Why are we traveling? And would we still travel if everywhere were the same? What would be the goal?
Surf on Airbnb to find your next vacation apartment and you’ll notice that the deals in New York or Paris, London or Budapest, São Paulo or Tokyo often look strangely similar. As others have pointed out, it’s as if a tasteful veil of white walls and gray sofas, houseplants, and mid-century style furniture have all flattened them into uniformity. Writer Kyle Chayka has dubbed this phenomenon the continuous commendable indoor “airspace”.
There may be a few consciously quirky touches (as short-term rental design guides tell hosts that people like quirky touches, within reason). These express individuality and character in the same way that someone who has an “independent thinker” on their social media profile will never be that deeply unoriginal and conformist.
There could be a characteristic wall, which stands out for its sinister pattern. There could be an inspirational message in big faux driftwood letters in the kitchen. “Live, love, laugh” always strikes me as particularly profound. Or it can be written on a bulletin board in diner style letters, perhaps stating “But first, coffee.”
The gracious host may have left a lemonade recipe on a chalkboard or the addresses of a few cafes that look exactly like the cafes in the town you just left and where the baristas have the same beards and tattoos and the coffee comes the same way. small Duralex glasses.
There may be a row of golden gnomes or an antique car model that isn’t quite a toy. There will be houseplants everywhere, including some falling from a small wooden shelf with black brackets and a small terrarium on it. These are for Instagram. These are moments.
Because these interiors are designed to be consumed like images on a screen. They are designed to appeal with an idea of generic overall familiarity. They represent a metropolitan, chic, minimal and self-congratulating lifestyle. You like the picture because that’s how you imagine you might want to live. You already recognize it. What is happening here is some sort of nasty digital aesthetic infiltration, an unintended effect of the gradual global convergence from within. There is an irony to this because Airbnb sowed the seeds of authenticity. The trick was to disrupt the hotel industry by allowing travelers (never tourists) to temporarily fit into the homes of real people in real neighborhoods where real people live (as if hotels were inevitably located in places unreal).
But authenticity comes with difference. Funny sized beds, old furniture, clutter, mothballs, unfinished Victorian wardrobes, stains, the accumulated stuff of a lifetime. This, it turned out, was not a seductive look. People like their difference to be generic. They want something a little nicer than these Ikea pieces sets. They want something like the nicest, most minimalist apartments on Airbnb.
This is not to blame the digital platform. It proclaims itself a part of the sharing economy and it has, in the process shared the gaze. We scroll and make decisions, we are all more than accomplices. Airbnb has become an improbable design style-book, an endless scattered network of interiors.
People once watched the movies, saw the sets, and tried to emulate the Hollywood style through local versions available in stores in their hometowns. Then they bought DIY magazines and upgraded their homes with flush doors and tiered plant stands. Then they flipped through interior magazines for tips on urban freshness. Then they idled in traffic while waiting to visit the big blue boxes on the industrial outskirts of cities to find inspiration in the sets.
Now, we don’t even have to buy a magazine anymore: we can mindlessly scroll through slightly overpriced apartments on Airbnb, and the look is seeping in. Where once we bought a guide and phoned a few pensions to book a room over the phone (which maybe took half an hour), now we’re endlessly surfing through oddly familiar apartments, unable to decide as they all look alike.
If time is money, we’ve become ridiculous fools trying to save a few pounds while spending priceless, sunk hours. These apartments, this style, this distinctive banality infiltrates our consciousness and it becomes, paradoxically, an aspiration.
The irony is that in seeking a trip, a change of scenery, we have found anonymity repackaged as cool and now we aspire at home to the recklessness of a re-imported world banality. Builders and developers now build for Airbnb. There are whole blocks of generic apartments moving smaller, more original and interesting buildings into the dense complexity of neighborhoods, with their social and business mix aimed at short-term tenants and higher margins for investors.
Other buildings are being emptied, their interiors turned into cloned versions of photos online, as if an algorithm had flattened and photoshopped the differences and regurgitated them in IRL.
If you look at interactive renderings and projections of interiors where, for example, you can place a sofa or kitchen to see what it would look like, they inevitably have digital flatness, bringing out the grain and texture of reality. It is these high profile interiors that are now being reproduced. Painted floors are scuffed but in a good way the decorations are new but faded like a 1950s photo, the sofa is faux mid-century, the dining room and chairs faux Eames, the counter made to look like the one from a lab although it was artificially made and scuffed in India.
It’s like buying aged jeans. And just as distressed jeans are labor-intensive and a huge waste of resources, so too is the “air washing” of interiors in which the old is removed and the new is introduced – MDF, chipboard Chinese, Vietnamese self-assembly, Asian faux furniture, all shipped from all over the world as local manufacturers are forced to leave industrial buildings and workshops as they are turned into chic industrial lofts for tourists so Budapest can look a bit like more in Brooklyn.
Even the credits, however, come in classes. There’s the unwavering anemia of Airbnb’s new build, but there’s also a multitude of designers that have sprung up to meet the needs of potential owners. They are able to replicate the look anywhere for anyone. The web is full of interior designers promoting their services to homeowners, and Airbnb’s own designers advise on the site.
The high-end look is just as easily identifiable as the more generic version: a few Portuguese ceramic tiles with 1970s or Islamic-inspired patterns, junk art clustered on the walls, flowers in a jug, a mustard or pink velvet sofa in place of the gray in the less expensive apartments, the instantly noticeable feel of nouveau-vintage decorative art bought at the same time in bulk rather than accumulated over time. There are walls and courtyards full of subtropical plants, metro tiles, murals, and breakfast bars with chrome fixtures and boxes of brightly colored Spanish fish. The bathrooms have black or copper piping and Aesop containers to complement the potted plants (the Aesop containers will be empty by the way).
House and house unlocked
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A more extreme version can be seen in WeWork’s overly fussy interiors, where every boardroom has to be a little different, alternating geometric wallpaper, pressed pewter ceilings, tall Buddhas, vintage coat racks, faux old 1970s folk armchairs. And in this way, the global landscape of short-term rental, cafe, bar and workplace merge into an endless online panorama of harmless snapshots.
The biggest irony is that colocation sites have squeezed the housing spectrum into instantly recognizable and easily reproducible tropes and have mean aspiration. We scroll through these images on Airbnb or Instagram and we absorb them, albeit subconsciously. It becomes orthodoxy. We aspire to escape and travel, to a different city, to new experiences and we ended up remaking the world in a continuous landscape of comfortable banality. The more we are free to roam, the more we navigate; the more we aspire to change, the more we make sure that everything becomes the same.
Edwin Heathcote is the architecture critic of the FT