#160: Gone Glimmering

My favorite Twitter account is @EvanCollins90, a design researcher who compiles images that represent visual aesthetic trends from the recent past (he also collects it all on Are.na for permanent reference). Collins’s work focuses on retail and restaurant environments from the ‘80s-‘00s as well as office design and corporate branding; the aesthetics he identifies include Global Village Coffeehouse, McBling, and Neoclassical Pomo. For me, the world Collins documents evokes intense nostalgia—it’s largely the world in which I grew up, one that peaked by the late ‘00s and then began to disappear, around the same time that the iPhone emerged and the internet began coalescing into its current form. That bygone world was characterized by bombastic interior design: colorful shopping mall stores, themed restaurants like the Rainforest Cafe, and quirky office decor that belied a sensible facade. It was by turns whimsical and sober (see the Frasurbane aesthetic for an example of the latter) but at either extreme, it was imaginative and weird, at least in retrospect—and frequently not even tasteful. At first glance, much of this seems to have existed solely for children, but adults clearly wanted it too, and it spilled out of the malls to infuse everything.

Fully manifested in the physical world, these aesthetics were also expensive. To scroll down Collins’s Twitter feed is to find overwhelming evidence of widespread investment in maximalist environments—frequently to the detriment of the businesses themselves, as the bankruptcies and subsequent disappearance of so many theme restaurants and chain stores attests. Minimalism and functionalism have seemingly dominated ever since, but in reality aesthetics have just bifurcated into digital and physical space, as they’re cheaper to produce in the latter than in the former. We now have broad restraint in meatspace and unhinged stylistic proliferation on our screens. The rise of Instagram renderporn even formalizes this transition by producing exquisite interiors that never actually get built. Contemporary chains like Sweetgreen and Chipotle may or may not become future Evan Collins genres, but their designs are undeniably more cost effective than that of Planet Hollywood. While the generic AirSpace aesthetic is frequently attributed to the internet’s imposition of a global monoculture via social media, it’s surely also the product of financial calculations. The dominant retail aesthetic today might be logistical functionalism—getting everything frivolous out of the way in order to maximize the throughput of customers and merchandise. Even Chuck E. Cheese has conformed to this pattern: Acquired by a private equity firm in 2014, the chain recently eliminated the animatronic band with which it was synonymous and then became a ghost kitchen during the pandemic.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo wrote that the printing press would kill the cathedral: Architecture would lose its role as a communication medium once a more efficient medium, text, superseded it. Evan Collins’s documentation of erstwhile retail aesthetics suggests that not only was the physical built environment not done speaking to us, but that another medium could still come along to kill it yet again. The concurrence of widespread smartphone adoption and the the rise of generic retail minimalism (along with the displacement of aesthetic maximalism into digital space) suggests that, with ubiquitous internet finally at our fingertips, we suddenly didn’t need our physical surroundings to entertain us in the same way we once did. Late last year I wrote about how digital streaming services have come to augment our environments in increasingly tactile ways, like furniture, with Spotify embracing its role as Muzak-like mood music and Netflix offering up what Kyle Chayka calls “ambient TV.” Ever since its inception, television has functioned as an environmental feature—literal furniture—but for much of the 20th century it was confined to the domestic living room (and even when TVs began to populate public space, their locations were fixed). Fragmented and unbundled, little bits of television now accompany us everywhere, whether we’re at a nightclub or the DMV, and if we’re responsible for providing it ourselves, the rooms we inhabit need not duplicate our efforts. Offline, the types of aesthetics Collins classifies still appear in contexts like the Instagram-bait Museum of Ice Cream, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule: They primarily exist to project their interiors at scale across the internet. We’re not really meant to hang out.

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Last week I wrote about why the energy consumption of cryptocurrency is a red herring and not the best way to evaluate its merit.