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September 20, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Capital A: Dissing Dwell: Unhappy Hipsters

“As twilight approached, he reclined in his plywood cubby, illuminated by the glow of the spare bulb and his humming laptop, searching eBay for Salinger first-editions. (And no, he didn’t miss her. Not one bit.)”—Unhappy Hipsters

Anyone who has experienced house envy as they flick through the pages of glossy interiors magazines such as Dwell or Wallpaper* has likely been consoled by the belief that the people who reside in those desirable, neo-modern mini-mansions are nearly always, at the end of the day, very lonely.

Providing compelling support for this idea is the website unhappyhipsters.com. The entertaining photoblog ‘borrows’ images of minimalist homes from the pages of design magazines and adds Twitter-esque captions to help convey the mirthless style of deadpan, design magazine photography, and the modern houses that are its subject matter. The photographs, pinched directly from the likes of Dwell, show the various models and homeowners skulking around their sleek, modern abodes without a single smile between them—their expressionless gazes lit by diffuse and slightly unsaturated colour.

Accompanying each of the image posts is a (sometimes) amusing caption, supplied by the site’s anonymous administrator, that adds a wry commentary to the lonesome scenes. One-liners like, “She hated the green felt. She was going to jump”, and the one above only serve to further convey the futility of the models’ existence, asking the question: Is there some truth to the blog’s subtitle “It’s Lonely in the Modern World”? Is it possible that the image of modern living forced upon us by these publications creates spaces that can make us feel downright blue?

The blog is appealing in the way it asks questions of the home environments sold to us by these magazines as ‘the most desirable’. On one hand, it presents a satirical take on the homogenity of so-called ‘modern’ design, while on the other it suggests (more ominously) that the architectural interiors—which we all seem to admire enough to continue buying these magazines—are deeply flawed. What it is exactly about these environments that gives off the ‘hopeless vibe’ is a source for speculation, however, some psychologists believe they have the answer—and apparently it’s all a function of our ancestral selves.

It is already widely accepted that our environments can have significant bearing on our moods and behaviour. Colours can both calm and enrage us, and certain shapes and arrangements can influence our attitudes and actions. The houses featured in Dwell are, more often than not, stark, minimalist creations with sparsely furnished living areas, a couple of designer-type objects and few traces of actual human habitation. The neutral, earthen tones of the spaces present a dispassionate backdrop to the recurring hard-edged, angular forms that are a common attribute of these foreboding atmospheres.

A 2007 study published in the journal Neuropsychologia revealed that boxy, angular forms can have an unconscious emotional effect on us. Apparently, viewing these shapes triggers activation in the amygdala, a small bit in the front of our brains associated with emotional memory and, in particular, fear. Although we may not consciously recognise this sense of fear, this triggering of activity can aid in generating any apprehensive feelings we might have towards these spaces. The standing hypothesis is that, in nature, angles usually suggest something to watch out for, like a tree branch or a sharp rock around which a heightened sense of attention and caution is necessary. Their translation into the home environment through the medium of advertising and the design magazine has left us all lusting after homes that are in actual fact ‘uncomfortable’ spaces.

According to evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, the “belief that human tastes are reversible cultural preferences has led social planners to write off people’s enjoyment of ornament, natural light, and human scale” effectively forcing “millions of people to live in drab cement boxes”, or at least aspire to, as is marketed to us by the vast majority of design magazines. The idea of a collective aesthetic conscience manipulated by these magazines and the notion that design could be responsible for much of the loneliness of our environments today is a truly disheartening thought, but all is not lost. Studies such as these also show promise that in the future we will better understand how spaces influence emotional wellbeing, and we can take heart in the idea that in the coming years we will have a better idea of how to design houses that make us smile. In the meantime, at least we can read Unhappy Hipsters in its fight against neo-modern doldrums.

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