Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

What money can’t buy

Illustration by Party of One.

No one wants to receive a dud gift, but in a year when a pandemic has narrowed our experiences, stuff has a heightened allure. It’s hard not to feel especially invested in the idea of shopping well, of swashbuckling through the retail landscape to find just the right thing.

So, for this bizarre holiday season, The Washington Post asked Ted Chiang, Jenny Odell, Ken Liu, Sara Hendren and Alexandra Lange to dream up the presents that they’d love to parcel out this year but that don’t exist.

My response to this prompt? A magic box.

The Unbearable Banality of Romance Novel Décor

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

“Sweetheart, we could strip out everything and start fresh, maintain the look outside. Go modern minimalist on the inside. White walls. Black and gray furniture. It would be so open and airy.”

Modern minimalist? Something died inside Kincaid. “You can’t be serious,” she blurted out.

Something died inside me, too, as I read these lines in Roni Loren’s romance novel The One for You. The first speaker, an Austin architect, wants to turn a gorgeous, needs-work farmhouse in Texas wine country into an urban loft. Clearly the only reasonable thing for the book’s heroine to do is buy it out from under him, protecting the house’s good bones from going the way of every fixer-upper in Waco. And thank goodness for that. I wish more characters in romance novels had Kincaid’s backbone, interiors-wise.

Romance has a serious décor problem. Contemporary romance novels, my pandemic escape of choice, provide a wide variety of settings, pairings, relationship dynamics, and even kinks. But the world of romance has settled, it seems, on a default style of interior design for its heroes. Every time I read about yet another “modern minimalist” living room—let’s just say it kills the mood.

Where the Teens Are Hanging Out in Quarantine

Photo Illustration: Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

If summer 2020 in Brooklyn had been anything like summer 2019, my 13-year-old son would have been at camp, sleeping in a tent, sending me monosyllabic postcards and, in moments of downtime, playing a game called Mafia. The role-playing game, created by Dimitry Davidoff in 1986, splits a cabin full of campers into two groups, the mafia and the villagers. During the “night” — eyes closed — the members of the mafia pick off one of the villagers. During the “day”— eyes open — the remaining players try to figure out where evil lurks among them.

Instead, this summer, my son was at home, sleeping in a bed, learning how to be a Dungeon Master, sending me monosyllabic texts from another room and playing an online game called Among Us. The online role-playing game created by developer InnerSloth in 2018, splits a spaceship full of astronauts into two groups, “impostors” and “crewmates.” Impostors pick off the crew and sabotage the ship’s systems. Crewmates try to do their jobs and figure out where evil lurks among them.

Among Us is one of a number of unexpected beneficiaries of the global pandemic. In 2018, as Quartz reported, only 30 users were playing the game at any given time. In September 2020, 3.8 million players were playing the game at once. Many of the first people to bolster that trend were teens, who spotted it on the streams of several Twitch celebrities.

Screen time, often demonized as destructive to interpersonal relationships, has come to resemble a life raft (or escape pod) for families that have found there is such a thing as too much togetherness. Platforms including Discord, Roblox and Minecraft have transformed in response to users’ needs — and adults are starting to take notice.

Hideous? Perhaps. But It’s Time to Accept the Gaming Chair.

Herman Miller and Logitech’s Embody: sleeker, lighter, somewhat less Xtreme.

It has been a long time since the world found a new chair. But in the apartments and dens of mostly young men and women, across from the soon-to-be-upgraded PC and multiple screens, there is one, introduced in the past decade and a half: the gaming chair, built for stress-free full-body support when the keyboard and heavy-duty mouse come out. It’s wheeled like an office chair, but it’s also something else. Although both types support the spine, with seats and armrests intended to keep knees and elbows at the optimal ergonomic 90-degree angle when playing or working at a desk, gaming chairs generally accommodate a greater range of movement. Many of the seatbacks can recline to 135 degrees, for cockpit-like play, while the armrests can be adjusted front to back, side to side and angled toward or awry from the body. They also typically come with adjustable pillows to support the lumbar and neck. Is a gaming chair sports equipment? Is it an office chair? Is it personal billboard? The answer is all of the above, and the boundaries are collapsing.

Spaces Podcast: Designing for Childhood.

Alexandra Lange, design critic and author, joins us to discuss designing for childhood. From groundbreaking concepts in early childhood development to the environmental dangers we’ve created in cities, Alexandra shares the extensive insight she gained while researching for her latest book, “The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids.” We dig into the external forces that have evolved and shaped the world around children – blocks, homes, schools, playgrounds, and cities.

Spaces Podcast · Designing for Childhood

Your Quarantine Clutter Has a Long and Distinguished History

Herbert Gehr/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.

Picnic basket. Badminton racket. Jigsaw puzzles. Cold-weather gear. All these items and hundreds more spill across the floor, as a sorrowful blonde clutches more rackets and a baseball glove, a Madonna of the closet. This full-page photograph by Herbert Gehr was staged to accompany a 1945 Life story on the storage wall: the revolutionary new system, designed by architects George Nelson and Henry Wright, that was going to help the American family organize the 10,000 objects they had stashed in attics, on shelves, and in basements. Thirteen feet long and 12 inches deep, the storage wall would separate living room from hallway and house a tenth of the average family’s worldly goods, from sports equipment to stereo system, stationery to board games behind closed doors.

I always thought of the storage wall as #housegoals, a place for everything and everything in its place. I dreamed of clearing the decks of clutter, from counters to coffee table to bureau top, and seeing only clean space and that Aalto vase every architect owns. As millennial home décor has trended toward the minimalist — by choice and by economic necessity — mobile versions of the storage wall, by IKEA and others, have achieved their own level of name recognition. Interiors influencers like Sarah Sherman Samuel have even designed semicustom doors for the Besta in Blush, Agave and Juniper, so their closets and their kid can match. As a mother, I knew putting it all away to be largely impossible, surrounded on all sides by LEGO and stacks of graphic novels.

But from the first days of the pandemic, when flour sold out and masks were hard to come by and the (mistaken) powers that be told us to stay inside, my relationship to clutter changed.

When Life Looks Like a Wes Anderson Movie

Roberts Cottages, Oceanside, CA. Photo by Paul Fuentes.

The last shelters on the Marangu route to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro are little structures known as Kibo huts, the first built in 1932. When Robert Hune-Kalter, a Colorado-based bank employee, reached the huts, in July 2019, he might have been thinking of nothing but scrambling to the top of Africa’s highest peak. But he found himself admiring their triangular shapes with their steep, green-painted gables and vertical black siding.

“I liked how symmetrical it was,” he said, “and even mentioned to my friend that it reminded me of the symmetry of a Wes Anderson scene.”

After descending, he sent a hut photo to the Instagram account “Accidentally Wes Anderson,” where it joined pictures of pointy roofs taken in Wildwood, N.J.; Siglufjordur, Iceland; and Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s Yukon Territory. All these places resembled alternative sets for Mr. Anderson’s 2012 film “Moonrise Kingdom,” a golden-toned story of young love set against rocky shores, lighthouses and scout camping tents.

How to Make the Most of Covid Winter

Illustration by Andrea Chronopoulos.

In Victorian England, the baked potato had dual purposes. Sold from street-side “cans” — metal boxes on four legs, with charcoal-fueled fire pots within — the potatoes could be used as hand-warmers when tucked inside a mitten or muff, or body warmers when consumed on the spot as a hot and filling snack. Potato sellers by the hundreds set up cans on London streets, selling their wares from August to April, as ubiquitous as today’s ice cream trucks but serving the opposite season.

Buyers and sellers of those spuds had little choice but to be out on the streets, whatever the weather. That’s where the business was, that’s where workers could buy a quick meal, that’s where friends might encounter each other, standing close to the can for warmth. A little food, a little fire, a little chat — these elements made being outdoors in winter bearable.

A hot potato is a small gesture against the elements. But it is also inexpensive, portable, requires minimal setup to cook and comes in its own wrapper. For the winter ahead, American cities need a lot more ideas like the baked potato: pop-up comforts, at many scales, that can gather a crowd outdoors and ensure people get the sun and socialization they need. Don’t write off the darkest season before it even begins. What if cities took their cues from the Victorians, and made no retreat from the elements? What if we spent Covid winter outside … and enjoyed it?

New York Needs to Rethink Time, Not Space, To Reopen

Illustration by Naomi Elliott.

When the Vessel at Hudson Yards opened last March, among New Yorkers’ many complaints about the 150-foot-tall, Thomas Heatherwick-designed mirrored-copper sculpture was the fact that you had to sign up in advance to climb its 2,500 steps. A designer who understood New Yorkers — and not just his billionaire client — would have understood that we do not like to wait.

How quaint that attitude (my attitude) seems now, as I watch New Yorkers line up all across the city — on spray-painted and duct-taped lines, inside subway stations, and awaiting entry to public bathrooms, grocery stores, farmers markets, and museums. Signing up months in advance for a summer slot at a rural campground used to seem like a normal inconvenience; in the summer of 2020, though, we’re signing up for slots on ferries to and from Governors Island. Tomorrow, a section of the High Line will reopen on a timed entry system. It’s not difficult to imagine, as temperatures rise and crowds form, that we may soon be reserving six-foot circles in the park, spots in parking lots near public beaches, or 20-minute time slots at the local splash pad or pool. The fall will bring still more time slots — chosen, not by us, but by teachers and employers.

One of the most potent tools for reopening leaves no visible trace: We can make more space in dense cities by taping off chunks of time, not the floors of our buildings.

Space Invaders: Architecture and A Freeing From The Physical

In the 2009 trial of the founders of Pirate Bay, the defendants were quoted as requesting that the language of the court be amended “We prefer AFK (Away From Keyboard) to IRL (In Real Life)” they said, “because we think the Internet is real.”

Representations of buildings in video games frequently use recognisable forms to anchor us in familiar territory, and yet digital landscapes have the potential to expand our horizons and offer us unprecedented access, when compared to the restrictions and rules of the ‘real’ world. Can the digital ‘freedom’ suggested by video games be used to inspire a rethink of how to approach physical projects? Conversely can the ergonomic, sensory and poetic qualities found within designed material space inspire more ‘feeling’ in the virtual? What can each industry learn from the other to better realise the worlds they create? What is the role of architecture in an alternative reality?

A discussion with

Shumi Bose, Writer, lecturer and curator (chair)
Alexandra Lange, Architecture and Design critic
Will Wiles, Author
Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg, Space Popular
Gregarious Kythreotis, shed works
Ibiye Camp, Artist