Design After Trump: Is Viral American Design Over?

While news and social media buzzes with questions about the future under the Trump administration, I'm also wondering about something less anxiety-inducing: where design will go in the next four years. I like to think about designed spaces as social ways of managing desire and feeling. One of the most interesting design phenomenon this decade was watching one version of American style-- minimalist homestead-- rise and replicate itself across the world. The reclaimed wood style was about managing a rapid transformation to a tech-dominated lifestyle by decorating it in historical references to an iconic American authenticity hewn of rough planks, vintage trim, and farm-made products. As the style spread, the vintage Americana gloss became formulaic, until even the 'old wood' itself wasn't old, but mass-produced to look that way. 

When I saw a replica Ace Hotel in a rapidly developing part of Phnom Penh it seemed like another sign that the version of American style that the Ace helped popularize has become itself a mass production, no longer so much a way of managing contemporary feeling as a set of ready-made signifiers that can be bought off the shelf and installed anywhere, even in Phnom Penh. But this leaves the question: what kinds of spaces will Americans inhabit and propagate in the next four years? What emotions are we managing (despair and uncertainty come to mind) and how will we shape spaces to deal with them?

The problem with despair is that unlike many other emotions that inspire design, despair feels like it inspires very little. Even the iconically austere apartment buildings of Cold War East Germany seem like less of a potential design reference than a too-close reminder of the real austerity the U.S. faces as a country where starting wages haven't increased in decades. Likewise, the Trumpian gold-covered-elevator look won't be distant (or affordable) enough for the culture to creatively redeploy. And brutalism's authoritarian vibes might not feel so vibey in the face of actual authoritarian threats. What do you recycle when it feels like the end of history?

Rebar planter in Villahermosa, MX

Rebar planter in Villahermosa, MX

Is it possible, maybe, that the U.S. won't be driving the designs of the next half-decade? One of the most interesting places I visited in terms of design in 2016 was Mexico, and I was interested to find that it isn't just the high-craft minimalism of Oaxaca that has heavily influenced global design. Even postmodern-looking objets like planters made of rebar, which make up part of Robert Irwin's Getty Center garden, are actually municipal street design on the avenues in some Mexican cities. So I wonder: is Trump's wall, meant to keep people out, actually going to hem the country in and cut us off from the design innovations happening elsewhere? What design trends will the U.S. manufacture, especially given that the recycling of mid-century modernism has reached its peak? Will some weird and wistful version of 90s suburbia actually come back? McMansion chic? Maximalist clutter in place of minimalist emptiness? I guess one way we'll know how we are doing, emotionally and otherwise, is if people have the inspiration to create viral new design trends at all.