Sometime around 2012, standing next to our picture editor, I realised we had a problem. We were laying out photographs for a story about the latest buzzing district of some big western city. The shots were new and yet oddly familiar. The bars had bare-brick walls and exposed-filament bulbs, polished concrete floors and encaustic tiles. The hotels had pink walls, mid-century furniture, lights by Jieldé or Lampe Gras and an abundance of succulents. We could have been looking at London or New York, Sydney or Paris — everywhere, it dawned on us, was starting to look the same.
Of course there have always been trends in architecture and interior design, in food and fashion — think of Art Deco sweeping luxury hotels and liners in the 1930s. But this is different, in both speed and scale. Today’s trends circle the world with viral efficiency, borne by ever growing numbers of travellers but more importantly by Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr. They span social strata and star ratings, working their way simultaneously into pop-up dive bars and the most lavish hotels.
Take the humble flat white, first mentioned in a British newspaper in 2001, when a travel piece about Melbourne in The Observer (wrongly) told readers it was “a milky filter coffee”. By the late noughties it was available in a few coffee bars in Soho, but still referred to in newspapers with quotation marks and parenthetical explanations. Then suddenly it was in every city, every chain café, even McDonald’s. What might previously have been a small part of the local colour that animated a visit to Melbourne is now so ubiquitous as to be unworthy of mention.
All coffee shops are starting to look the same: cafés resemble work spaces, shops, bars, hotels and everything else
The same for Aperol Spritz — once a treat discovered on a holiday to Treviso or Venice, now available on every corner in Shoreditch and Brooklyn — and even more so for craft beer. A decade ago travel writers started sending pitches about the burgeoning craft beer scene in a particular city. Within a year or two, the trickle had become a torrent and it became clear every city (and many small towns) in the western world had a burgeoning craft beer scene. So why travel to visit one, when there is probably a craft brewery a couple of blocks from your house? The beer probably tastes the same, too.
The spread of the “hipster aesthetic” has been increasingly commented on. In a 2016 essay for the tech website The Verge, Brooklyn-based writer Kyle Chayka dubbed the style “AirSpace” and noted not just that all coffee shops are starting to look the same, but that cafés resemble work spaces, shops, bars, hotels and everything else. Even Airbnb, which was supposed to be a shortcut into the heart of local cultures, has ended up fostering a creeping sameness, “an extension of Ikea showrooms”, according to one designer Chayka interviewed.
And now, what were signifiers of the alternative and homespun are being commercialised and repackaged for the mainstream. In 2016, Thomas Cook, the package holiday behemoth with a staff of 22,000, launched Casa Cook, a new sub-brand of Insta-ready hotels designed specifically for “young modern travellers, from urban centres who have an affinity for fashion and design”. (Cue polished concrete, succulents, industrial lighting.) Last week it announced Cook’s Club — same look, but more rooms, and at a price designed to attract an even wider audience.
How should we travel, then, in this AirSpace age? For some, the answer seems to be for travel to become more inward-looking. Rather than travel to explore other cultures, you head to a minimal but stylish cabin in the woods to stare at the trees, muse on mindfulness and catch up on your reading. Cynics (like me) call it “boredom tourism”. Others are literally turning the camera around, their wanderlust limited to finding the best backdrop for an Insta shot in which they are the focus in every sense.
Another solution is to reach ever further off the beaten track in search of novelty and authenticity. Hence the rush to get into previously “off-limits” countries — Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Rwanda — as soon as the political situation permits. Wilderness, too, is being fetishised as never before. Witness the sudden rash of books and websites about remote bothies in the Highlands, off-grid and unchanging.
But you don’t have to go to North Korea to have an authentic experience. The paradox of AirSpace, for urban-dwellers at least, is that you can fly to the other side of the world and end up in a neighbourhood that looks strikingly similar to the one you left, but travel an hour outside the city and you will probably find things very different. Brighton, on England’s south coast, was last week named in a study by relocation company MoveHub as the world’s “most hipster” city, with 37 vegan restaurants, 125 coffee shops and nine record stores per 100,000 people. But travel six miles and you come to Fulking, a hamlet of pretty cottages with a 14th-century pub, The Shepherd & Dog, at its heart. Sit outside, stare up at the South Downs, and you will be part of a scene little-altered in centuries, immune to fads and fashions. Just don’t order the craft beer.
- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.