Alan Robertson writes about the dangers of not being authentic.
Think of a happy moment. Where does it take you? For me it’s back to summers spent on the West Coast of Sweden on a small granite island called Bohus Malmon. This is where my Grandparents had the requisite wooden summer house, alongside the neighbouring Great Uncles and Aunts. In the 70’s and 80’s the Surrey based Robertson family would take the ferry out of Harwich and Dad would drive up through western Europe to Bohuslan. 4 weeks would then be spent with cousins aunts and uncles, fishing, swimming, sailing, cooking your fresh catch and on the beach over an open driftwood fire. Happy times, simple times. The Danish have a word for this happy time, they call it Hygge.
Bohus Malmon – Strand Beach where the young Robertsons learned to swim.
Constantly topping the league tables as the happiest country in the world Denmark puts a lot of that success down to their constant search for the real Hygge – infact it’s almost a national obsession. The psychology of Hygge is interesting. To be Hygge is to be in a place where you are warm, safe and socially secure, whilst the storm rages outside. It’s an emotional refuge from the world. Places of Hygge seem to reference childhood memories. They recreate elements of of the past where you felt secure and happy. They can be social, familial or individual. Family gatherings in front of the log fire, or perhaps that cosy window seat where in your thick woollen jumper you can read your latest book with a warm mug, whilst the rain tick tacks on the window pane. Or, the ultimate in Hygge, Christmas.
The commercial world knows that we have these drivers and has of course played on this forever, which is why Christmas is the ultimate commercial power driver. In many ways it’s a play on nostalgia. Triggering memories of happier, better times, where we didn’t have the responsibility of adulthood. Of course it wasn’t really a better time, but the memory is one of safety and security in the bosom of our families.
The authentic consumer culture movement personified in the hipster vernacular plays hard with this. You have artisans pursuing their craft and riding the capitals street on vintage bikes (like the ones we had as kids remember). They could be furniture makers, or the ubiquitous bearded barista or the baker with his slow sourdough. Whilst the fashion aspect may only be a trend (beards come and go, right?) there is real value here in the craft. The artisan works hard to improve on the quality of mass production, build the backstory and we emotionally buy into that authenticity and physically buy into their products. They are more expensive but that’s seems to be ok because they are a treat, they can be part of a happy moment and we’re happy to pay more if it pushes the right buttons. But you also have the less authentic more corporate version – a mockthentic offer, if you will. The version where the visual and emotional cues are present in the design or appearance, but that’s all it is – a thin veneer layered over a standardised product – but, at twice the price.
The pursuit of Hygge is powerfully emotive. If you suggested to me that we should go down to the the beach and get a fire going to cook some hotdogs and marshmallows, I’d be hard pushed to resist – it triggers too many powerful memories of happy evenings, childhood friends and family security. So when similar nostalgic triggers are put in front of us in the commercial world, it’s hard not to be drawn in. Simple human nature.
But, when someone takes something so personal and uses it cynically, without delivering that added value, it can have an opposite and surprisingly extreme effect. On the surface the right buttons are being pressed, but that’s only skin deep. Rather than drawing you into a Hygge moment, instead you feel like your memories are being disabused, you feel emotionally ripped off. That feeling is strong enough for you never to return.
I read with interest about the Starbucks on corner of E. 3rd Street and 1st Avenue in NYC’s East Village that put in place a mockthentic design for its coffee shop where the famous Little Rickie store once was. I guess they want us to think it was always there, dating back a generation, although Starbucks has only been in business for 18 years. The locals don’t care for that and it no wonder that the anti-gentrification folk graffiti ‘get out’ on their outlets and throw eggs at the façades. Purile I know, but to generate the sort of outrage normally reserved for corrupt politicians is going some. Oh and then there’s the not-paying-corporation-tax issue… good corporate citizen?
Closer to home one of the Air team recently visited the burger chain 5 Guys which plays on mockthentic environmental design cues with their sacks of raw potatoes on display and monkey nuts – but the burgers? similar to those you’d get in a global burger chain, but several times the price. Not only is it an emotional rip off, but a financial one too.
Sara S on TripAdvisor in unequivocal – “We spent at least ten minutes waiting for our burgers and by the time we got our food it was cold. The food itself was greasy and not worth the £8.75 we paid per burger, you’ll get a better meal at one of the fast food vans at football clubs and fairgrounds. The only good thing about Five Guys is the all you can drink, drinks machine, which we visited multiple times to get our moneys worth and to regain the fluid in our mouths as the chips were that salty. I want my £25 notes back Five Guy!!!
Not just disappointed but actually angry and she’s not alone. No Hygge there.
In a world that is more and more fake, or hypernormal, developers, brand owners et al. have a duty to be honest. One of our current projects is the redevelopment of the Koneser vodka rectification plant in Wasaw. A classic gentrification project with all the associated cultural risks, but one where heritage is foremost in mind. Here the developer is meticulously restoring the old working buildings and introducing cultural interventions such as a vodka museum. They are bringing a derelict area back to life in an honest way and adding grist to the cultural mill. Of course new retail is an essential commercial element of this – but let’s hope the retailers are encouraged to put original designs in and not simply a mockthentic pastiche of what came before. As we’ve seen it’s a vacuous, transparent theme park approach and not what we would refer to as progress.
As designers we have a responsibility not to disabuse people’s emotions. In all great design there is honesty. The Scandinavians Inspired by the intellectualism of the Bauhaus and their own artisanal values created an entire global moment based on form following function – simplicity, honesty and beauty.
Sure we can use the triggers of Hygge. It’s worthy to be able to transport people to a happier place, or create environments that allow for happier and closer social interactions. But it is clear that this must be done honestly. Poul Henningsen’s 1958 PH 5 lamp is such a work. It is a pure Hygge trigger and an iconic product. Designed specifically to create a lighting level and glareless distribution precisely to soften the environment, its form follows its function. Because of that it’s a beautiful and deeply honest design and, probably, the most famous light pendant in the world.
Designing mockthentic products, packaging, branding, services or places is like selling snake oil. It might fool people for a bit, but eventually you’ll get busted and run out of town. As we’ve seen in our examples the reaction to this cynical falsehood can produce a violent and deeply adverse reaction. It’s like Anti-Hygge. It intellectually lazy. No one wins.
Surely then, better to invest that effort in creating something honest that doesn’t scam off our memories and emotions, but creates places and products that generate new memories and emotional responses, new Hygge. It’s not easy. It requires a deep immersion in your subject and represents the harder path for sure, but, ultimately, it’s what makes the difference between honest craft and everything else.