This story is part of Pretty Ugly, packaging that celebrates design that’s so bad it’s good.
There is a post on the @PleaseHateTheseThings Instagram account that I remember fondly and often. It’s an image of a comforter printed to look like the back pocket of a giant pair of jeans, with a set of denim-printed pillows to match. Every time the image pops up in my head again, I have questions:
do you sleep in the bag Whose fantasy was that?
The post’s headline, “Blue Jean Babies Are Made Here,” is a true jewel of comedic genius. His comments, including the delightful “sweet jeans are made of jease who am I to disgreee,” are pure gold.
Conventional wisdom would have you believe that ugliness is in the eye of the beholder, but “There are many things that people can collectively agree on,” says Massachusetts interior designer Dina Holland, whose 574,000 Instagram followers prove her point. She founded @PleaseHateTheseThings in late 2018 as a spin-off of her design business account @HoneyAndFitz, which quickly fell in popularity. Where Holland’s professional personality matches tastefully decorated New England interiors, @PleaseHateTheseThings is her blatant, irreverent alter ego. Part of a burgeoning world of design troll accounts, it takes a liking to contractors and designers so hideous they really are special, including lamps that cast breast-shaped shadows, or two private bathrooms installed side-by-side, captioned, “Nobody is.” so in love.”
The perverse, intoxicating pleasure of staring at ugly things is an ancient phenomenon of human nature. But instead of recovering from gruesome carnival freak shows like we might have in the past, we’re online cackling in the carpeted bathrooms of @PleaseHateTheseThings and other similar accounts – Instagram’s @whatthecrazyhouse (tagline: “Always visual antagonize when possible”) or @zillowtastrophes from TikTok (“Hidden Treasures and Outright Disasters”).
There is no shortage of obnoxious content online, across platforms, demographics and international borders. For high-fashion, grotesque nihilism in products and clothing, there’s @UglyDesign (slogan: “Only the crème de la crème”), which posts treasures like an iMac CPU finding its second life as a mailbox, or a bikini made out of plastic cockroaches. Leaning more towards the dated, kitschy and palatial, the YouTube channel @aPrettyCoolHotelTour’s ugly nature showcases the interiors of semi-erotic fantasy hotels outfitted with all the classics: the huge champagne glass bathtub, the too-lots of patterned pink wallpaper and furry Flourishes where they just don’t belong. (Slogan: “Exploring America’s Hidden Gem Hotels.”)
But for the record, @aPrettyCoolHotelTour co-creator Margaret B. finds most of the rooms she posts beautiful and romantic; She just thought differently when she saw comments and reposts calling their content a horrible nightmare. “One of my favorite rooms in the world has a bed carved like a giant conch shell,” she says. “As it turns out, a lot of people find it ugly.”
Using the internet’s quantifiable metrics, it’s easy to see how the unsightly appeals to the basic laws of virality. In a world saturated with content, “social media amplifies the bad and the ugly,” says Steve Rathje, a researcher at New York University. When you’re inundated by a sea of often-made-up, forgetfully harmless content, ugly might not be ideal, but it’s inherently extraordinary. “It requires a response,” Margaret B. adds. “You can’t just ignore the weird erotic chair in the room.”
Kate Wagner, creator of the wildly popular blog McMansion Hell and his eponymous Instagram account, draws ugly depictions of wealth, particularly the ostentatious or cacophonous architectural features that occasionally grace the homes of the 1%. “The McMansion is such a perfect embodiment of American excess in the reality TV era,” she says, and “the ones that really take off and do well on the blog are the ones that go crazy.” They’re the most maxed out, most dated or most bizarre themes, including a copy full of Santa Claus figures or the many that haven’t been updated since the 80’s.
In these times of unprecedented income inequality, Wagner adds, getting caught up in the poor aesthetic choices of seemingly wealthy people can be cathartic: “It’s fun to be a hater, and I think people will read McMansion Hell because they will, too.” haters are. The reason the hate is sometimes complex or psychological, but sometimes the houses just suck.”
However, regardless of who lives in them, she also feels a genuine affection for these houses: “Ugly is transgressive; I’ve always found it more fascinating than beauty in general. These floor plans are an odd metastatic organism that doesn’t make any architectural sense. How can you not be fascinated by that?”
As a natural consequence of ugly’s growing popularity, the bar for what is considered appropriately grotesque is constantly and amazingly being re-established. In 2013, when Swiss designers Jonas Nyffenegger and Sébastien Mathys founded @UglyDesign, social media was awash with “images of cappuccinos, yoga and […] perfect interior,” Nyffenegger told dem New York Times. They easily conquered their early following with images of awkwardly proportioned furniture, rather than the surrealistic, often dystopian wares they are known for today. Inevitably, the account only got uglier over the years, says Mathys. “I feel like our followers expect us to get uglier with every post.”
“One of my favorite rooms in the world has a bed carved like a giant conch shell. As it turns out, a lot of people find it ugly.”
For Wagner, that means turning McMansion Hell from a weekly blog to a bi-weekly one to meet “the demand for increasingly absurd homes,” she says. “Finding that truly spectacular home takes quite a bit of time and investment.” In the early days of @PleaseHateTheseThings, “perhaps an oddly placed outlet would do the trick,” says Holland, but today, “your average, outdated-looking, weirder Curtain? That is not enough. That’s not enough @PleaseHateTheseThings.
Is it cheap to lash out at bad design? One hundred percent. But “it just has to be light-hearted and fun,” Holland insists. “Maliciousness is never the intent.” (Conversely, Wagner has one easy Malicious intent but claims mocking the 1% is like hitting Goliaths.)
Also, ugliness has the uncanny power of bringing people together. “It sounds cheesy to call it a community,” says Holland, but her comments section functions like a digital public space where followers take turns partying and toasting a seashell-shaped sink. Your DMs are also constantly inundated with new content to post. “People feel really invested.”
The OG, self-explanatory Instagram account @UglyBelgianHouses is still going strong 13 years after it started at the dawn of the social media age. Despite working a separate full-time job, creative director and account creator Hannes Coudenys has been able to keep the account going with the help, he says, of a “community around ugliness” who are diligent in providing him with visuals. “I get a lot of pictures sent to me. Some are actually pretty experimental and cool, but I’m looking for more disproportionate stuff where people change a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and you end up with this mishmash that doesn’t feel like beauty anymore.” The good stuff is unequivocal , messy and kind of hard to describe; imagine the architectural flourishes of ordinary brick houses, raised so that they vaguely resemble a block of foie gras. Or bane. Or a phallus. These are facades only a mother could love.
The surprising popularity of @UglyBelgianHouses over the years has led Coudenys to book stores, TV appearances and a slew of foreign accounts looking to build their own communities around the topic of ugliness: the independent but respected @UglySpanishHouses, @UglyGermanHouses, @ UglyDutchHouses, @UglyIrishHouses and more, as well as the American version, McMansion Hell. “Ugly Belgian Houses is a classic,” says Wagner. “It’s been going on since I was in high school.”
Coudenys says: “A lot of people say, ‘Why don’t you call it ‘Special Belgian Houses’?” because, as he admits, “ugly is a very harsh title.” But he sees ugliness as a badge of national honor. In Belgium he explains: “We are all a bit surrealistic; I like to say there’s a little Magritte in all of us.” It’s a spirit succinctly expressed in his slogan: “It’s better to be ugly than boring.”
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