Function is out and fantasy is in. For a few years, the dominant aesthetic was sparse and industrial; ‘Modernism 2.0’ stripped design back to the raw materials, with untreated concrete, open brickwork and bare lightbulbs the ubiquitous signs of a wider cultural trend towards exposure and deconstruction. But those days are over. Decadent maximalism is back. Just look at The Wing London, the much-discussed all-women members’ club housed in a five-storey Fitzrovia townhouse, lavishly bedecked in chessboard tiles, pastel velvets and bold wallpapers. Hilary Koyfman, who worked on the early design, described the aesthetic as ‘like Mad Men – without the men’, but commentators on Twitter have offered different associations: Nathan Ma compared it to a ‘Katy Perry immersive Instagram experience’, while Moya Lothian-McLean deemed it ‘a Willy Wonka nightmare’. Or, consider the new London pop-up of US cosmetics brand Glossier, which is pitched as a ‘floral wonderland’. Lauren O’Neill, reviewing the store for Vice, similarly emphasized the Willy Wonka-esque quality of the shopping ‘experience’. Yet, despite whimsically small doors and staff dressed Oompa Loompa-like in baby-pink boiler suits, the space more closely evokes a postmodern Palace of Versailles. Wingback chairs sit next to heavy floral drapes; gold wall lamps line the corridors; bouquets of oversized fake roses endlessly reflect in mirrors adorned with the phrase: ‘YOU LOOK GOOD’. Goodbye utilitarian minimalism, hello rosy utopia.
Yet, this maximalist turn cannot purely be explained by the notion of a ‘natural backlash’ to minimalism. Notably, this carnival of feminine overstimulation is repeatedly associated with women’s empowerment and social change. The Wing describes its ‘mission’ as ‘the professional, civic, social and economic advancement of women through community’, and the application form requires potential members to describe how they have ‘promoted or supported’ this ‘mission’. Similarly, the AllBright women-only members’ clubs (all adorned with velvet, boldly patterned upholstery and a lot of pink), claim to ‘celebrate and champion women to inspire change’. Glossier’s founder Emily Weiss, who attended The Wing’s opening party in New York in 2016, supposedly took inspiration from British social clubs for the London pop-up store and, like these contemporary clubs, Glossier also positions its business (currently valued at US$1.2 billion) in relation to women’s advancement in the workplace. For every limited-edition umbrella (pink, of course) bought the brand will donate GB£5 to the Young Women’s Trust, a charity ‘working to achieve economic justice’, which supports young women ‘struggling to live on low or no pay, to get into work’. Buying into these corporations’ decadent spaces is therefore conceived as an ethical investment in women’s work. This new maximalism must then be understood as the aesthetic of the aspirational female entrepreneur. So, why all the whimsy?
Alongside interior design’s resurgent interest in ornamental lushness, the art world has seen a number of major international exhibitions foregrounding Pattern and Decoration (P&D) – an oft-neglected movement of the 1970s that rejected modernist restraint and embraced craft, colour and pastiche. Since 2018’s ‘Surface/Depth: The Decorative after Miriam Schapiro’ at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, four further exhibitions have looked to reassess the movement’s legacy, with the latest – MOCA Los Angeles’s ‘With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972–85’ – opening last month. Central to them all is the notion of the decorative sensibility as an anti-hierarchical force; in its press materials, MOCA explicitly refers to the movement’s ‘defiant embrace of forms traditionally coded as feminine, domestic, ornamental or craft-based and thought to be categorically inferior to fine art’. Schapiro’s femmages (a portmanteau of ‘feminine’, ‘collage’ and ‘homage’), which she produced from the 1970s onwards, encapsulate this. With multiple patterns overlaid in sentimental formats such as fans or hearts, these works revel in excess, reclaiming techniques historically associated with women’s work and challenging how ‘serious’ art is defined. Indeed, even the exhibition titles – ‘With Pleasure’, ‘Ornament as Promise’ and, succinctly, ‘Less Is a Bore’ – signal how P&D’s maximalism is characterized as an exuberant project of pleasure, play and optimism.
It is this spirit that The Wing and Glossier attempt to invoke with their maximalist designs. Pattern and ornament are perceived as signs of freedom and tools for the destabilization of gendered hierarchy. This is how The Wing’s website can claim it’s ‘a throne away from home’, allowing women to ‘spend hours plotting with your co-founder’ while ‘trading tips in the beauty room’: play, pleasure and the cultivation of beauty are understood as integral elements of an optimistic feminist politics. In an era threatened by an emboldened far-right, asserting the value of pleasure is undeniably appealing. Yet, what this conceals is how, in the period since the P&D movement, the boundary between work and play has been troubled by neoliberalism’s insistence that pleasure and profit can, and should, co-exist harmoniously. What these corporate playgrounds truly demonstrate is how the radical potential of ‘playful’ and ‘zany’ aesthetics can be appropriated to mask a capitalist logic, which conceives materialistic motivations existing in tandem – rather than in tension – with the desire for freedom and self-expression. To understand these enterprises as feminist or anti-hierarchical relies on deception: with London membership of The Wing costing GB£1836 annually, not everyone can join the club. Exclusivity is cloaked as inclusive community, escapism is dressed up as empowerment, and philanthropy is used to deflect from profit motive. As Jia Tolentino writes in Trick Mirror (2019), ‘women are genuinely trapped at the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy’, yet ‘the trap looks beautiful. It’s well-lit. It welcomes you in.’ Ultimately, the right description for this contemporary aesthetic isn’t decorative maximalism, it’s kitsch.
Matei Călinescu, author of Five Faces of Modernity (1977), argues: ‘Kitsch is a world of aesthetic make-believe and self-deception’, a ‘response to the widespread modern sense of spiritual vacuum’ that fills ‘empty spaces with an infinitely variegated assortment of “beautiful” appearances’. In other words, kitsch perpetuates oppression by distracting people from their social alienation with pleasurable surfaces. In this sense, the popularity of the current kitsch aesthetic signals the triumph of ‘cupcake fascism’. Defined by Tom Whyman in a 2014 article for The Guardian, ‘cupcake fascism’ is a nostalgic movement expressing the desire of an infantilized populace to ‘go into hiding’ while imposing bourgeois values. Surely The Wing’s and Glossier’s projects are summed up by Whyman’s belief that ‘you could get a huge mass of people to participate in a reactionary endeavour if you dressed it up in nice, twee, cupcakey imagery, and persuaded everyone that the brutality of your ideology was, in fact, a form of niceness’.
Under late capitalism, companies like Glossier, The Allbright and The Wing offer women luxurious ‘treats’ while profiting from their desire to escape or reform society’s ills. These neoliberal feminist spaces are less like Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, where the most deserving gets the reward, than the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz (1939): the gleaming palace and magic tricks are just that – a trick. The Yellow Brick Road doesn’t lead to utopia. But, of course, the surface sparkles beautifully.
Main image: The Wing, London, 2019. Courtesy: The Wing, London; photograph: Tory Williams
Eloise Hendy is a poet and writer living in London. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ambit, The Tangerine, Emotional Art Magazine and The Stinging Fly among others, and she was recently shortlisted for The White Review’s ‘Poet’s Prize 2018’