It pains me to say it, as the hipster aesthetic is my default setting, but the charcoal walls, the vintage typewriters and globes, and all those taxidermied animals and their staring dead glass eyes are getting out of control. This thought coalesced into belief on my part when I spent a bit of time in the Ace Hotel lobby in New York last month.
Everything that is of the moment in terms of the hipster look is gathered together in one place at the Ace: absinthe-tinged lighting, wool and leather finishes, old library tables, lots of oak and steel, dead animals encased in vintage glass, even a photo booth. But none of these things are an aesthetic hurdle — in fact, for me personally, the celebration of the pre-synthetic life as demonstrated through the display of botanical charts and typewriters is my favorite look. The problem comes in the excess and lack of balance, and, worst of all, in the heaping helping of irony that is served up alongside these trappings of another era.
1) All Vintage, All the Time One of the hallmarks of great design is a layered look, which involves mixing the old with the new. If the goal is to have a home that looks as though it has evolved over time, then you need to strike a balance between looking like a furniture showroom or, on the other end of the spectrum, a thrift store. Strive for something in between that new-car smell and the smell of mothballs. Of course this sort of interior — the one that looks like it’s evolved over time — is not the goal of every designer. But it should be, unless a designer is a sort of Frank Lloyd Wright or a character in an Ayn Rand novel. (Then a designer falls into the Big Idea Designer category and is outside the realm of anything covered in this post.)
The thing about an unrelenting vintage interior is that it is unrelenting. There is nowhere to take a visual break, or a physical break, at least without thinking, Is that safe to touch/sit on/look at? Is this upholstery harboring a circa-1930s malady? I’m sure, at least in the case of the Ace Hotel, much of what I was looking at was new, but while caking everything in a dust bowl patina can seem charming in theory, it all can be a bit…monotonous after a while. A sort of theme park ride into the past, lit by a single naked bulb. No not really — the hotel lighting was just designed to seem that way in order to force you deeper down the depression-era rabbit hole. I will admit that everyone looks a whole lot more attractive in a crowded dimly-lit lobby, especially after a round of absinthe.
2) Vintage Served Straight-up, Without a Twist I’ll take my vintage without the exhausting side serving of irony. The Ace covers every surface with relics of the past, including wool coverlets on the beds and cast iron plumbing pipes for toilet paper holders, with a sort of wink. They have little signs to inform you in myriad clever ways that none of this is serious. Relentless hipster decor with its sense of irony is sort of like experiencing an old man’s house without the old man. Who was kind of a pain anyway, what with all those stories he told about World War II and life before the polio vaccine. But his old man stuff is cool! The empty coffee cans he used for tomato seedlings, the bearskin rug from one of his hunting trips, his old army-issued duffel bag — all of it was great before but now it’s even better, because you can prop it all around you and enjoy the contrast it provides to your high-tech life, enjoying all this stuff free of the old man himself, with those stories you’ve heard a million times and that flat root beer he always offers you, poured by a shaky hand into a smudged vintage glass.
3) Heavy on the Irony, Light on Respect. Now this might seem a bit of a stretch, but hear me out. At the risk of losing the few of you still with me, I submit that the heavy-on-the-irony approach to vintage style is, in a sense, disrespectful.
Our forebears did not live their lives — getting black & white photos taken in those goofy clothes, using crazy things like washtubs and wooden crates, spending hours sewing apron after apron — for our amusement. Maps and charts were not drawn, painted and printed, animals were not killed and stuffed and mounted, bakelite telephones were not manufactured so that our interiors could be enhanced with a sense of would-you-look-at-all-this-quaint-old-junk a century later. This stuff is the evidence of real people who came before us, the evidence that they found ways to survive when that idea actually meant something. For a respectful take on pre-synthetic style, check out a Coen Brothers movie, like Miller’s Crossing, or O Brother Where Art Thou or, especially, Barton Fink. These filmmakers take the past very seriously, even in their semi-comedies, and while the movies are styled to period-perfection, sometimes to the point of visual exhaustion, there is not a hint of self-awareness, the winking at the audience with the shared understanding that we live in a better time, and would never wear this weird stuff or have such ridiculous occupations. To put it even more strongly, there is never the implied mockery of the lives who came before us and all their accouterment, including the hair tonic bottles, sagging mattresses, and belts made from a length of rope.
I don’t think you have to sentimentalize the past, and I’m all for re-interpreting a formerly functional piece as something purely decorative, but I think vintage style should always exist in the context of contemporary style. Placing these pieces in a modern context enhances the sense of the past (seeing it alongside the present) and undermines the sideshow aspect of seeing history in decorative terms only. This idea became real to me after I used my grandmother’s wedding photo for a series of graphics I created for an event. There my grandma was in black and white from all the way back in 1939, looking girlish and lovely and very otherworldly, plastered all over the event’s posters and tickets. And when my grandma saw all the printed materials I created using her image, I expected her to be pleased with how it all turned out, pleased with how charming and vintage-esque it all was. Instead she just seemed a little taken aback. It occurred to me that I had used a highly personal image — what represented an actual memory for her — to create a facsimile of the past, of the perceived quaintness of all those people who came before, all for the sake of creating atmosphere for a bunch of total strangers.
Since then I’ve seen things, by which I mean literal things — the washtubs and the crates and the old aprons — a bit differently. Of course we’re going to use the detritus of former lives without treating each flea market photograph as if it belongs in a museum. But we also have to find a way to avoid treating these things as though they are novelty items, super cool for a while before being tossed back onto the dust heap for another version of what we all love, love, love now — to put it into current parlance. True vintage style lasts forever, while hipster decor is of the moment. And while I enjoy the moment as much as the next typewriter aficionado, I have come to realize that I want my interiors to reflect a style that will exist long after I’ve joined the ranks of all the people who have come before me, the ones in the black & white photographs, those relics of another time.