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Image by Michael D Beckwith

Instagram is transforming interior design – but we need to tread carefully

Charlie Burton - Senior Commissioning Editor at GQ

When the new incarnation of Annabel’s nightclub opened in London’s Berkeley Square last year it seemed like everybody knew about it – even if they didn’t live in the capital. There was a simple reason for that. The interiors behind its unassuming Georgian frontage may as well have been dreamed up by a committee of social media influencers.

They couldn’t be more lavish, more marvel-inducing or more, well, more-is-more: walls blanketed with countless ceramic flowers; bathrooms glowing with mother of pearl; a bar that leans into its African jungle theme like a billionaire’s safari lodge. The guests came, they saw and they shared on Instagram. That summer, the club coated the entirety of its facade with flowers, generously offering non-members the opportunity to give it free publicity as well. Naturally, they did.


Annabel’s is just one manifestation of a new maximalist impulse that is being felt throughout the design world. It’s not hard to see why it’s happening – primarily, the obvious commercial advantage to creators and clients of other people sharing pictures of their projects. When someone is scrolling past a photo of your shop, you have a split second to give them a visual hit that makes them pause and look, and bling does exactly that. And in the drive to be ‘liked’, there’s now an arms race to be more outrageously eye-catching than the competition. Take the new Brasserie Of Light restaurant in London’s Selfridge’s, for instance, with its huge shimmering Pegasus looming over the bar and its bathrooms clad in candy-coloured marble. Or look at the nail salon Nail’d It in Marylebone, which has incorporated a pink phone booth bursting with flowers – as anyone who follows @britneyspears will now be aware. Or how about the makeup brand Glossier’s new store in Los Angeles? It has a room that resembles the otherworldly landscape of Antelope Canyon in Arizona. As Adweek put it, when it reported the opening last year: “These days, if consumers can’t Instagram a store, it’s almost not even worth going.”


Of course, in the age before Instagram, businesses were not averse to statement design, but there was a broad church of styles and approaches. The danger of designing for Instagram is that it can pull designers aggressively towards the same kitsch look – one that in the wrong hands can be intellectually barren – luring them into the kind of aesthetic homogeneity that they were, ironically, seeking to avoid. Instagram can also encourage disposability: once all the influencers have had their photograph taken in your ‘experiential changing room’, you’re going to need to redesign it pronto.


In the right hands, however, Instagrammable design can be wonderfully creative and adaptable. Just as Annabel’s maximalism broke new ground, a shop such as End Clothing in Glasgow ducks out of that arms race and makes a virtue of cool, clean-lined minimalism – and is a fashion influencer favourite. 


As consumers bring these ideas into their homes and businesses, however, they must not make the mistake of falling into another trap laid by Instagram: the sense that “anyone can be an interior designer”. Instagram’s democratic presentation of design can easily give that impression, but there’s value in hiring a professional. “There are big differences in being a consumer of design services and an actual designer,” argues Patrick Dougherty, founder of furniture, homeware and design brand Ivar London. “A good designer will create something authentic rather than just a copy of somebody else’s work, they will create a sense of flow in how spaces interlink, they will work to a budget and know how to pull a project together through good connections to talented tradespeople.” 


And once you’ve enlisted a decent designer, the best way to think of Instagram is less as an aesthetic than as a challenge. You don’t need to create a minor-league Annabel’s. Instead, if you simply aim for a high-quality, original project then, by definition, it will be “Instagrammable”. Dougherty agrees. “Some designers may worry that the instruction ‘make it instagrammable’ can be superficial and ignore the design integrity, design lineage, flow and overall working of a space,” he says. “With effort you can achieve both.”

Charlie Burton

Charlie Burton is the Senior Commissioning Editor of GQ, the leading UK men’s lifestyle magazine, and also its technology columnist. He writes monthly commentary on the technology-driven trends that are changing the world and co-edits the publication’s tech reviews. Charlie Burton was formerly the Associate Editor of Wired magazine, the monthly chronicle of disruptive ideas and innovations, to which he continues to contribute articles. His first book, How To Win At Life, a collection of interviews with world experts about the things they do best, is out now. Follow him on Twitter @charlie_burton and Instagram @charlieburtongq

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