Critic's Notebook: Christopher Hawthorne on Unhappy Hipsters and the mystery behind it
So what if the name, for all its alliterative bounce, seems not quite
right? And who cares, really, if the quality has ebbed ever so slightly
in the last few days?
The website Unhappy Hipsters is the most welcome addition to the often self-serious world of architecture and design in recent memory, not to mention a pocket of satirical warmth in the middle of a soggy, recessionary, earthquake-wracked, Martha Coakley winter.
Produced anonymously on a simple Tumblr blogging platform, it adds brief, deadpan captions to photographs from Dwell magazine (and a few other publications), most showing couples looking miserable or lonely in their spare, neo-modern houses. Quite a few of the pictures feature some version of the same basic tableau: a woman sits inside, often on the sofa, while a man stands nearby gazing out the window, silently ruing his life or plotting his escape -- or both.
Unhappy Hipsters entered the world quietly near the end of January, doling out a couple of entries per day, and soon began generating serious Web buzz. Its best captions have a pared-down rhythm to match the architecture on display, along with a forlornly superior air -- Colbert meets Sartre meets "This Is Why You're Fat."
Beneath a photograph of a man and
woman in bed together -- he reading Bill Buford's "Heat" in paperback,
she with her eyes half-closed, a blue rotary phone on his bedside table
and a pink one on hers: "There are some things that can't be learned
from a book."
And under a picture of a man sitting at a dining table, looking pleadingly at the camera, while behind him another male figure can be seen -- through a latticed wooden screen -- walking up a flight of stairs: "Everyone always leaves."
A few designers and design writers have pointed out that the word "hipsters" in the title strikes the wrong note, and I can't say I disagree: How many hipsters, as the term is generally thrown around, can afford to commission a house from Marmol Radziner or Jeanne Gang, whose work the site features? Meanwhile, they are also busy taking bets -- via Twitter (where @unhappyhipsters now has more than 5,000 followers), Facebook and e-mail -- on the identity of Unhappy Hipsters' creators.
Some fans have read every little change to the stripped-down format like a bunch of tea leaves. Did it mean something when the site began to include photographs from magazines other than Dwell, including one from (of all places) Portland Monthly?
And what about the decision to start adding photo credits alongside the captions? I'm sure Dwell photographers, or their lawyers, fired off some threatening correspondence. But doesn't the whole DIY, guerrilla-satire thing lose a little punch when you start worrying about doing the right thing?
When I e-mailed the address listed on the site, asking whether the authors wanted to reveal themselves, I got this reply:
"We'd like to stay anonymous. But we can tell you this: Unhappy Hipsters is a place to finally say what we've all been thinking: 'Oh, miserable modernist -- you picked the concrete floors and the gravel yard; at least pretend you like it.' "
Fair enough. I have my guesses, but I'll keep them to myself.
The site's sudden popularity suggests that image-based satire is a form particularly well-suited for the Web -- Unhappy Hipsters would work beautifully on the iPad -- and that Twitter, with its unbending 140-character limit, may be sharpening our collective caption-writing skills.
It can also be seen as a sign of the speed with which the Web's viral phenomena wax and wane these days. It somehow seems entirely reasonable to speak nostalgically of the site's early period, all of a week ago, when it was sending its best work out into a relative void.
Once the seal was broken on the Unhappy Hipsters vacuum -- once the world noticed -- it was only a matter of time before its crisp satire started to droop a little, as it has in the last few days. The focus has also begun to drift away from residential architecture, with the addition this week of a picture showing an academic building at Caltech by Frederick Fisher & Partners.
That seems odd: a kind of claustrophobia unique to domestic settings is what gives Unhappy Hipsters much of its kick. In the site's world, the transparency that modern architecture is known for turns every living room into a fishbowl. Emotionally speaking, the open plan is an open wound.
-- Times Architecture Critic Christopher Hawthorne