Internet, Image, Affect: Social Media and Interior Design_conference presentation

03.10.20 / IDEC National Conference (Tulsa, OK)
Featured image:
left: Case Study House #22, Pierre Koenig, 1958
Photo taken Monday, May 9, 1960, Julius Shulman, photographer/ first published as cover Los Angeles Examiner Pictorial Living section (1956)/ 2nd instance: Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971)
right: Peter Roehr, Untitled (F0-29), 1965
Description: An analysis of pedagogic frameworks informing INT735 Taste (a graduate theory class)

Beatriz Colomina declared that design became modern through its engagement with media (Colomina, 1997), in the context of her analysis of work from the beginning of the twentieth century. Marshall McLuhan theorized that the medium of any form of communication was more important than its content in shaping our perception of the world around us (McLuhan, 1964). Colomina wrote primarily about photography, early print publishing and museum exhibits. Our theory requires an update in the beginning of the twenty-first century: as media has developed and changed, so should its impacts on design.

Teaching students about how mediation influences both what we see and how we value what we see is of paramount importance: not only do interior designers conceive, execute and publicize work through representations, but the vast majority of the work with which we are familiar has come to us in mediated forms, through images. The context of those images is now (more than ever) the internet, less obviously itself a form of media.

In the spring of 2019, I assigned a short project to students enrolled in a graduate-level interior design theory course to theorize the effects of internet mediation on design content. Students were asked to examine the online platform of their choice (Instagram, Pinterest, etc). Students were to explain the platform’s mechanics (how it works), to describe its history (when), and to identify its users (who); its potential impacts on how value might be assessed was to be framed through a comparison to a reading or theme assigned as part of coursework.  This exercise was designed to help students hone a critical method with which to consider images in different contexts, both as consumers and producers.

Several projects (notably “the mechanics of Pinterest’s image-search parameters”) discerned the power of search algorithms to affect access, perceived relevance and excellence of image content. Text-based searches (for sites using tags or descriptions of images) revealed that access was still predicated on the user/uploader’s own understanding of the content, whether that was #residential, #artDeco or #interior. These oversimplified connections between work based on user-selected categories, such as subject, style, or designer. Image-based searches produced results across categories of use, author, and type. Image-based searches were much more likely to produce results that included designers not already well-known, or projects not already well-published. These results were radically de-contextualized, decoupling access from taste or knowledge (for better and for worse). These projects used Pierre Bourdieu’s theories about cultural capital and Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” to frame their inquiries.

Several projects (notably “Instagram & Instagrammable Spaces”) looked for discernable impacts in the designed environment. The tendency of internet images to replicate is proposed as a precondition to spaces like “The Museum of Ice Cream” and “Color Factory” that choreograph participants through a series of tableau with colorful backdrops to support selfies, ensuring significant similarities in the images produced, no matter how diverse the body of users. This project was informed by Barthes, Debord and McLuhan’s writing about interior design and images.

What design (and education) will become through its engagement with distributed digital media is emerging. Because most factors affecting its access and distribution are invisible, their impacts are unlikely to discerned or understood by a casual viewer. With this project, students were be able to identify, distill and visually communicate their collected evidence, demonstrating the power of the examined platforms to alter contexts and affect understanding and assessment of our environments.


Barthes, Roland, and Stephen Heath. 1977. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1996. The System of Objects. London: Verso.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. “Introduction.” Distinctions. London: Routledge.

Debord, Guy. 1994. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.

Colomina, Beatriz. 1994. “Publicity” (excerpt). Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture As Mass Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

McLuhan, Marshal. 2003. “The Medium is the Message”. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.

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