisis aesthetic zeitgeist, recalling the moods, symbols and tendencies of the recent zeitgeist of interior and object design. In the process, perhaps it will become clear which elements are worth keeping – and what is better left behind – as the world puts itself back together. (Originally published in German)
When life comes to a standstill, time tends to feel particularly elastic. The weight of a minute, and hour and a year are drained of meaning. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that one decade ago the world was still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis. In the United States, Obama had been elected a year prior. The iPhone was in its fourth generation; the iPad brand new. Airbnb and Uber were yet to disrupt the global accommodation and transport markets, though hyper-globalisation was well into its process of flattening everything, accelerated by the internet. Instagram would launch in October, and go on to shape a generation on a monumental scale. A cautious consumer mood informed the way people adorned their bodies and their homes. As Livia Fioretti, SCA Head Analyst at global trend consultancy TrendWatching, explains, “consumers were not only looking for safety – in colours, shapes, and fabrics – but also for design on a budget, which gave rise to a movement of IKEA hacks, DIY projects and the comeback of vintage shopping.”
As the global economy began to recover, design dared to dream a little bigger, spurred on by the proliferation of images shared on social media. By 2015, Instagram and Pinterest had over 500 million users collectively. Their skyrocketing popularity was accompanied by the rise of ‘contextualised e-commerce’, notes Fioretti. “With visual interiors becoming a valuable commodity and the democratisation of influence, we had more access to how users incorporated design into their lives.” Among the guardians of good taste were lifestyle magazines Kinfolk and Cereal, whose dreamy hallmarks of aspirational living became entrenched in the aesthetic hive mind. Mid-Century-infused minimalism was the lifeblood of the aesthetic, which doubled down on the enduring reign of Scandinavian design symbols – light wood, greys and beiges, and clean lines. The picture-perfect approach to ‘slow living’ presented in the pages of these magazines took on a life of its own, spreading to all corners of the world via a host of hashtags like #liveauthentic, #livefolk, and #visualsoflife.
Powered by the bottomless social feed and an insatiable hunger for the new, the pared-back design moment of the mid-2010s gradually morphed from cool monotony into bold bursts of colour. 1980s Italian design took centre stage as the pleasing pastels and curves of Ettore Sottsass’ Memphis Milano cascaded into the “bold colours, adventurous shapes and unusual textiles” that have become tokens of the ‘millennial aesthetic’: Terrazzo, fiddle-leaf fig and Monstera plants, Bold Matisse-like cut outs, and that particular shade of pink, which happened to perform very well on Instagram.
The sustained culture of image sharing had the effect of turning once-private spaces into status symbols, self-expression and alignment with movements and ideas. “Homes became projections of people’s personalities,” says Nacho Alegre, creative director and founder of Apartamento, the 2008-founded cult interiors magazine known for its authentic depictions of how people live. “Now you could show you belonged to an idea by having your home look a certain way, the same as you’d buy a bomber jacket or a certain brand.” The irony, of course, is that social media’s potential for self-expression is tempered by its homogenising effect. “Not only did [Instagram and Pinterest] intoxicate users with ever-changing references, but they also didn’t cultivate uniqueness,” Fioretti reflects. “Everything began to feel algorithmically optimised into the same safe styles.”
By 2018, there was a growing sense that the excess of interchangeable social content and the brands and it depicted was simultaneously too bland and too much. Things were moving too fast; ever-changing trends were exhausting to keep up with. It was time to tone things down. The collective mood began to shift, to slow. Popping palettes gave way to more neutral tones – not the iced whites or steely greys of the early decade, but warmer, earthy shades: amber, ochre, sienna, fawn. Pantone’s 2019 colour of the year was ‘Living Coral’, which the company described as an “animating and life-affirming coral hue with a golden undertone that energises and enlivens with a softer edge.”
Textures and materials, too, took on a more rustic feel, though far removed from the ‘boho’ look of the early 2010s. Objects and surfaces took on the appearance of being handcrafted. Walls were finished in fine-grained textured clay or lime plaster, travertine replaced marble as the stone of choice for table tops, and rattan adorned everything from headboards to lampshades. Marcel Breuer’s cantilevered Cesca B32 chair, designed in 1928, resurfaced around dining room tables. The ancient Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi – at its essence, the art of finding beauty in imperfection – guided a revival of crafts like ikebana flower arranging and pottery, serving both as a meditative practice and an art form.
The remixing of references is trend that endured throughout the decade. “We see the zeitgeist as time travel – mixing and matching across the ubiquitous imagery that is available to us everywhere on our phones,” says architect and interior designer Ester Bruzkus, who runs her eponymous Berlin-based studio together with her partner Peter Greenberg. “But it is a specific mix: one that conjures contrast not harmony, dialogue not consistency, surprise not predictability.” Alegre sees parallels in the way we adorn our bodies and our homes. “Interiors have been fashioned. Decoration is taking over industrial design. Never before in history have so many objects have been designed and put onto the market,” he says.
Given the discipline’s fast-growing popularity, object design is a useful gauge of broader aesthetic tendencies at any given moment. At Collectible 2020, the Belgian fair dedicated to the sector, exhibitors tended to present only a handful of considered objects; each one seemingly anticipating the need to justify its existence. Bruzkus’ take on the mood of the recent moment – “natural materials and colours and textures, hard and soft, straight and curved, warm and cool” – could be seen throughout the fair. Rusty red tones gave collections a calmingly cosy feel, while wood, stone and ceramics stood out as the materials of choice – elegantly combining in the chair and two lamps that comprise ‘Terra’, the debut collection of French designer Llewellynn Chupin, for instance.
Ceramics were also integral to the fourth collection by Berlin-based Taiwanese design duo Yellow Nose Studio, who have gained attention for building on the carefully-selected artistic references shared on their Instagram feed to create their own distinct aesthetic signature. Elsewhere, furniture pieces charmed with their eye-catching contours. Chairs by Ukrainian studio Faina, and Belgian designers Decio Studio and Schimmel & Schweikle took on naïvely exaggerated forms, recalling the chair designs of Terje Ekstrøm and Pierre Yovanovitch in the playful comfort of their simple, almost bear-like shapes. “The best designs from this period choreograph a particular atmosphere of vague familiarity,” according to Bruzkus’ analysis. “From a memory? A movie? A dream?”
A return to handcraft, natural tones and ‘honest’ materials, soft, comforting forms evoking déjà vu: What do the motifs of the recent moment tell us about what we valued before the world ground to a halt? The most influential factor, which supersedes and affects all others, is an accelerated awakening to the climate crisis, and the Generation Z-led counter-movement – prompting reconsiderations of our relationship to the planet, and the environmental consequences of how we live, to go mainstream. Accordingly, a radical overhaul of the justifications for new objects is being impressed on designers. It is no longer permissible to create for the sake of creating; the sourcing and footprint of materials must be accounted for. These considerations have led to smaller and less frequently-updated collections, and an emphasis on local and biodegradable materials. Along with increased awareness of the need to care for our planet comes the yearning to feel connected to it – as reflected in the preference for earthy tones and natural materials.
The recent aesthetic moment is also reaction to the oversaturation of information and stimuli that has overlain the environmental, political, economic tumult of the post-2016 world. Instability prompts people to carve out safe spaces of comfort and calm – grounding sanctuaries in which the white noise of the news cycle can be tuned out, and life can be lived on our own terms. Having control over our own domain when the outside world feels like it’s spiralling is equally important – a phenomenon which explains the hit success of Japanese organising consultant Marie Kondo’s Netflix show ‘Tidying Up with Marie Kondo’ in 2019. Within our own walls, fewer, favoured – and well-organised – objects become symbols of stability, of constancy amidst chaos. The desire to feel nurtured, another instinctive response to global uncertainty, accounts for the upturn in the child-like shapes of that most comforting of furniture pieces, the chair.
The concept of home-as-sanctuary has naturally intensified as COVID-19 has halted public life, and much of the global population has retreated to our homes to shelter in place. Amidst the precarity, one certainty is that out of the trauma and the tragedy will come, in the words of trend forecaster Li Edelkoort, a “blank page for a new beginning”. The questions follow: How might this blank page begin to be filled? Which values will guide that process? And how might they manifest through design? Answering these is an intimidating exercise, and many are reluctant to speculate. “We are losing the ability to bravely imagine a better world – and for design to help us – as Modernism convinced us was possible,” says Bruzkus. “We look backwards, nostalgically, but propel ourselves forward unwittingly, like Walter Benjamin’s reading of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus; our backs are turned to the future and all we see is where we have come from.”
Though some, like Alegre, are sceptical that the current crisis will be a turning point – “I don’t think we’re going to become more conscious in the short term,” he says – Bruzkus and Greenberg see COVID-19 as a transformative event for architecture and design, calling the implications of social distancing – working and schooling from home, empty office spaces and restaurants – “space-changing realities.” As we de- and re-construct fundamental building blocks of our lives, there has never been a more fitting time to be brave in reimagining how we want to live – on an individual, local and global scale. For many, this begins with physical shelter: our homes, and the accompanying “the security and satisfaction of being in our own actual domestic interior space,” which we are now valuing more than ever, according to Bruzkus. “The design of the home will change. Now, in addition to being the centre of family life and dining and sleeping, the home is office, school, exercise studio, teleconference space, security nest, meditation space, hospital bed,” she says. As a consequence, “Flexibility, spaces of refuge, and the convergence of typologies will be newly-valued trends.”
This view is echoed by Fioretti, who anticipates what she calls a “resymbolisation of spaces,” citing the reappropriation of previously underused areas of the home to create separate workstations as an example. This in turn will drive demand for functional, adaptable and modular home accessories, like the paravent or room divider, a humble object with retro connotations that was spotted in a variety of new interpretations throughout Collectible. The need to do less with more – and a heightened awareness of the earth’s fragility, beyond the pandemic, will further fuel responsible consumption: buying less but better, selecting brands who source ethically and, where possible, manufacture locally, Fioretti predicts. She and Bruzkus agree that architecture will become increasingly self-sufficient, prioritising renewable energy sources like geothermal power, efficient recycling and the replacement of plastic with biodegradable materials.
The connection between hygiene and design should not be underestimated either. As Bruzkus explains, “Straight streets and roads resulted from rational distribution of safe water and sewage pipes to address cholera and typhoid, the discovery of germs changed bathroom materials into ones that were easier to clean, Adolf Loos associated indoor plumbing with civilization’s advancement, and Modernism was obsessed with cleanliness, based on a fear of tuberculosis. The remedy was sunshine, fresh air, and unadorned walls that gathered no dust.” Similar considerations now face us, nearly a century on. “Will new innovations be adopted into domestic design from the healthcare industry? Are there new materials that will be deemed more sanitary and resistant to germs and the virus?” Bruzkus muses. “One thing is for certain – we will continue to look to the future by seeing the past. Let’s not forget that Le Corbusier built a hand-washing sink into the foyer of Villa Savoye.”