Very rarely do you see the word hilarious in the same sentence as the word architecture. There might be joy, of a high-flown, transcendent, quasi-religious kind, or pleasure variously luxurious or minimalist, aesthetic or ascetic, but we don’t see many straight-up gags. Reverence is the order of the day. Irreverence won’t do; architecture has been so carefully, so self-consciously constructed as a high-cultural form that even when it tries for whimsy or populism, this too is filtered through a lens of serious high-mindedness, and even the lightest and most populist building or idea or text can come across as pretentious or, worse yet, as sneering mannerism. What a mob of funsters we all are.
But the use of humor in architectural and design criticism is, blessedly, relatively common. Indeed, throughout the history of architecture, often the only way to smuggle critique into the master’s house has been in the guise of a joke. The amusing has long been tolerated and even invited under the carefully circumscribed — some would say marginalized — terms of critique. Perhaps this is not surprising — satire, parody, pastiche, irony and even burlesque are each equally forms of humor and critique. Why wouldn’t critics use all the tools at their disposal? Why wouldn’t critics sometimes assume the role, or the cover, of court jester?
Consider, as a case in point, the long lineage of the cartoon as a medium (or is it a form? a genre?) for design and architectural critique. Some have argued that cartoons are relatively safe; they are less exposed to lawsuits than textual or photographic critique because a drawing can suggest a building or style with no need to specifically (slanderously, libelously) identify it. 1 Whatever the reason, the tradition of Anglophone architectural critics/cartoonists is long and illustrious: Osbert Lancaster, Alan Dunn, Louis Hellman, George Molnar, Geoffrey Atherden, and on it goes. Today the tradition is continued online by cartoonists of variable funniness, one of the better ones being il Pelicano.
Some cartoonists engage in satire, with differing degrees of vehemence, while others traffic in knowing critiques of the venality of the profession or venture gentle observations about professional and social mores. They are united by the quality of charm, which (sometimes) softens the incisiveness of their observations — mockery can, after all, be sympathetic as well as excoriating. Hellman’s cartoons, for example, seek to prick the pretensions of the profession, to skewer its excesses and vanities, while Lancaster’s tended more toward affable caricature. (One obituary described him as “the most polite and unsplenetic of cartoonists … never a crusader, remaining always a witty, civilized critic with a profound understanding of the vagaries of human nature.”) 2 Alan Dunn, longtime cartoonist for The New Yorker, was described by Lewis Mumford as “obviously a better architect than the architects whose fashionable clichés and grim follies he exposes.” In the foreword to Dunn’s 1971 Architecture Observed, Mumford praises the cartoonist for “clearing the air … [with] laughter,” and suggests that Dunn’s “urbane satiric style, deft but merciless,” is exactly “what has been missing from contemporary criticism in all the arts.” Dunn apparently defined himself as a “social cartoonist, whose pen is no sword but a titillating feather that reminds us that we do not act as we speak or think.” 3
Actually architectural cartoons are not my main concern here. But to speak of clearing the air with laughter, of a style both deft and merciless, of criticism as a “titillating feather” — all this brings me to my subject, which I would like to suggest is one of the foremost inheritors of the architectural cartoonist’s genial crusade to be amusing and critical. I’m talking about a blog, or to be precise, a Tumblr. I’m talking about Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table.
I clearly remember my first visit to FYNCT. I’d seen some appreciative references here and there but, without really thinking about it, had avoided the site because I assumed it’d be lewd — people having sex with “designer” furniture, that sort of thing. Not that the internet doesn’t have some great material on that theme — the now dormant Just Another Ikea Catalogue, for instance, was a piece of NSFW genius — but I was at work, and not in the mood, so for a while I ignored FYNCT. Until I didn’t; but even then I was confused. I scrolled down the page, past image upon image of artfully styled and painfully modish interiors, each with its simple caption: “Fuck your antlers.” “Fuck your giant wall word.” “Fuck your old ladder that you use to hang things on.” “Fuck your tiny succulent array that sits atop a series of book stacks.” Okay; but what was going on? Elements and artifacts within each pictured interior were being named with meticulous, haiku-like precision, only so that each and all could be violently rejected. What’s so funny about that?
It wasn’t until I got to a SUPER COMBO SUNDAY that the penny dropped, and the laughter began.
Fuck your wooden wall birds in flight, old typewriter, butterfly taxidermy triumvirate, ceramic bird in a bell jar, wall letter, coral, and your stack of National Geographics with things on top.
It was only when the familiar interior decorating clichés and tropes were piled up and listed in a museum-esque catalogue, jumbled one upon another in a elaborate rush of excruciating fashionableness, that I finally got the joke. Or rather, I still didn’t get exactly why it was funny, or even what exactly I was laughing at, but I saw it was indeed funny, and I laughed. I’m still laughing. But now I want to know more about what that might mean.
A little digging around the web informs us that FYNCT began in March 2012, and that the authors are a married couple with some background in publishing (surprise surprise). There is in fact a very knowing authorial eye here, a connoisseur-like ability to recognize and name highly specific objects (Fuck your Vivienne Westwood for The Rug Company Union Jack throw pillow). The blog’s makers are both hilarious and informed, they clearly know the biz, and their knowledge is partly what makes their blog so comical — we realize we are in the hands of experts, who have chosen to turn their flaying wit back onto the subject of their expertise.
FYNCT is funny in a lot of ways. FYNCT is funny because it collects and classifies and subverts the tropes of fashionable contemporary décor, and therefore the affectations and complacencies of a certain mode of middle-class taste. It builds a kind of visual taxonomy of status markers. And it turns out that some categories of things, like frame clusters, or terrariums, or “fireplaces full of things,” are so common that just to lay out all the visual examples is enough to be amusing. FYNCT is funny because it is economical; if we agree that brevity is the soul of wit, this is indeed brief. Each episode (or is it an encounter?) is aphoristic, minimal, spare with words. Each seems effortlessly amusing, although no doubt that’s far from true. There is no evident labor or elaborate straining for humor, it is present entirely and immediately, in an instant.
FYNCT is funny because it shows how people in a given demographic turn out all to be so similar even as we might think we’re being original, and that our taste is constructed so completely and calculatedly by infomercial representations in magazines (online and off); which is to say it shows we are being led by the nose by tastemakers who are duping us into buying certain things and liking certain things, but in fact not even duping us, since we seek their guidance and follow their lead willingly. It’s funny because it points and laughs at the sheer cheesiness of decorator objects deployed as totems of self-improvement — “Fuck your life imperative screenprint,” indeed! It teases us for stealing other people’s ideas, rather than having new ones for ourselves. It shows how manufactured and commodified our carefully casual looking lounges and bedrooms and kitchens actually are. Like many jokes, FYNCT allows us to momentarily think one thing, then through the radical incongruity of image and text it flings us upside down, gasping, and dares us to think the opposite. We might look at a FYNCT image, perhaps think fleetingly oooh what a lovely Field Guide-style detailed nature identification illustration, or gosh I must try that frame cluster idea in my hall. Then we read the caption, and the image is suddenly and irrevocably reframed: “Oh! To think I actually liked that cardboard deer head!” In our sheepishness, we laugh — at ourselves and others like us.
FYNCT is funny because it de-familiarizes and makes strange the whole genre of home décor magazines, and because it names, and implicitly shames, those customs and markers by which we ostentatiously show we belong to a particular social stratum. It instills a critical sensibility which teaches the eye, and which means we cannot look at décor websites in quite the same way same again. Of course, FYCNT is not the first effort to parody the shelter/
But for me, FYNCT is funny most of all because of its unexpectedly, absurdly violent rejection of something so seemingly anodyne and harmless. In its impoliteness, the misanthropic nihilism, the rude refusal, FYNCT is a kind of punk gesture of defiance, an anarchist stink bomb flung into a well-mannered middle-class sitting room. Despite the violence and crudeness of the gesture, it clears the air with laughter, as Mumford might have said.
And so I have continued to find FYNCT fascinating, even beyond the simple pleasure of its funniness — as a mode of criticism it is unusually minimalist and powerfully effective. It shows a picture, names things in that picture, and says to them NO. It’s as simple and as negatory as that. Which seems to be the equivalent of blowing a raspberry or flipping the bird: a mode of critique which refuses to even engage with its object in any reasonable or respectful terms. It cuts off discourse; it preempts critique in a kind of primitive proto-gesture, as if it were the inarticulate stem cell of criticism. Perhaps there is a loose equivalent in the art world in Ai Wei Wei’s “Study of Perspective” series, where he photographs his own one-finger salute to a series of monuments. But of course, in the case of Ai Wei Wei, and in the case of FYNCT, the critique is far more subtle and sophisticated than its childishly insulting gesture might suggest.
Partly I remain fascinated because the exact object of the critique in FYNCT is still unclear. What is the object of derision, what precisely is here being fucked? Is it the Noguchi coffee table itself, as a designed object, indeed a design classic, part of a recognized canon of legitimated “good design”? Or maybe it is the Noguchi coffee table as a designer object, which is of course a different thing — a commodity, an asset, the possession of which conveys status and cultural capital? Or, more pointedly, is it your Noguchi coffee table that is being rejected here, your specific possession, and the way you have placed it in your living room, on that cowhide rug, next to your vintage click-clack couch reupholstered in funky Marimekko? Finally, and most radically, is it this mythic you yourself that is actually rejected, with your pretensions and pursuit of character, your lazy imitation of fashion, your willingness to buy the designer hype of the Noguchi Coffee Table as brand, at the expense of any actual valuation of its good design?
A design historian writing in The Atlantic (on the popularity and nostalgia of vintage typewriters, no less) described FYNCT as a “design-hate” Tumblr, and others have described it as sheer snark; but it’s never read that way to me — I see more affectionate fun-poking, or perhaps cartoonish charm, than a wish to deride. Still, the critique is ambiguous. FYNCT could even be damning that which is passé, it could be saying: you are ridiculous because you are out of fashion, get with the program, your Danish Modern credenza is so 2013. Or at the opposite extreme, it could instead be deriding tastemakers who presume to judge that anyone is out of fashion or to tell them how to be in fashion, or it could be taunting the affectation, the grasping after social status, of the people who pursue such fashionability…. But it could equally be teasing the vanity and venality and hypocrisy of such pursuits per se. That’s what I’m betting on.
FYNCT can thus be read as a comment on the commodification of “design” and “designer” objects (Fuck your Nelson Saucer pendant, Fuck your Michael Graves for Alessi kettle with bird-shaped whistle … for that matter, Fuck your Noguchi Coffee Table) and the corresponding social structures within which a Smeg fridge or a Thonet chair become status symbols. The analytically inclined amongst us might take this as a critique of the commodification of domestic life, or perhaps a critique of house decoration as a means of self-expression and cultural capital. We might also look to television for parallels — FYNCT could be seen as a lampoon of the same themes we see in house-and-garden “makeover television,” where the legitimated taste of a select group of cultural mediators sets a (dictatorial) style agenda for the masses to follow. 4 The academically inclined will know that these terms and concepts come from the writings of Pierre Bourdieu, who taught that taste and aesthetic disposition, as demonstrated in choices in furniture and décor, are modes of self-construction, which are equally instruments of social positioning, which serve the ultimate aim of demonstrating class distinction. 5
Given that the tasteful, fashionable interiors that are object of FYNCT are markers of social stratification, such humor could easily be seen as a simple act of class war. That would be fair enough (you try decorating a house like this on the minimum wage) but it would also not be very funny — it would be social critique, of the kind that tends to kill humor stone dead. Rather, the site requires a certain knowledge and familiarity with the mores and values of the dwellings and lifestyles being depicted — we recognize our own giant wall word or adult mobile, and we smile, and say aww shucks, that’s me. At one point FYNCT produced a limited edition of screen prints bearing its own name and then, in a breathtaking moment of (seeming?) self-parody, sold them on the site as “The perfect addition to your frame cluster.” So it’s hard to pin down what is happening here. Ultimately, and hyperbolically, I am tempted to see FYNCT as a kind of meta-criticism — an effort not to dictate what is in and out of fashion, or to enforce a normative idea of good taste, but rather to question and destabilize the very idea of “chic,” “on trend” fashion and taste, and more particularly, the social ends to which these have been put. Just do your own damn thing, people, and there is life beyond Hans Wegner chairs.
Still, despite the brutality with which FYNCT rejects the lazy tropes of contemporary decorating, one never feels the need to immediately purge one’s own house of such things (I’m holding onto my retro metal fan, thanks very much, and my stacks of books with things piled on top) but rather that one is being encouraged to go beyond such expressions of taste as identity. Which is not to say that you should reach for ever more frantically “creative” or idiosyncratic decorating ideas; in this context we see the neon skirting board and recognize it as the sign of a desperate grasping after “style” itself. The object of the critique thus becomes the act of trying too hard, and particularly a slavish obedience to style “guides.”
For this reason, as I only realized later, you can’t truly understand FYNCT until you’ve spent some time with its counterpart and opposite, Apartment Therapy. Now I know many people love Apartment Therapy, and find it therapeutic; and to fantasize about the ideal dwelling is an innocent enough pastime. Hell, there’s nothing wrong with trying to make people’s lives happier by improving their domestic environment. But still, but still! The site gives me a case of the screaming meemies. The perky infomercial tone, the incitement to buy and replicate the ideas of others and “get the same look,” the vapid repetition of vacuous instructions (“add color and life to a dark room”), the fetishization of whimsy, the cliché-ification of the collectible, the grindingly irritating over-use of adverbs, the idea of home décor as vehicle for (neoliberal?) self-improvement, the general bourgeois smugfest — all of these aspects are ripe for review. And FYNCT duly enacts that critique, both in its content and form. It’s fanatically specific naming conventions, for example, are straight out of the kind of catalogue index list that allows you to buy that same item and copy that same look — a convention that’s turned interiors magazines and websites into the equivalent of catalogues. FYNCT is resolutely not selling us anything, in fact it’s inciting us not to buy anything. FYNCT might represent the Occupy movement of the shelter magazine scene.
Spend enough time on FYNCT and certain themes do indeed begin to emerge, and you do indeed start to see the world of fashionable interiors as simply the re-arrangement of the same kinds of objects, the same terrariums, funky wallpaper, weathered antlers; and maybe you start to find it all tiresome and contrived, even though people are trying deliberately to be idiosyncratic and “original,” and maybe you come to see it all for what it is — the careful construction of a look of idiosyncrasy, of “personality” as expressed through an interior. One New York Times article from a couple of years back, which demurely refers to FYNCT as a site “which goes by a name that can’t be printed in this newspaper,” framed this in terms of the contemporary mania for “props” in household décor — not just practical objects, not just beautifully designed objects, but objects which silently allude to what interesting, cultured, unique people the occupants of the house must be.
It’s worth considering Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table in relation as well to Unhappy Hipsters: its older, celebrated, but perhaps less edgy predecessor. A similarly arch, humorous, caption-based take on fashionable design and architecture, Unhappy Hipsters has been around since early 2010, which makes it practically part of the establishment. It even has its own book (a strangely unfunny artifact … but that is a story for another time). Yet Unhappy Hipsters is different from FYNCT; it seems much more closely aligned with “Design” than with interiors or decoration, and not surprisingly it finds most of its satirical targets in the pages of Dwell (and its ilk).
Unhappy Hipsters seems to have invented the genre of the open-source caption competition as a mode of humor/criticism, and such competitions are now a trend — noticeable in the comments section on Dezeen, for instance. Everyone is furiously practicing one-liners, trying for the most pithy quip.
The “hipsters” of the title, all painfully privileged and living in high-style, high-end, desirable lifestyle units, seem all to be afflicted with ennui to an almost terminal degree. The tone of the captions is perfect — each deadpan aphorism nailing a mood of quiet gloom, a sense that the beautiful spaces and surfaces in the image conceal a roiling existential malaise. Sometimes, these captions are just plain nonsensical (The demon rabbit demanded more Nesquick cassoulet) and that’s fun too. In Unhappy Hipsters the labeling is part of the pleasure — each image “filed under” a maniacally specific categorization within a deliberately absurdist filing system (e.g., File under Wabi-Sabi Playpen, Those Mushrooms Look Edible (Right?)…). Likewise, Hipsters appropriates all the possibilities of folksonomy and tagging to its own diabolical ends. This is, at times, sad and profound: #Like so many Americans she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.
Unhappy Hipsters is in essence, and arguably, a kind of “roast” — funny at the expense of the architect or designer or stylist or occupant, or the person in the image (which has on occasion led to some nasty hate speech on the Facebook version of the site, quickly squashed by the moderators). In this sense it is just the most recent, and most interesting, development of a broader strain of humor that ridicules architects and designers for being head-in-the clouds aesthetes with no “common sense.” But even though we might like the (mild) fun-poking, we are complicit with these “unhappy hipsters,” we identify with them and feel sorry for them, trapped as they are in their inhuman dwellings, victims of the whims of their designers or architects and too dimwitted to see that the elite emperor is wearing no clothes.
Ultimately, both Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table and Unhappy Hipsters are poking fun at a particular sensibility and regime of taste — which is on the one hand clichéd and driven by mass publishing and fashion (qua FYNCT), and on the other hand ridiculous in the contrived lengths to which people will go to occupy such “impractical” and often frankly uncomfortable houses (qua Unhappy Hipsters). Both are clever, and poignant, and observant, and pointed, and beautifully expressed. Both have timing and delivery that is flawless. Both are very funny. What more could you ask of design critique?
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