Being confined to my home for the past two months has led me to think deeply about subway tile. It neatly covers my kitchen backsplash, and very possibly yours, but do its origins really lie in the subways? Why would that environment be anyone’s inspiration? And why is it so crazily popular now?
Which leads me to kitchen islands. All of the Zillow listings I read point them out, but when did they become a thing? And why do some people have two?
Macramé? Moroccan carpets? Fiddle-leaf figs? Why have they popped up everywhere?
Having some extra time on my hands, I decided to look closer at these and other decor trends. After combing through magazines and blogs, I compiled a list of nine — the number was arbitrary — and confirmed their relevance with Google Trends data compiled over the past five years. To make sure my choices weren’t fluky, I checked the number of hashtag mentions each received on Instagram. Here is my list, with some historical perspective:
A decade ago, macramé, the ancient art of knotting threads into textiles, was still a punchline for jokes about the Age of Aquarius. No one is laughing now that there has been an explosive craft revival and a reawakening of respect for honest, unrefined textures and materials. Instagram currently has about 3.4 million macramé-related posts. Of those, 592,000 concern wall hangings, and 237,000 plant hangers.
Maeve Pacheco, a fiber artist in Brooklyn, learned macramé from her mother, an architect who square-knotted plant hangers on weekends. After working as a carpenter, painter and sculptor on retail displays, Pacheco discovered that customers kept asking to buy the big macramé wall pieces, so about eight years ago, she began focusing on those.
She continues working at a large scale, using chunky 1- and 2-inch cords she doubts were readily available in her mother’s time. “It’s not all owls anymore, right?” she said.
Macramé offers a textural respite from the slickness of computer screens. The colors have shifted from the browns, greens and saturated oranges of the 1960s and ’70s. “Now there’s a much more neutral palette and a lot less dye in the process,” she said.
Rattan is a vine-like East Asian palm with a solid inner pith used for framing and a flexible skin that is woven. The result is sometimes described as “wicker,” although wicker is a construction method rather than a material and might involve willow or raffia.
Kenneth Cobonpue, a Filipino designer who has worked for decades with the material, said it made its way to the West through the colonies, turning up in Parisian bistro seating and Victorian peacock chairs “because rattan furniture was considered to be more hygienic than upholstered pieces.”
In the United States, Cyrus Wakefield, a Boston grocer, founded a business in the 1850s that converted the waste material used for stabilizing oceangoing freight into baskets and furniture. In 1897, the Wakefield Rattan Co. merged with its biggest competitor, Heywood Brothers, to form Heywood-Wakefield. When the rampant curlicues that satisfied Victorians’ taste for organic decoration went out of fashion, the company abandoned rattan and made art deco-inspired pieces out of yellow birch wood.
Far from disappearing, rattan shape-shifted into the early-to-midcentury streamlined furnishings of Paul Frankl and Gilbert Rohde. Then came the 1960s. Gypsy skirts, flowing hair and hallucinatory rock poster graphics repudiated the neat, boxy contours and conformity of postwar subdivisions. Victorian curlicues and exoticism were back. A discount store later to be called Pier 1 opened in San Mateo, Calif., in 1962, and went on to sell love beads, incense and imported bowl-shaped rattan papasan chairs.
Pier 1, now a publicly owned giant, filed for bankruptcy in February, but that is no reflection on the popularity of rattan, which scored 618,000 Instagram hashtags. Its flexibility may still be what appeals to us. Rattan works inside or outside. It is tough but biodegradable. It is wipeable and usually reasonably priced.
The love affair between millennials and their houseplants has been heating up to such a degree that Pinterest named the garden room among its 100 trends for 2020.
Nothing about sheltering in a pandemic is cooling anyone’s ardor for greenery, and the king of the potted jungle remains Ficus lyrata, better known as the fiddle-leaf fig.
In 2016, writing in the New York Times, Steven Kurutz declared the sassy botanical, with its fat, glossy leaves, the plant of the decade. A native of western Africa that grows as tall as 50 feet outdoors, it now fills the neutral, white rooms of West Elm catalogs and real estate listings. Last count, it had 216,000 hashtags on Instagram.
Ficus lyrata’s celebrity can be traced back to 1939, when it made the top eight houseplants list in Better Homes & Gardens because, the author noted, “it doesn’t take up so much room nor require so large a pot.” This plant had one weakness, she went on, “a tendency to drop its leaves unless given plenty of water.”
In 1952, Britain’s Country Life magazine reported a growing popularity in potted evergreens, including the fiddle-leaf fig. The trend reversed a longtime preference for cut flowers. Potted plants returned for two reasons, the author explained: World War II, during which farmers were encouraged to grow food over ornamentals, and central heating, which shortened the lives of cut flowers.
White tile was a fixture in middle-class Victorian homes long before the New York City subway opened in 1904. Unlike fancier, colorful tiles applied to fireplace surrounds and hearths, glazed white tile appeared in high-traffic areas like kitchens and bathrooms, offering durable surfaces that were easy to clean.
Transferring the same hygienic principles underground, subway station designers Christopher Grant La Farge and George Heins created a huge canvas for white field tile installed in a running bond pattern. The 3- by 6-inch rectangles had a distinctive look, with beveled surfaces and narrow grout lines.
Although the color and material palettes have expanded, this is the hugely popular wall treatment (214,000 Instagram hashtags) we now call subway tile.
Keith Bieneman owns Heritage Tile, a company that does restoration work on New York’s subway stations, using tile manufactured to the original standards.
“There was a resurgence in artisan tile making throughout the U.S.” in the 1990s, he said. “People started focusing on the kitchen and ... putting in high-end appliances and looking at backsplashes as art pieces as opposed to utilitarian surfaces.” Subway tile fulfilled aspirations for the authentic remodeling of many 20th-century homes and yet it looked timeless.
A current fashion for hanging strands of tiny lights indoors as well as out can be studied in 155,000 Instagram posts. It is an inexpensive way to turn a room into a miniature wonderland and sustain a holiday feeling year round.
But string lights predate their use as Christmas decorations. The little bulbs draped around Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Menlo Park, N.J., in 1879, created a natural opportunity for the inventor to demonstrate his perfection of long-lasting carbon filament lamps.
Three years later, Edison’s business associate, Edward Johnson, wound 80 small red, white and blue bulbs around a revolving Christmas tree that he powered with a generator. A reporter from the Detroit Post and Tribune called the effect “most picturesque and uncanny.” The first Christmas lights for popular home use emerged in the teens.
Dainty bulbs were destined for non-holiday purposes, as well. In 1882, they were integrated into the costumes of fairies in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “Iolanthe.” The term “fairy lights” dates at least to this event.
Jumping to today, an early influencer was New York industrial designer Patrick Townsend. In the late 1990s, he moved into a big artist’s loft and needed something to brighten it, so he bought lamp sockets and cords and strung them together.
Necessity was the mother of this invention, but love improved it. Wanting to make a Christmas present for his girlfriend, he tweaked the design so that the bulbs formed an attractive cluster and were sheathed in white nylon.
Townsend married the girlfriend, and the lamp evolved into a chandelier called Orbit, but the principle was the same: naked wires and bulbs. His String10 design, with a cluster of bulbs at the bottom, starts at $175.
Or, for $24.99, you can buy Ikea’s Blötsnö string light.
The decor choices of quarantined celebrities have become their own genre in this pandemic, and none has stirred more interest than filmmaker Nancy Meyers’ kitchen. Famous for the aspirational kitchens in her romantic comedies, Meyers, who lives in Los Angeles, shared a photo of her own in an April Instagram post.
What most impressed her followers were the twin islands, almost exactly like those in her 2003 movie, “Something’s Gotta Give,” starring Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson and a Hamptons house.
“Well, I cook at one and serve on the other one,” Meyers told Vanity Fair.
Today, there are more than 455,000 Instagram posts on the topic.
According to Juliana Rowen Barton, a historian of modern architecture and design, the island emerged in the mid-20th century when kitchen walls began to dissolve with the postwar open floor plan. This transformation was part of an evolution of the kitchen from a tight, functional space, overseen by servants at the back of the Victorian home, to a larger area supervised by housewives and designed for greater sociability.
“Islands became increasingly popular because they allowed for more communication and movement between the kitchen and other parts of the home,” Barton said.
Barton believes it was no accident that the open kitchen emerged with other forms of liberation.
“An open plan in theory allows for freedom of movement around a space. You can choose your own path,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the kitchen island began to become popular at the same time as the civil rights movement and ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ ”
The bar cart, a midcentury artifact, made its return about a decade ago, a few years after “Mad Men” showed us what an asset it could be. If you took the series as your model, you parked the bar cart in your living room or office and visited it frequently. You learned that anything small and on wheels feels friendly and informal, even when it is a vehicle for bad behavior.
Well, five years have passed since “Mad Men” ended, and the bar cart is still with us (150,000 Instagram posts). It turns out to be useful in so many ways. Bar carts can be plant stands and end tables, magazine holders and unused corner fillers. You can even pull them up to your kitchen for emergency counter space.
“To me, bar carts signify swagger,” said Jonathan Adler, who began designing them 15 years ago, before Don Draper lurched onto the scene. “If you see someone with a bar cart, you think they’re fun. They make young people seem sophisticated and old people seem young.”
His personal love affair began when he bought a vintage bar cart by a midcentury Italian designer named Aldo Tura. Since then, Adler said, he’s done a “bazillion” ones with different degrees of functionality and had just gotten out of a Zoom meeting discussing the development of his next.
“Is This Tomorrow’s Furniture?” asks the title of a 1950 Better Homes & Garden article that reproduced items from the Museum of Modern Art’s annual “Good Design” show of home furnishings.
Among the honorees was Charles and Ray Eames’ bucket-shaped molded fiberglass armchair, which Herman Miller had just put into production. There was also a modern storage cabinet manufactured by Johnson Carper, a furniture company in Roanoke, Va., that was supported by a frame that resembled giant hairpins.
Hairpin legs — V-shaped metal pieces that can be bolted to wood slabs to create furniture — are descendants of this design. For DIY types, they are a satisfying alternative to Ikea — so satisfying that Instagram has 73,400 posts about them.
But even in 1950 this signifier of bare-bones yet attractive functionality was no novelty. Nine years before, Henry Glass, a Viennese-born refugee from Hitler’s Europe who had been inspired by the shape of his wife’s hairpins, designed an outdoor furniture collection called American Way with continuous, bent wrought-iron frames that terminated in four narrowly angled feet. His innovation spread to many midcentury furnishings, like the MoMA cabinet.
Glass continued refining the design — at one point making the legs collapsible. He received 52 patents in a long, productive career, but never one for this.
Beni Ourain carpets
Nathan Ursch, a Moroccan carpet dealer in Brooklyn, guessed that anyone who bought a Dwell or Domino magazine in the past seven years had seen a Beni Ourain carpet. “They’re in every issue.”
The ivory wool rugs, with scrawled geometric motifs in dark grays, browns or blacks, are named for nomadic Berber tribes in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and have 53,300 Instagram hashtags.
“They bring a kind of rustic warmth to an environment that is different from a Turkish or Oriental carpet,” said Ursch. “They contrast in a nice way with minimal modern furniture.”
If a Beni Ourain carpet is authentic (many are not), it will probably be less than 100 years old, having been made for hard use as tent flooring. A woman will have woven it over an average of two years, on a portable loom. It will probably tell the story of the weaver’s fertility, Ursch said.
Beni Ourain carpets were never intended for display, much less export, but came to the notice of designers and decorators in the early 20th century, after Morocco became a French protectorate with new infrastructure and adventurous travelers ventured into the mountains. Architects Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto installed the carpets in their much-photographed interiors. They later showed up at the Eames House and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.
Their popularity has predictably set off a rash of imitations made outside Morocco, often with synthetic fibers. About a decade ago, “there were less than 10 Moroccan carpet dealers in the world,” Ursch said, “and now there are hundreds.”