We’d clumsily called these places “Tumblr style“, „Hipster“, „Instagrammy“. In 2010, what we tried to describe was a universal aesthetic in artists and students neighborhoods which seemed to independently rise out of nowhere; an urban phenomena with no apt description – until now. Kyle Chayka calls it AirSpace.
The concept should be familiar to most readers who’ve lately traveled to a Western metropolis and like to indulge in coffee: concrete walls without color or wallpaper, wooden vintage furniture and stainless steel coffee machines, decorated with sparse succulents, a little bit of art (neon-signs, framed posters with ironic messages) and an otherwise minimal design. The food is served on wooden cutting boards or in retro enamel bowls. Free Wi-Fi is usually prevalent. A little bit of Bauhaus thrown into the mix; possibly Eames chairs.
Even the food is usually similar. Avocado toast, vegan carrot cake, the obligatory flat white. The coffee beans are roasted freshly and soy milk costs a little bit extra. Simple design. Pricier than other cafés. When a café like that opens in the neighborhood, people start talking about gentrification.
In Berlin, a few examples of that specific aesthetic come to mind (especially demonstrated through the respective Instagram accounts).
How the Internet shapes our city
„Welcome to AirSpace“ was published earlier this month on The Verge. In it, author Kyle Chavka analyzes the unifying elements of these places as signifiers for something he calls AirSpace. AirSpace is not limited to cafés: co-working spaces, restaurants, vintage shops and even house rentals seem to follow the same unwritten design guidelines. As these similar places are being found all over the world – with patrons who all look eerily alike and who work in related tech fields – Chayka finds a connection between their individual design choices (he calls them faux-artisanal) and what they symbolize (affluence and taste), and identifies Silicon Valley as the source of the phenomenon.
I am intrigued by the article. My BA thesis (Cultural Sciences & Sociology) revolved around visual depictions in social media and how they create a new spatial experience not bound to a nationality, a community or even a fixed location. AirSpace is the manifestation of a specific online community in physical space, and is shaped by the same elements that constitute the infrastructure of the WWW: „The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers (…) take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started“.
Consuming aesthetics, consuming individuality
Kyle Chayka goes on to describe how AirBnB has capitalized on this aesthetic movement in particular – and consequently sold out on the (alleged) exclusivity of the style. Where AirBnB, start-ups and tech-oriented „Millennial“ enterprises used to be daring and disrupting, they have turned into machines of Fordian dimensions. The former Starbucks guest – not the avant-garde Silicon Valley techie – prefers a more fashionable environment and indulges in craft beer. He’s not part of what the aesthetic symbolizes or what shapes it, but he consumes it as a lifestyle. When Starbucks starts stripping off their walls, we will know that it worked. Chayka calls this process gentrification, which is incredibly paradoxical. Is it possible to gentrify lifestyles (decidedly not subcultures) built upon the premise of profit?
The customer eats, drinks and enjoys a reproduced experience sold as tasteful individuality, inspired by Instagram and Tumblr and Pinterest (as opposed to the TV and the theatre in the 90s and 2000s). AirBnB is creating generic tour guides now and features apartments that look the same, all over the world: an individual, aesthetically high-valued, affluent and exclusive experience – straight off the assembly line.
In my thesis I discovered that many social media influencers in Berlin are bored, or at least hesitant, when they stumble upon yet another café with such a depersonalized interior. Not because they don’t like it, but because they’ve learned that this design is being leveraged on Instagram and Facebook to sell vacations, restaurants and lifestyle products. They are themselves part of a scene that understands how to leverage visual characteristics to successfully develop reach and engagement among their followers – and that they’re being fooled. They’ve come to the conclusion that the symbols of AirSpace are the new point of sale for their demographic. The symbolic exclusivity of good, minimal taste is a constructed, inauthentic illusion (it’s not surprising that you rarely see social interaction on these sterile Instagram pictures of AirSpace and their „cactus brutalism avocado toast“ still lifes).
Leaving AirSpace: Seeking Individuality
Their reaction has become to avoid such places, and to possibly seek less sanitized geographies. My interview partners saw Snapchat as an exemplary tool that worked in spite of the successful AirSpace aesthetic. Fleeting, with rather bad quality resolutions and an inherent silliness, it is the ultimate reactionary tool to the monumental, self-selling powers of Instagram. It feels more intimate to use Snapchat as it allegedly works as communication tool for the user and their friends, not a marketing catalog of top-model people and top-model interior design.
Chayka recommends seeking out difference in spatial matters, too: to „become more invested in the local than the mobile – to opt for the flawed community bed & breakfast rather than the temporary, immaculate apartment.“
But he falls into the same logic that made AirSpace possible and prevalent to begin with: the need to be individual and different, to fuel the particularly post-modern behavior of distinction („You either belong to the AirSpace class, or you don’t“). Social distinction does not hold an immanent threat, but when it’s practiced by consumption exclusively – instead of social relationships and resonance – we fall into the same marketing trap again, scrambling for products symbols and design that mark our special and creative territory. But what’s special to us will be generic soon, when it’s sold as packaged experience.
Your lifestyle is always on sale.
Header and gallery images: Sara Shakur