Woke up this morning contemplating a tweet I saw late Monday night on my feed. A well-known lifestyle blogger and director of her own brand and design studio, Kate Arends of Wit & Delight, gently slammed Kinfolk magazine and her “bloggy friends” (her term). She politely suggested it was time to step up our game and to stop imitating the mag.
We can all agree that it is difficult to express complete concepts in 140 characters, but Kate’s tweet re-enforced a topic that friends and I have been discussing for the past year. Let me explain:
In all fairness, Kinfolk is a beautiful magazine – full of farm-to-table dinners in the pastures of upstate New York, bearded Brooklyn mixologists presenting the latest rye cocktail, and obscure spices arranged on reclaimed wood tables.
Beautiful, simple, well-lighted and…respectfully, maybe a little boring?
For the past few years, the world of design seems to have stalled.
The projects of artists, creators, makers are all starting to look uniform – which happens during the natural course of design cycles. But this time feels different and I am concerned.
I fear the original creators of these worlds have bought into narrow definitions of their craft and continue to churn out similar looking products, environments, and experiences.
I talk to my friends about what’s next in design and we shrug our shoulders as we try to remember the last time we saw something that was new, fresh, accessible, and exciting.
What’s next isn’t about being outlandish or garish – what’s next must be better than that.
It must resonate and inspire.
And in my mind, what’s next also must be purposeful and functional.
Yes, I run a blog inspired by my great-grandfathers general store – and craft, functionality, and necessity is a strong part of my DNA.
And maybe it is just this last stretch of winter bearing down on us, but I am really bored and frustrated by my magazines, museums, shops, restaurants, and instagram feed.
When I walk into an artisanal cocktail bar in Tulsa with chalkboard menu and craft beers, I think, “great!” And my next thought is, “this is exactly like New York.” Which is not a terrible thing, but it is also not a great thing.
The uniformity of design, fashion, and experiences has me craving something new.
From a design perspective, if we continue down this path, I am concerned that the maker will be cut out of the revenue stream. When West Elm can mass produce a replica of an original piece of pottery (and respectfully, they can and do and sell it at a lower price point), it is pretty clear to me the original makers who inspired the pieces must innovate or they will be priced out of the market.
Not to dog West Elm because they do an outstanding and very difficult job of pulling the market towards handcrafted goods from small makers.
But, that relationship is a good example of how makers need to continuously extend their craft and yes, their aesthetic into something more unique and covetable or risk being knocked off by the very corporations who work hard to support them.
From a fashion perspective, what started as bespoke became heritage and has now morphed into authentic – all beautiful words with important meanings that have been hijacked by marketing departments and more than a few well-intentioned editors and bloggers.
And from a business perspective, most “kinfolk-type” consumers purchase for quality instead of quantity. We need less; therefore, what we want must be very special. Without innovation, this scenario will not play out well for the makers or the retail industry.
Let’s talk about Spring 2014 trends. This season, the trends are so broad and retail fiscal reports are so low, buyers and editors are begging us to “buy something, anything, please!” Seriously? The product is showing little innovation at a decent quality and price point to motivate a purchase. (Birkenstocks as the spring statement shoe? Oh brother.)
On the streets of New York, the cool kids of downtown fashion have embraced normcore – which is basically a dumbed-down, generic tourist version of everything I wore in 1992. When the cool kids are bored (and boring), I think that is a pretty good signal that something is not quite right with the world of design.
(Ed Note: I wanted to insert a couple of normcore photos for you – but the captions include 20-somethings using the word “nostalgic” to describe flannels, back-turned caps, adidas pants, and calvin and hobbs t-shirts. I began to worry about the future of American fashion and my head started to hurt. If you want to see the slideshow, click here – but remember, I warned you.)
Regarding the design of environments and entertaining, tumblr, instagram, and magazines are full of reclaimed wood tables, mercury glass, edison light bulbs, and brussels sprouts. None of which are bad things – hell, I write this on a reclaimed wood table next to a mercury glass candle holder – but I know the look has become staid instead of interesting.
For context, Freemans opened in a small alley in NYC in 2004. In 2006, The New York Times said, “Freemans was the kind of restaurant you would find in a David Lynch movie.”
Antlers, reclaimed wood, locally sourced food, an open kitchen, and long waits became the go-to formula for NYC dining. Within four years, the look and feel became standard – everywhere you dined looked and felt the same.
During the next four years, the top restaurants and bars tweaked the Freemans formula toward a French aesthetic. Now, dining at a faux French bistro, with walls covered in subway tile and signage in Metro font, has become so commonplace that without a menu, I am not sure if I am eating at The Dutch, Schillers, Rosemarys, or Five Napkin Burger on Bowery.
Again, I am not critical of any of these places. I look to these establishments as places of comfort and familiarity. But what if I want to step out of that box?
I believe we all contribute to stagnant design by what we produce (even if it is just an instagram) and what we consume.
I try my best not to complain without solutions – after all only boring people are bored, right?
That said, finding a solution for the design and commerce challenges faced by the makers I love is a complicated task.
Here are a few steps I am taking to break out of this design rut – maybe we can do them together?
— Let’s stop editing ourselves when we find something good. Even if I can’t put my finger on why I love it, I am going to share it and maybe we can discover together what makes it great. Feel free to drop me a line when you find something great!
— Let’s pull ourselves away from the dusty palates of Marfa, TX and try to infuse more color into our lives. From my painting to my reading to my writing, I will seek bold images and objects and incorporate them into my daily routines.
— I am a woman of contradictions. I love the old and familiar, but I am also seeking the new and functional.
I think Google Glass is dumb, but I would consider buying a sleek, well-designed smart watch. But first, I am going to buy a Shinola Runwell in Orange. I love the color, the design, the business model (made in Detroit), the stores…you get the point. The brand is what I am buying.
Let’s support the brands and the makers who are pushing the traditional business model, who are going against the grain, and maybe even doing something a little crazy?
To that end, I will work harder to find and highlight makers who respect their craft, but continuously innovate their pieces and their business.
— Music is often the inspiration for great design and art. So, I am going to need new tunes for all this work. This is easy. NPR just posted a curated playlist called the Austin 100. The songs are by artists that will be playing at SXSW – you can download the songs for free.
— Finally, I am going to try new places and I will seek them out based on the experience they offer. Three new BBQ joints have opened in Park Slope in the last year. All well designed, all serving decent BBQ…yet, to me, they are just more of the same.
The place I am most excited about in the neighborhood? Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club. Yup, shuffleboard – played on mint green courts, black and white awnings and pink flamingo wallpaper in the bathrooms. Kitschy? Without a doubt, but also absolutely refreshing!
At the end of the day, I believe that the creators, designers, and makers who push their craft to give us thoughtful, well designed, and interesting pieces and objects will win the marketplace.
I am not looking for a radical design turn where we abandon the past.
I believe that we should all create, seek, and surround ourselves with design that inspires and resonates.
Design that is smart, functional, and purposeful.
Design that respects tradition with a modern twist.
And when I find those designs and ideas, I will be sharing them here with you and I hope you share your finds with me.
Personally, I can’t wait to see what’s next!