Sunday, March 8, 2020
The Millennial Aesthetic … “People are tired of the sameness and already craving something new”
The Cut - "The Tyranny of Terrazzo Will the millennial aesthetic ever end?"
By Molly Fischer
"Consider a previous youth-style shorthand: the hipster, preeminent cultural punch line of the aughts. Both hipster and millennial were terms that drifted away from strict definitions (hipsters being subcultural, millennials being generational) to become placeholders for “whatever fussy young people seem to like.” It is strange, now, to remember a time when chunky-framed glasses were understood as a hipster affectation; today they just look like Warby Parker. The hipster aesthetic harked back to a grimy past: Its spaces were wood-paneled, nostalgic; perhaps they contained taxidermy. Behind lumberjack beards and ’70s rec-room mustaches, there was a desire for something preindustrial or at least pre-internet.
No account of the millennial aesthetic could fail to address pink: For the better part of a decade, millennial pink bedeviled anyone a color could bedevil. When Facebook rolled out a corporate rebrand last fall, the lead image in the press release showed the new logo — breezily spaced sans serif — in a muted shade somewhere on the ham-to-salmon spectrum. Samuel keeps wondering when people will get sick of the color, but they don’t; almost every client asks for pink. She thinks this is because it’s soothing. They want houses that remind them of vacations, suggest Mediterranean idylls.
Pink is not the only soft color in the millennial palette. There’s green, often in the form of plant life — it has a wholesome appeal next to the pink — and then an expanding array of colors simultaneously saturated and chalky, muted even when not actually pastel: seafoam, terra-cotta, lavender, and (especially) ocher. In explaining the appetite for colors that soothe, we might gesture vaguely in the direction of Now More Than Ever, anxiety, the news. A more direct explanation would probably be that other stalwart of millennial pop sociology: the phone, now the basic tool with which we view, record, and disseminate images of the world. All that time spent staring into a glowing screen makes the prospect of something gentle — something literally easier on the eye — enticing. The millennial palette is the opposite of glare; onscreen or off, it’s color softly veiled.
Instagrammable is a term that does not mean “beautiful” or even quite “photogenic”; it means something more like “readable.” The viewer could scroll past an image and still grasp its meaning, e.g., “I saw fireworks,” “I am on vacation,” or “I have friends.” On a basic level, the visual experience of a phone favors images and objects that are as legible as possible as quickly as possible: The widely acknowledged clichés of millennial branding — clean typefaces, white space — are less a matter of taste than a concession to this fact.
It is hard to imagine ourselves growing old — to imagine the time, nearly upon us already, when “millennial” no longer means “young.” Likewise, it is hard to imagine how the millennial aesthetic will age. Its blank, clean surfaces aspire to a world without clutter or scuffs, unmarked by the passage of time. In this aspiration, the millennial aesthetic is somewhat democratic — anything can be new, for a while. It is a style that looks, in its ideal state, like a purchase.
What the millennial aesthetic sells, it sells through the promise of novelty. This is true even when the product on offer is not appreciably novel: cat food, Dutch ovens, and generic drugs are repackaged, redesigned, as if millennial buyers required a version all their own. Jessica Walsh, a graphic designer and founder of the creative agency &Walsh, dates the style to the last five years and sees its expiration date approaching already. “Everyone wants to look like the Casper, Warby Parker, or Aways of the world,” she explains, which has made branding increasingly interchangeable. “People are tired of the sameness and already craving something new.”
When the time comes — when smooth pastels start to feel a little tacky, when brown starts looking good again — what will be saved? As in any era, most of our belongings will be lost, but fewer than ever seem worth trying to preserve. In her article “Why Does This One Couch From West Elm Suck So Much?,” author Anna Hezel asks employees in a West Elm store how long that “Peggy” couch was, ideally, supposed to last. One to three years, they inform her.
Last year, the interior-design start-up Homepolish collapsed; last month, Casper made its disappointing IPO; last week, Outdoor Voices CEO Tyler Haney stepped down amid reports that her company, based on tastefully colored leggings, was losing cash. Design created an astonishing amount of value in the last ten years, and increasingly that value looks ephemeral. I remember visiting WeWork corporate offices in early 2016 and telling a friend that the space already felt period — larded and spackled with efforts to look designed ca. 2016, which now sounds like a very long time ago. Of course, I can also look around my apartment and see what threatens to wilt: boob poster, pink blanket, plants. We have lived through a moment in which design came to seem like something besides what it was, like a business model or a virtue or a consolation prize. The sense of safety promised in its soft, clean forms begins to look less optimistic than naïve."