The age of average

From Alex Murrell:

In the early 1990s, two Russian artists named Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid took the unusual step of hiring a market research firm. Their brief was simple. Understand what Americans desire most in a work of art.

Over 11 days the researchers at Marttila & Kiley Inc. asked 1,001 US citizens a series of survey questions.

What’s your favourite colour? Do you prefer sharp angles or soft curves? Do you like smooth canvases or thick brushstrokes? Would you rather figures that are nude or clothed? Should they be at leisure or working? Indoors or outside? In what kind of landscape? 

Komar and Melamid then set about painting a piece that reflected the results. The pair repeated this process in a number of countries including Russia, China, France and Kenya.

Each piece in the series, titled “People’s Choice”, was intended to be a unique a collaboration with the people of a different country and culture.

But it didn’t quite go to plan.

Describing the work in his book Playing to the Gallery, the artist Grayson Perry said:

“In nearly every country all people really wanted was a landscape with a few figures around, animals in the foreground, mainly blue.”

Despite soliciting the opinions of over 11,000 people, from 11 different countries, each of the paintings looked almost exactly the same.

. . . .

After completing the work, Komar quipped:

“We have been travelling to different countries, engaging in dull negotiations with representatives of polling companies, raising money for further polls, receiving more or less the same results, and painting more or less the same blue landscapes. Looking for freedom, we found slavery.” 

This, however, was the point. The art was not the paintings themselves, but the comment they made. We like to think that we are individuals, but we are much more alike that we wish to admit.

30 years after People’s Choice, it seems the landscapes which Komar and Melamid painted have become the landscapes in which we live.

This article argues that from film to fashion and architecture to advertising, creative fields have become dominated and defined by convention and cliché. Distinctiveness has died. In every field we look at, we find that everything looks the same.

Welcome to the age of average.

. . . .

In 2011, Laurel Schwulst was planning to redecorate her New York apartment when she began searching the internet for interior design inspiration.

Before long, the designer had stumbled on the perfect research tool: AirBnB. From the comfort of her home the app gave her a window into thousands of others. She could travel the world, and view hundreds of rooms, without leaving her chair.

Schwulst began sharing images to her Tumblr, “Modern Life Space”. The blog became an ever-expanding gallery of interior design inspiration. But something wasn’t right.

Laurel Schwulst:

“The Airbnb experience is supposed to be about real people and authenticity. But so many of them were similar, whether in Brooklyn, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, or Santiago.”

Schwulst had identified an AirBnB design aesthetic that had organically emerged and was quickly spreading through the platform’s properties. White walls. Raw wood. Nespresso machines. Eames chairs. Bare brick. Open shelving. Edison bulbs. The style combines the rough-hewn rawness of industrialism with the elegant minimalism of mid-century design.

. . . .

But Schwulst wasn’t the only one to identify the trend. Aaron Taylor Harvey, the Executive Creative Director of Environments at Airbnb had spotted something similar:

“You can feel a kind of trend in certain listings. There’s an International Airbnb Style that’s starting to happen. I think that some of it is really a wonderful thing that gives people a sense of comfort and immediate belonging when they travel, and some of it is a little generic. It can go either way.”

This “Modern Life Space” or “International AirBnB Style” goes by a number of other names. It’s known as the Brooklyn Look, or according to the journalist Kyle Chayka, AirSpace:

“I called this style “AirSpace”. It’s marked by an easily recognisable mix of symbols – like reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and refurbished industrial lighting – that’s meant to provide familiar, comforting surroundings for a wealthy, mobile elite, who want to feel like they’re visiting somewhere “authentic” while they travel, but who actually just crave more of the same: more rustic interiors and sans-serif logos and splashes of cliche accent colours on rugs and walls.”

Perhaps this seems inevitable. Isn’t it obvious that a global group of hosts all trying to present their properties to a global group of travellers would converge on a single, optimal, appealing yet inoffensive style?

AirSpace, however, isn’t just limited to residential interiors. The same tired tropes have spread beyond the spaces where we live, and taken over the spaces where we work, eat, drink and relax.

In an in-depth investigation for The Guardian, Chayka documents how the AirSpace style of interior decor has become the dominant design style of coffee shops:

“Go to Shoreditch Grind, near a roundabout in the middle of London’s hipster district. It’s a coffee shop with rough-hewn wooden tables, plentiful sunlight from wide windows, and austere pendant lighting. Then head to Takk in Manchester. It’s a coffee shop with a big glass storefront, reclaimed wood furniture, and hanging Edison bulbs. Compare the two: You might not even know you’re in different spaces. It’s no accident that these places look similar. Though they’re not part of a chain and don’t have their interior design directed by a single corporate overlord, these coffee shops have a way of mimicking the same tired style, a hipster reduction obsessed with a superficial sense of history and the remnants of industrial machinery that once occupied the neighbourhoods they take over.”

And this isn’t just a trend that we can see in British coffee culture. The same trend has been identified in cities from Bangkok to Beijing and from Seoul to San Francisco.

Link to the rest at Alex Murrell and thanks to F. for the tip.

PG notes there are lots of images and links at the OP.

11 thoughts on “The age of average”

  1. Another good research source is sites like Zillow which present houses that have been sanitized for sale.

    When I was writing a house in Southern California, and had several features I wanted, I used those sites to make sure I knew what I was talking about (a detail, such as an infinity pool with a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, would have been extremely ridiculous if you couldn’t see the Pacific from Hollywood Hills!).

    There is SO much available online now that you could only find in expensive coffee table magazines when I was growing up.

  2. What’s your favourite colour? Do you prefer sharp angles or soft curves? Do you like smooth canvases or thick brushstrokes? Would you rather figures that are nude or clothed? Should they be at leisure or working? Indoors or outside? In what kind of landscape?

    Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like this is the wrong set of questions to “understand what Americans desire most in a piece of art.” I would say that blue is my favorite color, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll like a painting better if it’s mostly blue. Similarly, my answers to the rest of the questions would be either “I dunno” or “It depends”; I could see myself liking some paintings with any answer to the above questions, and disliking others.

    This seems less like a profound statement on the nature of human likes and dislikes and more an attempt by space aliens to figure out this thing called “art” while completely missing the point.

    • This is why Steve Jobs never used market researchers or focus groups at Apple. He knew that if you ask people, sight unseen, what they want in a product, they will give the most bland and unimaginative answers, amounting to ‘more of the same for less money’. If you’re working on a genuinely new product, most of your prospective customers won’t want it or understand it until they see it.

  3. Why do most people like landscapes? They are an attractive “window” on the outdoors. A very tiny minority (in developed countries) live where an actual picture window on the outside would be an attractive view. (As Alicia notes, there aren’t all that many houses in California where you can put an infinity pool looking out over the Pacific Ocean. You’d better be among that one tenth of one percent that can actually afford it.)

    Why do most people like a fair amount of blue? Psychologically, it is a soothing color. Some greens are second best. A flat white or off-white is a standard, for one thing because it is very easy to paint over with a more attractive color. A very small number of people might like to daringly paint their living room in hot pink or fire-engine red, but it is a sure bet that the next owner (even if it is their own progeny) will paint over it within the first week of ownership. Cursing it all the while over how many coats it takes.

    Now I must get back to the remodeling of the wife’s office – “Ethereal Blue” with “Sandy Beach” accents.

  4. In book publishing, there is something called “bandwagon syndrome”, which means that this year’s best seller will soon have a host of imitators. Think “Gone Girl” and all the dark domestic thrillers that followed with “Girl” in the title. In one way, it’s called giving people what they want.

    I like coffee bars with big windows and reclaimed wood tables. Then again, it’s just a coffee bar. In the novel I’m reading with my double espresso is best if it’s in some way original. Better still if it will soon have a host of imitators. Same with art, movies and food.

    Sameness sometimes is welcome but ultimately it will pall and something fresh will come along to replace it. We don’t need to worry and we don’t need to book an AirbnB if we are looking for somewhere to stay. Ask me, you can’t improve on a French baguette but there are more muffins in the world than blueberry. Next time that I travel, maybe I will book the Ritz. Or maybe a generic hip hotel.

    Or maybe I will seek out someplace unlike anywhere I’ve slept before. I’ll bring a book. Something original. The next big thing.

  5. This article goes some way to explaining why more and more of the titles I see on Netgalley and BookBub (two of my main sources of books) appear to be the same half-dozen premises written over and over again. Often quite badly.

    In theory, indie publishing means that you can do something original that’s never been done before and wouldn’t make it past a gatekeeper who only wants a retread of whatever sold last year; in practice, indie publishing also seems to spend 90% of its effort on retreading whatever sold last year.

    • 90%?
      Sturgeon’s Law, then.
      It may not be better but it’s no worse and it *is* cheaper. 😉

      The trick is finding the 10% because the bulk of the money goes to the author and it encourages them to stay on their own road.

    • And now we know the gatekeepers always were consumers. The publishing gatekeepers just did their bidding. Consumers want retreads. There are lots of original books, but the money flows to the tried-and-true.

      • For a while.
        “The same but different” only works for a while.

        Where are the sparkly vamps today? Or the tough young women battling dystopias? Or the wizard schools? Bandwagons come and bandwagons go and this year’s hot trend is last years been there/done that. Indies can move fast enough to milk trends but tradpub’s queue is so slow thst by the time the me2 project comes out the trend has played out.

        If the only thing the writer wants is a quick buck it’ll do but there are faster ways to make a good living.

        Me, I tend to go with Asimov’s line that to be a (good) author, you need to have something to say. Preferably yours, I would add.

        What I see working is authors that find a niche, develope a voice, and use it to say something, present their vision. Maybe they start a trend, maybe not but at least it’s theirs through and through.

        • There definitely are faster ways to make a living than writing. But, I suspect the arrival of Amazon KDP has opened doors for many people to write books who are already financially secure. They don’t need to pay the mortgage from writing, and have neither the intention nor desire to ditch the day job.

          ASIDE: Anyone know if the mirror on the motorcycle counts in the security picture. I have been experimenting and haven’t figured it out.

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