Wallpaper Not Required

There's an interesting, let's be generous and call it a feature, of modern residential architecture.

Much of it looks remarkably similar to much of the rest of it. Bright white interiors. Bauhaus structure. Black exteriors.

I recently bemoaned how some things look similar, because they're made of the same things, with the same end goals in mind, resulting in base form that looks near identical from piece to piece. However, those things are differentiated by what I'll call wallpaper, for lack of a better term. Outward design details, which make no singular difference to the product, but allow for a statement to be made. This product is business-focused, this is for when I'm at home, this one signals I'm fashionable, while another says I'm a hipster.

A mug holds drink. What it looks like then is all about signaling, and very little to do with how well it works as a mug. Similarly with laptops, kitchen knives (unless you're a chef), BBQs, wallpaper, wines... Most things in life, we choose because of what they signal, not because of how they work.

Which brings me to modern residential architecture. What is it that's happened that every architect feels the need to build a house where everything inside is white and squares and straight lines?

They feels like houses designed by Apple, and I don't mean that in a good way.

A Macbook sells well, because it is a mass-market commodity item. It's exactly as inoffensive and boring as it is possible to be. Essentially three materials (aluminium, glass, plastic for keys), very simple, repetitive shapes. There's nothing to dislike about it, but there's no substance there either. There's no personality. And what could be more personal than the building you live your life in? Why wouldn't you want that to be the grandest statement of all about you? Surely to commission another Bauhaus box is to say "I'm devoid of original ideas".

It's a complaint I have about much of the Bauhaus influenced modern school of design. Everything is stripped back to the minimum required for it to function and be usable. In that paring back process however, things are stripped of their soul. What we end up producing is something that's technically excellent, but boring to live with. Things should be initially simple so when texture is added its presence enhances, not devalues.

With that in mind then, why does no-one design a house anymore to have wallpaper? A daring design would be one that looked good with a life's worth of stuff in it. Made to look great, after the couple and 2.4 children have moved in and made a mess. Slate and oak and steel are materials, not decoration by default. Too much is made nowadays of putting the materials on show, as a way of hiding from having to think about how to make an interior beautiful.

This isn't just something that happens with houses either. Why does everyone try to build Apple's products? Certainly they're profitable, but Samsung only started making great phones after they moved on from trying to make the most iPhone-esque phone they could. Now they outsell Apple. Baume et Mercier make a beautiful watch, because they're not trying to make a Rolex. Dyson weren't trying to be Hoover, Ghost aren't trying to be WordPress, and Country Life don't try and be GQ.

So why are all the architects trying to be Walter Gropius? Why is everyone trying to be the visibly successful someone else, instead of being the quietly successful themselves?

A white box, like the aluminium slab, the slate tile, and the manicured lawn are simple things. They're also boring.

The canvas is only beautiful when it meets paint.

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