Why do we travel? And would we still travel if everywhere was the same? What would be the point?
Surf through Airbnb looking for your next holiday apartment and you will notice that the offers in New York or Paris, London or Budapest, São Paulo or Tokyo often look weirdly similar. As others have pointed out, it is as if a tasteful veil of white walls and grey sofas, house plants and mid-century-style furniture has descended and flattened them all into uniformity. Writer Kyle Chayka dubbed this phenomenon of the continuous rentable interior “airspace”.
There may be a few self-consciously quirky touches (because the short-term rental design guides tell hosts that people like quirky touches, within reason). These express individuality and character in the same away that someone who has “independent thinker” on their social-media profile will only ever be profoundly unoriginal and conformist.
There might be a feature wall, standing out with its lurid pattern. There might be an inspirational message in big, chunky, faux driftwood letters standing in the kitchen. “Live, love, laugh” always strikes me as particularly profound. Or it might be written on a message board in diner-style letters, perhaps spelling out, “But first, coffee”.
The kind host might have left a recipe for lemonade on a blackboard or the addresses of a couple of cafés that look exactly like the cafés in the city you just left and where the baristas have the same beards and tattoos and the coffee comes in the same little Duralex glasses.
There might be a row of golden gnomes or a model vintage car that isn’t quite a toy. There will be house plants everywhere, including some drooping down from a little wooden shelf with black brackets and a small terrarium on it. These are for Instagramming. They are Moments.
Because these interiors are designed to be consumed as images on a screen. They are designed to seduce with an idea of generic global familiarity. They represent a lifestyle that is metropolitan, chic, minimal and self-congratulatory. You enjoy the image because this is how you imagine you might want to live. You recognise it already. What is happening here is a kind of invidious digital aesthetic seepage, an unintentional effect of the gradual global convergence of the interior. There is an irony to this because Airbnb seeded an idea of authenticity. The trick was to disrupt the hotel industry by allowing travellers (never tourists) to temporarily insert themselves into the homes of real people in real neighbourhoods where real people live (as if hotels were inevitably located in unreal places).
But authenticity comes with difference. Funny-sized beds, old furniture, clutter, mothballs, unfitted 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 bit nicer than those room sets in Ikea. They want something like the neatest, most minimal-looking apartments on Airbnb.
This is not to blame the digital platform. It proclaims itself part of the sharing economy and it has, in the process shared the look. We are scrolling and making decisions, we are all more than complicit. Airbnb has become an unlikely style-book of design, a dispersed network of the endless interior.
Once, people watched the movies, saw the sets and tried to emulate Hollywood style through local versions available at stores in their hometown. Then they bought DIY magazines and modernised their homes with flush doors and multi-tiered plant stands. Then they leafed through interiors magazines for tips on urban cool. Then they idled in traffic waiting to visit the big blue boxes on the industrial edges of cities to find inspiration in room sets.
Now we do not even need to buy a magazine: we can mindlessly scroll through apartments that are a bit too expensive on Airbnb, and the look seeps in. Where once we bought a guidebook and phoned a couple of pensions to reserve a room over the phone (which took, perhaps, half an hour), now we surf endlessly through weirdly familiar apartments, unable to decide because they all look so similar.
If time is money, we have become ridiculous fools trying to save a few pounds while whiling away invaluable and unretrievable hours. Those apartments, that style, that distinctive banality seeps into our consciousness and it becomes, paradoxically, aspirational.
The irony is that in looking for a trip, a change of scenery, we have found anonymity repackaged as cool and now we aspire at home to the placelessness of a reimported global banality. Builders and developers now construct for Airbnb. There are whole blocks of generic apartments displacing smaller, quirkier and more interesting buildings in the dense complexity of neighbourhoods, with their social and commercial mix aimed at short-term renters and higher margins for investors.
Other apartment blocks are being emptied out, their interiors ironed out into cloned versions of online photos, as if an algorithm had flattened and Photoshopped the differences out and regurgitated them IRL.
If you look at interactive renderings and projections of interiors where, say, you can place a sofa or kitchen to see how it would look, they inevitably have a digital flatness to them, squeezing out the grain and texture of reality. It is those mediated interiors that are now being reproduced. The painted floorboards are scuffed but in the right way, the decorations are new but faded like a 1950s photo, the sofa is fake mid-century, the dining and easy chairs faux Eames, the countertop made to look like it was recycled from a laboratory although it was actually made and artificially scuffed in India.
It is like buying distressed jeans. And just as distressing jeans is labour intensive and hugely wasteful of resources, so is the “Air-washing” of interiors in which the old is disposed of and the new is brought in — MDF, Chinese chipboard, Vietnamese self-assemble, Asian fake furniture, all shipped from around the world while local makers are forced out of industrial buildings and workshops as they’re turned into industrial-chic lofts for tourists so that Budapest can look a little more like Brooklyn.
Even the generic, however, comes in classes. There’s the seamless anaemia of the Airbnb new-build but there is also a raft of designers who have set themselves up to cater for potential landlords. They are able to replicate the look anywhere for anyone. The web is awash with interior designers advertising their services to landlords and Airbnb’s own designers give tips on the site.
The upmarket look is just as easily identifiable as the more generic version: a few Portuguese ceramic tiles with 1970s or Islamic-inspired patterns, junk-shop art grouped together on the walls, flowers in a jug, a mustard or pink velvet sofa in place of the grey one in the cheaper flats, the instantly perceptible feel of new-vintage decorative art bought all at once in bulk rather than accumulated over time. There are feature walls and courtyards full of subtropical plants, subway tiles, murals and breakfast bars with chrome appliances and vividly coloured Spanish fish tins. The bathrooms have black or copper piping and Aesop containers to complement the pot plants (the Aesop containers will, by the way, be empty).
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A more extreme version can be seen in the trying-too-hard interiors of WeWork, where every meeting room has to be a bit different, alternating geometric wallpaper, pressed-tin ceilings, big Buddhas, vintage coat-stands, faux 1970s old-folk easy chairs. And in this way the global landscape of short-term let, coffee shop, bar and workplace amalgamate in an endless online panorama of inoffensive cliché.
The greatest irony is that flat-sharing sites have squeezed the spectrum of dwelling into a few instantly recognisable and easily reproducible tropes and made the average the aspiration. We scroll through these images on Airbnb or Instagram and we, albeit unconsciously, absorb it. It becomes an orthodoxy. We long for escape and travel, for a different city, for new experiences and we have ended up remaking the world in a continuous landscape of comfortable banality. The freer we are to roam, the more we browse; the more we yearn for a change, the more we have ensured that everything becomes the same.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
Letters in response to this article:
Being carpet-bombed with blandness from both sides / From Marie Louise von Glinski, Astoria, NY, US
Travellers find more solace in hosts’ decor than guest reviews / From Jonathan Beyer, Bad Kreuznach, Germany
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