When Covid hit, Herman Wakefield’s industry was turned upside down. Prices for midcentury antiques skyrocketed because of the home improvement frenzy, and uneducated new dealers were everywhere, ruining furniture and hawking fakes. You could make more money, but you’d have to work harder, improvise, and deal with a lot of idiots along the way.
Wakefield, who is in his early 40s, had been selling vintage furniture for four years—and been a fan for nearly 20—and he needed to "blow off some steam." Though he’d never made a meme before, on November 3, 2020, he pieced together a "starter pack" making fun of new vintage dealers who didn’t know what they were doing. The goal wasn’t to go viral but just to make a handful of other seasoned colleagues laugh.
What Wakefield didn’t expect was that two years later, @northwest_mcm_wholesale would have more than 37,000 followers. (His name online is a portmanteau of designers Herman Miller’s and Heywood Wakefield’s, inspired by dealers on Craigslist who get their names crossed. As with many others interviewed for this piece, being anonymous is a key part of his strategy.) The biggest shock is that half of Wakefield’s followers "probably don’t know a goddamn thing about design. I get people messaging me, ‘What is Eames? Who are Eames?’"
It may sound ridiculous, but a meme about having sex with a Mario Bellini sofa can sometimes lead to a real appreciation for design. "I have had people write to me and they’re like, ‘When I followed your account, I didn’t know anything, and now I just bought a Saarinen coffee table.’ That makes me feel good, because the memes have made people interested in the history of design. They wouldn’t have even known about it if it wasn’t for some extremely crude meme that my mom gets mad at me for making," Wakefield says. Even better is when a post is controversial. "They like the craziness, they like the drama. When I call out someone for selling a fake, they love that," he says of his followers.
Wakefield is part of a growing community of content creators who use digital humor as a vehicle for not just likes but also for the critique of architecture and design. Whether they’re shitposting memes on Instagram or eviscerating McMansions on TikTok, they do much more than just entertain. They take on issues like the exploitation of architecture workers, hypocrisy in academia, and how overconsumption and late-stage capitalism foster bad design.
"Architecture criticism is totally self-serious," says Kate Wagner, 28, an architecture critic who got her start in 2016 with McMansion Hell, a blog that roasts ugly buildings. "I honestly think architecture is inherently funny. There are sculptures in Gothic cathedrals of monks with their dicks out. We’re not talking about a serious field here."
Memes are a perfect vehicle in this way: They pull from a shared visual language and can make sense even if you don’t exactly understand the context (or even if it takes a lot of repetition of in-jokes for a layperson to begin to get the references). Load Bearing Column, a Toronto architect in his mid-20s, started making memes in 2017 during undergraduate architecture school, inspired by things that would come up in class, like, yes, load-bearing columns. Also known as "Modernist Ho" by his 16,000-plus followers on Instagram, he’s amused when some people get more out of his content than comedy. "Someone was like, ‘I think this does a lot more than a lot of conventional ways of teaching architecture,’ " he says. "That’s the beauty of memes: You don’t have to be in the same profession or niche to understand."
Dank Lloyd Wright, a mainstay in the architecture meme space with almost 70,000 followers, is run by an anonymous and evolving collective of shitposters who work in and out of the industry. They echo that this kind of content has an appeal far beyond architects: "For a while, our audience was just architecture academics and those in professional practice, but with our increased following it’s becoming more general as well," they write in a Google Doc—the best way for them to communicate as a group. "It’s pretty common to get DMs that say things like, ‘I don’t get your architecture jokes all the time, but this page always makes me laugh.’"
Even though "architecture influencer" Ryan Scavnicky, 33, uses humor, for him education is an explicit goal of his content—which ranges from ranking buildings that look like penises to explaining why corners in Vegas are so interesting to almost 17,000 followers. Perhaps that is in part because of the former architect’s role as an adjunct professor and theorist. "I’m more interested in changing conversation than I am in purely taking over conversation," he explains. "Also, I have a goal to just make broader audiences understand more and be able to be more critical of architecture and see it as something they should be able to engage with more easily."
These content creators and their success all fill a void that drives the popularity of their work. Outside of social media, people without backgrounds in architecture often don’t feel licensed to have opinions on the built environment despite engaging with it every day. "Anytime I’ve introduced myself to someone who’s outside of architecture, a lot of the time they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t know a lot of architects’ names. I don’t know a lot about it.’ And there’s an immediate sense of remorse or regret or embarrassment," says writer Shane Reiner-Roth, 31, whose Instagram project @everyverything collects found images of architecture and design mistakes and absurdities.
Reiner-Roth’s Instagram has added verve and appeal when you consider that, in his view, a lot of architecture attempts to reject the messy "imperfections of humanity." "There’s been a debate in architecture culture for centuries about distinguishing between architecture with a capital A and buildings. In 1942, Nikolaus Pevsner said, ‘A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture.’ " But Reiner-Roth, who is getting his PhD in architecture at UCLA, thinks they are equally important parts of the built environment; online architecture content helps break down the often elitist distinction that keeps people out.
"Most of the images I put on Instagram are kind of reminders that what’s around us is made up of idiots like you and me and that’s okay. They make us human and remind us that we are all humans. As long as you’re observing things in the world around you," he says, "you’re totally doing it with me."
Though the primary mode of memes and shitposts is visual humor, the function is often critique—whether it’s gently ribbing famous architects or eviscerating unfair labor practices. If that’s confusing, that’s the point.
"One day we might wage what looks like a mini-PR campaign for a unionization fight in NYC, and the next day we spam followers with ant and cum jokes," Dank Lloyd Wright writes. "We regularly come back to the notion of ‘Trojan horsing’ larger ideas through the form of an image-based joke. Shareable ideas travel faster and farther in this format than they would in a stale essay that takes extreme effort to parse and is read by maybe a couple hundred overeducated people. A meme might not stick in one’s mind as long, but continued exposure to an idea across different memes might have a greater effect on its audience than an essay."
This duality is what makes the work so interesting. "I like being able to shitpost and also critique something in a genuine way. Those can exist at the same time," says Load Bearing Column. Though the humor in a meme might take center stage, the account needs to say something deeper to be popular. Wakefield says, "The difficult thing is, you do have to say something. If you don’t have a point of view, even on a meme account, you’re just lost in the woods."
Critique—and immediacy—is one of the main appeals of making memes for Blank Gehry, an architectural designer in his late 20s with more than 50,000 followers. "If you see a situation and you have a reaction, you can just immediately make something that’s relevant and put it out there and see reactions to it. And then if it resonates, you’ve kind of addressed something."
Addressing larger issues through humor is one of Wagner’s primary strategies. "I have always walked that fine line between being an entertainer and being a critic," she says. "Not everyone thinks of me as a serious critic, even though I was the critic at the New Republic, because I was funny and because I was working with images, too." A more overt sense of humor is a big part of what separates the work of online architecture creators and more traditional critics and why Wagner is able to support herself fully by hosting her blog on Patreon.
These creators aren’t replacing the original style of criticism—they fundamentally approach it in a different way and for a wider audience. "Most of us do write essays also. We just like the immediacy and provocation of imagery, because that imagery is able to just hit you in the face with a stance that you didn’t even know you had yourself," says Reiner-Roth. "I have 49,000 followers," he adds. "And I think fewer than 50 people have read what I’ve said in essay form."
As opposed to just critiquing the work of specific architects or different trends in the field, these creators often take on the industry itself. "My angle at the beginning was always not to critique architecture but to critique architecture culture, because only then could you actually make any changes to the way things happen," says Scavnicky, who, in addition to teaching, hosts a Discord community of 1,500 architects. "Shifting the culture has been my interest from the beginning."
A common goal for all of these makers also seems to be demystifying an opaque field. "Architecture school is completely infested with ideas of great men doing their big solo achievements, changing the world," says Wagner, who graduated from Johns Hopkins with a master of arts degree in audio science, specializing in architectural acoustics. "It suffers from delusions of grandeur. The actual reality of being in architecture—and this is something that Dank Lloyd Wright does so exceptionally well—is that you are just going to be doing wall sections in Rev [architecture software Revit] for $30,000 a year. But you’re not gonna be, like, designing the new New York City."
Blank Gehry says that his meme practice, which began in early 2020, was inspired by his disillusionment as an overworked young architectural designer. In the beginning, it was simply a catharsis shared only with his friends and family. "In architecture firms, it’s more of a top-down hierarchy, and it’s predominantly white male," he says. "One word to describe the culture essentially is toxic. There’s a disconnect between the people entering the profession and people who have been in the profession who try to exploit their labor."
"Young people are disillusioned with working under these conditions," Blank Gehry adds. "Your only outlet is to make fun of things."
Now, he’s not just sharing work inspired by his own frustrations, but being tipped by followers about issues in architecture all around the world. "A few months back, Architectural Digest India posted about a residence designed by a well-known architect and the caption was very caste-ist, essentially celebrating and validating the upper-caste status of the client," he explains of the post one of his followers flagged to him. "A lot of other people criticized them for shoddy architectural journalism. Eventually, they edited the caption."
Even though DLW maintains that its goals for the page are "Not That Deep," it admits to wanting to "end the myth of ‘the calling’ in architectural work," show that "passion doesn’t pay the bills," and help people see architecture as "labor, and our labor must be organized." It frequently highlights unionization efforts—like those by the Architectural Workers United—and blows up job posts that encourage overwork with phrases like "no 9-5 mentality." (Because of negative attention stirred up by Dank Lloyd Wright, said post was edited to remove the phrase.)
"We all share a hope that architecture is worth saving from the corrupting influences of fame, power, and profit," the DLW team writes. "This common optimism is a crucial point because it’s so easy to fall into accepting ‘the way things are’ and then sitting back and letting our futures be cannibalized for the short-term gains of capital."
But it’s hard to parse how much memes will contribute to a large-scale industry transformation. "I wouldn’t say memes could actually cause any social change. I don’t think they have the power to do that," Blank Gehry admits. "But I definitely think bringing up these issues in this quick format with the potential to go viral could spark discussions, which could lead to real-life organizing."
Though followers lust to know the identities of their favorite meme creators, many of the creators take their anonymity seriously, for various reasons beyond anonymity’s being a norm of online shitposting culture. For Dank Lloyd Wright, anonymity makes the group project about the content and not the creators. "There’s a lot of great ‘anonymous’ architecture; this is ‘anonymous’ architecture media," the DLW’s members write. "It helps us stay out of the endless personality battles of online discourse." They maintain that they aren’t embarrassed by any of the work they post and personally stand by the account’s politics—which has recently shared pro-choice content. "It’s just that DLW isn’t about us."
More seriously, staying anonymous is a simple way to avoid being sued. "I wanna be able to call out people that are committing crimes when that happens," says Wakefield, who refers to people selling knockoff furniture in his area as "local criminals."
For those who work in architecture, the fear of retribution is even more intense. "There’s still a level of paranoia," says Load Bearing Column. "I feel like the industry is still kind of old-fashioned." Blank Gehry agrees: "People choose to remain anonymous because of backlash from their place of employment and chances of future opportunities in the profession. It’s a very small world."
Though Scavnicky feels tying his identity to his content is necessary, he confirms that the fears many meme makers have are legitimate. "People’s jobs get threatened," he explains. "Anonymity is a necessity in such a toxic place—for now."
One of the most promising aspects of this online architecture community is that it allows people without a formal background or bona fides to be a part of the conversation. "My dad’s an oil worker. I grew up blue collar. I make a decent living, but I don’t own a $50,000 sofa. I’m the kid with my face pressed up against the window of the candy store," Wakefield says.
But none of this matters if you make great content; in fact, Wakefield’s status as an outsider is what allows him the freedom and creativity to make work that resonates with a wide audience. He recalls when he had only 500 followers and posted a meme making fun of Italian sofas and a few days later found himself with 5,000. "I feel like a rather ordinary person just reflecting ideas back, maybe showing Dwell or Architectural Digest what people on the ground level might think."
Cyber Ex Boyfriend, a 25-year-old from the suburbs of Dallas, has no formal education or work experience in architecture or design, but was inspired to start roasting homes on TikTok during the pandemic. "I redid my room during corona, but I got kind of frustrated because so much of it was geared towards a certain audience and a certain demographic and a certain taste and style," he says. "But with online content creators it’s a re-youthification of architecture, design, and interior design culture."
Adding to this refresh is Louisa Talks Buildings, a TikTok account with more than 392,000 followers run by 18-year-old Louisa Whitmore. "My perspective is ‘man on the street looking at a building,’ which I think is a very important perspective because those are the people who are actually experiencing the building," says Whitmore, who initially blew up because of an evisceration of 432 Park Avenue, a luxury skyscraper she encountered on a family trip to New York City. "A lot of the responses I get to my videos are condescending things like ‘Build a building first and then talk,’ which is a very weird response. Everybody lives in buildings and everyone looks at buildings. It’s not like art where you have to go to a museum—you can just walk by it and have an opinion on it. But it’s so much harder to express that opinion without some very weird pushback."
Luckily, negative comments haven’t discouraged Louisa or other online creators—whether professional architects, hobbyists, or aficionados—from creating. "I think that there’s more room in architecture criticism for new voices," says Wagner. "I hope by doing McMansion Hell it opens the door for other people who are coming from unconventional backgrounds, which ultimately makes architecture criticism a more diverse and interesting field."
At the very least, it could be funny along the way.
Illustrations by Joanna Neborsky