weekly feature | Oct 6, 2021 |
Design memes are here. What do they mean?

Last year, I started noticing something funny happening to my Instagram feed. The endless flow of pristine houses and beautiful rooms was starting to be interrupted by content that was, well, weird. Cartoon frogs were making jokes about Vladimir Kagan. Shiba Inus were weighing in on modernist architecture. Willy Wonka had feelings about chinoiserie. It had finally happened: meme culture had come to design.

You know what memes are, even if you think you don’t. If you’ve spent any time on social media, you’ve seen them—clever pop cultural references remixed to make a wry joke or a pointed statement. A recent example: Take a screenshot of Oprah throwing up her hands in disgust during her blockbuster interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex. Slap the text “So if we could all turn our cameras on … ” on top of it, and presto! You have a meme about how exhausting pandemic-era Zoom meetings have become. (Like all jokes, memes are better experienced than described.)

Visually playful, attention-grabbing and endlessly copied, memes have transcended individual platforms, making the leap from message boards to Twitter, Instagram and now TikTok to become the lingua franca of the internet. In recent years, that language has grown into a kind of culture.

On Instagram, there are accounts with millions of followers whose raison d’être is to make and share memes. Memes have also gotten increasingly niche—if you have a hobby, however esoteric, there are memes for it. (Watch collecting? Yep. Dressage? You know it.) Even memeing itself has splintered into subgenres, from accounts specializing in anime references to posters that barrage followers with a flurry of deliberately crude, frequently bizarre memes (“shitposting” is the term of art).

Generally speaking, meme culture flourishes within communities that are extremely online and predisposed to a dark sense of humor. In other words, not design. But that has been changing.

Many of the design world’s best-known meme accounts are dedicated to architecture. One of the most prominent is @dank.lloyd.wright, an account run by a team of admins that posts deliberately obscure commentary about architectural theory and culture. A typical example: an image of Swiss architect Hannes Meyer’s famously spartan bedroom with the text “Men live like this and see keine problem.” It’s utterly impenetrable to the average viewer, but for those in the know, it’s a riff on (a) Bauhaus austerity, (b) the German language (keine means “no”), and (c) a popular meme that mocks men for their sparsely decorated apartments.

Then there are the furniture meme accounts that have sprung up in recent years, ranging from @worstsofas (it delivers what the name implies) to the uber-popular @pleasehatethesethings, which collects despicable decor choices. A personal favorite is @northwest_mcm_wholesale, an account run by a Portland, Oregon–based furniture dealer who goes by the satirical pseudonym “Herman Wakefield” (a pun combining Herman Miller and Heywood-Wakefield).

Wakefield posts daily, sometimes hourly, about the trials and tribulations of a vintage picker—from sellers who list trashed furniture as “having patina” to the unreliability of uShip. As with many meme accounts, his posts come fast and furious, and are often intentionally crude (it would be fair to call Herman Wakefield a shitposter). They’re also frequently hilarious, and have garnered him an enthusiastic following.

“It’s weird, but I have a lot of design accounts with blue check marks following me and reaching out,” he tells Business of Home. “I think you'd be surprised at how much [interior designers] are into memes."

Maybe there’s no greater sign that design is embracing meme culture than the fact that Architectural Digest’s digital-only offshoot Clever recently posted an article rounding up some of the more popular Instagram accounts. Once AD has weighed in, it’s official: Design memes have arrived. “I sent that article to my mom,” says Wakefield. “And she was like, ‘What is this?’ But after spending a few minutes, she was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t stop laughing.’”

You may be asking: So what? Is there anything more to this than jokes on the internet? Well, yes and no.

For those who run popular meme accounts, there can be a tangible reward to a very unique kind of internet celebrity: @dank_lloyd_wright has collaborated on real-world exhibitions. Herman Wakefield told me that the popularity of @northwest_mcm_wholesale has been a career booster. “This is what’s funny: I have a dialogue with these dealers I looked up to and respected who had no idea who I was. I’ve sold things through the account. I’ve made connections through the account. It’s been a huge benefit.”

For the rest of us, generally speaking, the takeaway from a meme is a wry smile of recognition or a groan at a clumsy joke. They’re entertainment. But memes, oddly, are also a great way to learn.

The humor of memes lowers your guard, and their weirdness provokes your curiosity. Just as you learn more from a funny, quirky professor in college than you do a dry, serious one, memes make information stick. (Among the things I’ve learned from design meme accounts: what “the corner problem” in architecture is; the telltale signs of a fake Noguchi coffee table; and how to pronounce Milo Baughman’s name.)

More importantly, memes have become a vehicle for satire and social critique. For one, they tend to be anonymous, giving their authors the freedom to speak plainly. For another, the fact that memes are funny gives them another kind of cover (though memes are not immune from lawsuits, rare is the company that will sue over a Kermit the Frog JPEG). They travel well, too. An impassioned essay can change a few minds, but a sharp satirical meme can go viral, drawing widespread attention to an issue almost overnight.

Herman Wakefield originally started his account partially as a way to point out dubious practices from fellow dealers. He has since dialed back on blasting specific people, but still polices bad-faith practices in more general terms. (He’s also not above the occasional callout: A recent series of posts pointed out an allegedly fake listing by a prominent dealer that has since been taken down.)

“I’ve noticed that people are stopping some of the stuff, like [posting] a Milo Baughman that’s not correct. Friends send me listings that say ‘Lou Hodges style’ as opposed to ‘Lou Hodges,’ and tell me, ‘That’s because of you!’” he says. “It’s helped a little bit, but it hasn’t made me a ton of friends.”

The @dank.lloyd.wright account is at times explicitly activist. It has drawn attention to everything from architect Philip Johnson’s fascist tendencies to hiring practices at the internationally renowned architecture firm OMA. (The company posted a job listing with the bullet point “No 9-5 mentality,” which kicked off relentless, often hilarious, criticism from @dank.lloyd.wright, attacking the company for exploitative labor practices—according to a later post, the listing was eventually amended.)

On the interior design side of the industry, though accounts like the now-defunct @theoldhousebeautiful (which critiqued the beloved magazine’s social media relaunch) and @DesignWithinCopy (which continues to call out alleged instances of design plagiarism) aren’t exactly meme-specific, they have tapped into the same spirit of humorous, no-holds-barred commentary, cloaked by internet anonymity.

Whether you agree with a particular post, or even the perspective of an entire account, it’s not hard to see the role memes serve in an industry like design, where an elevated tone and a facade of sunny positivity is the norm. Memes are a pressure release valve, a way to voice awkward or unpleasant truths that usually go unsaid.

If nothing else, they’re also a fun diversion—and potentially an obsession. In what felt like a meaningful coincidence, I happened to connect with Herman Wakefield on the day of the Instagram outage. “This is good, actually,” he said. “I might actually get some work done today.”

Homepage photo: Adobe Stock/©Rido

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