Instagram is reshaping the $10B business of interior design

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When interior designer Christina Higham found her first client via Instagram, she knew she was onto something. Higham, the owner San Francisco-based Sun Soul Style, cut her professional teeth in tech as a marketing and PR executive for a mobile advertising startup called Fetch. That experience keyed her into the potential of a platform like Instagram as a business tool, but it wasn’t until years later that she saw what the app could do for her own pursuits.

The customer in question was looking at a sconce on West Elm’s website. It was the sort innocuous clicking around that we all do on home furnishing sites, imagining how that coffee table from CB2 or that funky chair from Ikea would look in that vacant spot in the living room. Interior design is a nearly $10 billion business, and advertiser spending on Instagram is set to hit nearly $7B, up from $3.64B in 2017. Design companies also know they have a captive audience, and have concentrated on growing their follower counts as a play for direct advertising. West Elm has 1.8M followers, Ikea has 1.7M, Crate and Barrel 1.3M. They all know social media is another lever to pull when it comes to transforming browsers into buyers, and they’re doing what they can to ratchet up those conversion numbers.

But back to the sconces. Like a lot of brands, West Elm provides a feed of people who have tagged given items on Instagram so you can see how they look in real people’s homes rather than in the well-manicured, perfectly lit ersatz homes of West Elm’s photo studio.

One of those tagged photos was from Higham, who had bought the same sconce months earlier. Higham was working as a professional designer, but her clients had come from word of mouth–this was the first time someone had reached out via Instagram.”It was just someone local who said, ‘Oh, this girl is in San Francisco, I really like her style.’ And that’s how we started working together,” Higham told Fast Company over the phone from her offices in San Francisco. “It wasn’t a huge project, but it felt really good. I was like, wow, tagging and doing all this social media—there’s a real benefit to this.”

In the years since, Instagram has become a central part in how Higham finds clients and builds her brand. She estimates that 40% of her business comes from Instagram, and says that the social media platform serves as a way to centralize her archive and inspirations, and showcase her evolution as a designer.

“It’s democratized design in a way,” Higham said. “It’s made people feel that anyone can be a designer because they have all of these things at their fingertips.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a tool more suited for interior design than the 8-year old photo- and video-sharing platform. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, images are the point of Instagram. Snapchat is purposefully ephemeral, making it ill-equipped for displaying an archive or exhibiting professional growth. Pinterest is too scattered, Tumblr too lovably weird for the average suburbanite looking for a nice sofa or side table.

Instagram has altered the velocity and business of interior design, and our living rooms will never be the same. What that means for the business is still up for debate. The platform is rife with plagiarism and IP issues, and accusations of straight-up copycatting are rampant. It’s also created a mad dash for consumer eyeballs, with companies churning out designs that are so invariably similar they border on parody. Still, in a few short years, Instagram has created a generation of designers that have access to millions of potential clients with a few clicks, and broken down the barriers of an industry formerly dominated by haughty tastemakers.

Years ago young designers would have to spend time working in one of the grand old houses of interior design like Colefax and Fowler or Dedar Milano before striking out on their own. Developing client bases was done by word of mouth or reputation, and trends were defined from the top down from the doyens of interiors like Sister Parish and Albert Hadley, whose tastes were championed by powerful editors at Vogue, Elle, and Harper’s Bazaar. Those trends that were formerly measured in decades now change with the seasons, and that acceleration has created an aesthetic tinged with circular logic: People like the things they see on Instagram, and they’re on Instagram because people like them.

“These trends definitely move faster than they used to,” says Erik Herrmann, an assistant professor at Ohio State’s Knowlton School of Architecture. Along with his wife and fellow professor at Knowlton, Ashley Bigham, Herrmann is a co-director of the architecture firm Outpost Office, and uses Instagram for business development and to exhibit new work, as well as in the classroom as a pedagogical tool. “There’s a genre of work that feels a little bit like the WeWork aesthetic, and projects that are premised on the idea that they’re trying to draw people in to generate their own Instagram content,” Herrmann says.

Before the calendar turned over to a new millennium, each decade of American design could be easily identified. The ’70s had funky Scandinavian couches and buffets, the ’80s were defined by plexiglass and pastels. The ’90s were bland by comparison, defined by sponge-textured walls and pine-covered kitchens. Fast–forward to the last half of the 2010s, and in the last few years alone we’ve gone from the moody tones of industrial chic to pastel-hued minimalism to neon maximalism.

The acceleration and saturation of trends isn’t the only development Instagram has ushered in; it’s also speeding up consumption of design. Herrmann and Bigham have seen firsthand how the platform has influenced their incoming students, from the way they understand their own work to how they source inspiration. They encourage their students to use Instagram to keep up with design and architecture trends, and have even taken to helping pupils create a curated feed so they can use the platform to engage with architecture the same way they engage with their friends’ photos of parties and football games. “We’re always challenging our students to think critically about their own work and understand it as a complete project, which is much deeper than what you would get looking at an image for a few seconds,” Bigham tells Fast Company from Columbus. “We want the project to survive that quick viewing.”

Those issues with consumption extend to consumer habits as well. Kyle Chayka, a journalist who has written extensively about design trends, wrote about the flattening of taste in his seminal 2016 Welcome to AirSpace and thinks that the surge of Instagram-oriented design creates hyperactive cycles of taste. “People get overexposed instantly,” he tells Fast Company. “It’s as if we’ve gone from overall styles to memes of interior decorating. You have these quirks that are meant to be specific but they end up being the opposite. The incentive is to show what everyone is expecting.”

Chayka, who is currently writing book about design minimalism, also sees Instagram creating a market for designers that moves at breakneck speed. “There’s this real-time war to expose yourself fast and wide,” he says, referring to the bombardment of ads for couches and beds users receive on the platform. “It doesn’t make me think of these things as living pieces. It’s about affordability and instant delivery more than it is about originality.”

Democratizing design comes with some unique pitfalls. Interior design is, of course, a professional discipline with long-standing conventions. People spend years studying space, color, and psychology to understand how rooms come together and how to interpret the willfully obtuse whims of clients. And, just like every other industry, some designers are better than others. But because policing of image attribution on Instagram is often left to mob justice, sometimes you don’t know whether the majestically appointed room you’re looking at was posted by a designer or a designfluencer.

Theft is an issue endemic to the influencer economy, and interior design isn’t any different. Natalie Myers, the principal of L.A.-based Veneer Designs, says she’s seen designers post other people’s work on Instagram with attribution.

“Some designers don’t make it clear that it’s not their own work,” she tells Fast Company in a phone conversation. “It’s an easy and lazy way to do things and, why, because you get 10 more followers that day?”

There’s no law against omission or plagiarism, but it’s forced professionals to patrol the platform in order to ensure their work is being properly credited and calling out those who are pilfering posts. But the truth is that most folks scrolling through Instagram’s endless feed don’t really care where the picture came from as long as it looks nice.

That’s led to rifts between designers like Myers–she estimates about 60% of her business comes from clients finding her on Instagram–and those who are talented at social media. “The market has gotten really crowded because of the rise of the hashtag influencer,” Myers said. “It’s getting saturated and it’s getting cheesy. There’s this whole downmarket of the industry and it’s gross.”

But neither Myers or Higham are planning on leaving the platform anytime soon. Both designers told Fast Company that they’ve met friends and expanded their network through Instagram, and it remains too vital and too entrenched as a business development tool for either of them to ditch it. The issues they’re facing aren’t unique to interior design, either. Fashion has seen several instances of Instagram-enabled rip-offs, with designers like Aurora James and Philip Lim accusing fast-fashion stores of stealing designs. The fine art world was shaken when Richard Prince sold photos taken from his Instagram feed for as much as $100K in 2015; the fiasco launched a heated debate about the limits of appropriation in the age of social media.

The debate over ownership in the age of social media won’t disappear anytime soon. Neither will the question of whether or not consumers care about the authenticity of the design they double tap.

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