The Fortitude Coffee shop in Edinburgh. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Observer
Industrial furniture, stripped floors and Edison bulbs: why must we aspire to such bland monotony?
By:Kyle Chayka/UK Guardian
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 neighborhoods they take over. And it’s not just London and Manchester – this style is spreading across the world, from Bangkok to Beijing, Seoul to San Francisco.
It’s not just coffee shops, either. Everywhere you go, seemingly hip, unique spaces have a way of looking the same, whether it’s bars or restaurants, fashion boutiques or shared office spaces. A coffee roaster resembles a WeWork office space. How can all that homogeneity possibly be cool?
In an essay for the American tech website The Verge, 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 colors on rugs and walls
Hence the replicability: if a hip creative travels to Berlin or Tallinn, they seek out a place that looks like AirSpace, perhaps recommending it on Foursquare or posting a photo of it to Instagram to gain the approval of culturally savvy friends. Gradually, an entire AirSpace geography grows, in which you can travel all the way around the world and never leave it.
You can hop from cookie-cutter bar to office space to apartment building, and be surrounded by those same AirSpace tropes I described above. You’ll be guaranteed fast internet, strong coffee, and a comfortable chair from which to do your telecommuting. What you won’t get is anything interesting or actually unique.
Taste is also becoming globalised, as more people around the world share their aesthetic aspirations on the same massive social media platforms, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or Foursquare, with their hundreds of millions or billions of users. As algorithms shape which content we consume on our feeds, we all learn to desire the same things, which often happens to involve austere interiors, reclaimed wood, and Edison bulbs, like a metastasised real-life version of Kinfolk magazine or Monocle.
Startups are also growing to provide these experiences of sameness as a product, predicated on the fact that we now prefer consuming ready-made generic spaces to creating new ones of our own. We’ve been infantilised. The companies use technology to foster a sense of easy placelessness; Roam, for example, is an international chain of co-living and working spaces that offers the same lifestyle (and same furniture) in Madrid, Miami, and Ubud, and residents can live anywhere for £1,500 per month. WeWork’s WeLive branch creates wan dormitories for mobile tech workers, each with its own raw-wood furniture and mandated techno-kitsch interior decorating.
But the king of AirSpace is Airbnb. The platform enables users to travel seamlessly between places, staying in locals’ apartments. Its slogan is “you can belong anywhere”. But all Airbnbs have a way of looking like AirSpace, too – consultants who work with Airbnb hosts as well as the company’s own architects told me that a certain sameness is spreading, as users come to demand convenience and frictionlessness in lieu of meaningful engagement with a different place. Heading to yet another copycat coffee shop with your laptop isn’t “local”. Why go anywhere if it just ends up looking the same as whatever global city you started from?
It’s not just boring aesthetics, however. AirSpace creates a division between those who belong in the slick, interchangeable places and those who don’t. The platforms that enable this geography are themselves biased: a Harvard Business School study showed that Airbnb hosts are less likely to accept guests with stereotypically African-American names.
There’s also the economic divide: access to AirSpace is expensive, whether it’s a £3 cortado or the rent on a WeLive or Roam apartment. If you can’t afford it, you are shut out.
AirSpace is convenient, yes. It helps its occupants feel comfortable wherever they are, settled in amid recognizable reminders that they are relevant, interesting, mobile, and global. You can change places within it with a single click, the same anonymous seamlessness of an airport lounge but distributed everywhere, behind the facades of local buildings that don’t look like hotels, but act like them.
Yet the discontent of this phenomenon is a creeping anxiety. Is everywhere really starting to look just the same? Glance around and you might be surprised.
The next time you pick out a cafe or bar based on Yelp recommendations or Foursquare tips, or check into an Airbnb, each system driven by an audience of similar people, check if you see reclaimed wood furniture, industrial lighting, or a certain faux-Scandinavian minimalism. Welcome to AirSpace. It will be very hard to leave.