Why Designing Instagram Moments Equals Failure

Surface Media’s CEO pleads with architects and developers to focus on building lasting atmospheres.

“We need to have an Instagram moment.” So says some knucklehead junior marketer to an established architect in a strategy meeting. A few years ago, that would have gotten you kicked out of the room, or worse yet, fired. Not today.

We—and yes, this includes architects, too—have succumbed to the pressures of gaining followers, likes, and comments. High-priced, difficult-to-attain architecture degrees are now, incomprehensibly, being used to create “Instagrammable” installations for things like impromptu selfie fashion shoots and hotel lobby photo booths. The whole thing is, I must say, sad. It’s embarrassing enough that our team at Surface has received press releases from architects promoting their latest project with “Instagram-friendly interiors.” They can’t be serious. (Admittedly, we’ve run headlines like “This New York Design Firm Creates Luxury for the Instagram Era” and “San Francisco’s Most Anticipated New Hotel Is Like an Instagram Fever Dream,” so we’re guilty of contributing to this nonsense, too.)

The “Instagrammable interior” is just plain tacky, like those cheesy red carpet step-and-repeats commonly seen in the entrances of purple-hued hotels in the 2000s. (Regrettably, these logo-covered walls kind of remain a thing. Beverly Hills Hotel, please take that miscreation at your entrance down; you are a classic offender, it’s embarrassing.) Instagram-moment spaces have even trickled down to Holiday Inns and other two-star properties. There, “pose here” installations look as if they’ve been done by someone in accounting using their crafty DIY skills they learned reading Real Simple (note: I actually like that magazine) with items from Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, or Jo-Ann fabrics.

Here’s what I propose to all of the talented and accomplished designers I admire dearly (and who I hope don’t succumb to this silly trend, or whatever you want to call it): keep creating atmospheres that can stand the test of time, not just be a moment for iPhone-viewing pleasure. Instagram is not timeless, even if your 20-year-old intern says otherwise. A good atmosphere is less about a trend and more about a state of being. A good atmosphere should combine many, if not all, of the senses. A good atmosphere is one that doesn’t require guidance, or “look here”; it just is. Atmosphere, not unlike taste, is difficult to quantify; it’s one of those “it is or it isn’t” things. It pains me to say it, but most places today are of the “isn’t” variety.

Bal Harbour Shops in Miami offers a case in point. For decades, it was the top-grossing retail destination in the U.S., and for the past five years, it was No. 1 in the world, based on productivity per square foot at a shopping center. Its atmosphere is what makes it so successful. You can’t just take its design, drop it elsewhere, and expect the same results. Various factors play into it: the location, the quality of the construction, the open air flow, the surrounding community, the smell, the vibe, the emotions visitors get when walking around it. And, yes, Bal Harbor doesn’t have any Instagram-oriented setups. If retail is dead, then its rebirth will depend on creating memorable atmospheres that don’t call for     #✌????.

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