August 2, 2013 6:43 pm

The dark forces of homogeneity

In an era of supposedly endless choice, something is very wrong with hotel and restaurant furniture

Saturday mornings are always a good time to reflect, take stock, do a little self-analysis and then get on with things. Summer Saturdays are even better, as there’s a chance that you’re in a more beautiful setting than usual.

Are you feeling good about the year so far? Happy that the first half is behind you, or a little panicked that the year-end is coming down the track and there’s not much you can do to improve things? Do you feel generally good about the world, or depressed by the lack of progress in Syria and the tinderbox that is Egypt? And while I don’t want to pry, how are you faring personally? Happy with family, home and work? What about panic attacks? Have you been feeling a little bit overwhelmed and cornered lately? Have you come up with any causes and cures?

Despite two weeks of holiday in very relaxed settings, there were moments when I found myself feeling boxed-in, corralled and cornered by specific experiences over which I had very little control. It had nothing to do with my itinerary or my travel companions; it was more down to a series of small experiences that might have gone unnoticed in daily life but were more pronounced while on vacation.

For the most part, this column argues for quality over quantity. Give me one good pillow at a hotel rather than a ridiculous pillow menu. No, I don’t want a water concierge to talk me through the density of bubbles from a new spring in Australia. And yes, I’ll opt for the straightforward Italian café offering coffee three ways rather than the multinational chain catering to all tastes and with line-ups to match.

All that said, I feel that there’s increasingly less choice when it comes to environments where you might want to spend time (especially outdoors), and a danger that dark forces are working to dictate how I might choose to read a novel, catch up on news or look at images.

In sunny corners of southern Switzerland, on terraces in central London, on lawns in Italy and at beach clubs in Spain, something very wrong has happened in the procurement departments of hospitality groups, or with the choice of designers to furnish hotels and restaurants – or both. In a world of supposedly endless choice, when it comes to tables and chairs for sitting out in the sun, it feels as though every outlet on the planet has decided that boxy furniture made from dark brown woven plastic is the way forward and that everything else is out of fashion.

So ubiquitous is all of this woven furniture that the five-star hotel in the south of France is unable to distinguish its design language from the Lebanese kebab joint down the street. Just as Hollister has somehow become the clothing label that kids (and too many adults who should know better) want to line up for all over the world, brown woven plastic furniture seems to be the only choice available to the restaurant and hotel managers in charge of updating their al fresco dining and dipping spaces. When Dedon first championed the “look”, it had its place on the right balconies and decks, but it’s come to the point where I feel forced to sit in the same environment wherever I go – regardless of whether it’s Thai or Tyrolean on the menu.

Across the very same terrace, I see someone in a uniform coming toward me with a tablet device. Good heavens, they’ve committed the entire menu to the device and I’m supposed to navigate my way around it. Again, I’m suddenly in a place I don’t want to be. I want to turn pages, flip back, show my Mom where something is on the starter page and then close it to indicate that I might be ready to order. I don’t want a piece of technology that seems to have found its groove as a perfectly sensible presentation device to be a substandard fill-in when a fine bit of card, some decent paper and a few staples would do the trick. And no, I’m not interested in the updating capabilities a tablet might offer – I’d prefer the waiter to just tell me about the specials.

And just when it was more than enough to be penned in by a back-lit menu? A newspaper (not the FT, but a respectable German-language daily) is doing everything it can to push me away from the print edition and on to this very same device that does such a poor job of selling lunch. It’s even offering to heavily subsidise me to get a tablet of my own (thanks, but I already have one that I think might come in handy for serving canapés) so that I can “engage with all its funky content”.

Why isn’t the newspaper focusing on the metabolism of the news day and finding new advertisers, rather than trying to force readers on to a format they’re not interested in? Ditto for dailies all over the world? Just as consumers don’t want to sit in environments that look identical, they don’t all want to be forced to read from identical pieces of plastic and metal.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
tyler.brule@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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