Too many places are STERILE and TORCHED — let’s make them COOL and FUNKY
In praise of Un-Grammable Hang Zones (U.G.H.Z.)
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Something increasingly common in the life of the Mach 3+ jawnz appreciator is that you’ll check out a possibly cool small maker’s webshop, trying to get a sense of what’s up with their whole f**king gestalt, and the site design will look… suspect.
The fonts, layout, and copy combine to feel, if not cursed, exactly, then off-puttingly hollow … clean, but in a charmless, lifeless, cookie-cutter, sans-serif way that makes you think of “optimized” direct-to-consumer business models and timeline brands — the kinds of wack companies that exist to sling “disrupted” Le Creuset knockoffs, fiberglass-Eames-chair rips in muted pastels, “minimalist” chore coats in primary colors, etc., etc.…
This design style is usually a strong clue that the seemingly cool jawn in question is, IN SOOTH, the bogus offering of some wack V.C.-backed brand trying to “scale” as fast as possible, appeal to as broad a swath of “tasteful upwardly mobile urbanite” customers as they can, and “do these 10x Ev*rlane numbers ASAP.” There is no spark of individuality, and no FRICTION (unless you count the swarm of pop-up windows you’ve got to close anytime you surf the d*mn web these days am I right?!)
What’s vexing is that SOMETIMES a brand with a cookie-cutter site is a genuinely cool, actually small maker who’s just using a prefab e-commerce template from, like, Squ*respace or whoever… The maker has outsourced the presentation of their idiosyncratic wares to 2022-era Big Tech, so of course that presentation is the opposite of idiosyncratic — like placing a bunch of cool handmade art in some subway-tile-and-exposed-brick-decorated WeW*rk.
As you can tell by taking one look at the “beautiful & blessed” miracle that is Blackbird Spyplane, we have a soft spot for internet aesthetics that tend toward the UNGAINLY and UNSLICK … Sites that feel noisy, homemade, and “off,” on some Craigslist / Geocities s**t …
… rather than deadeningly prefab on some [D.T.C. BRAND-NAME REDACTED] s**t !!
So why are we talking about this??
For a while now, Erin and I have been thinking about what makes a space — virtual and physical alike — feel popping and warm vs. torched and soulless. And what kinds of places we miss and want to see make a RESURGENCE!
Loosened lockdown restrictions and the seeming imminence of “metaverses” (JFC) only make these questions more vital. And recently, we had an EPIPHANY whose profound implications will ripple outward from today’s newsletter and, with time, catalyze an architectural / design revolution across both the digital and physical realms …
Here’s how it came to us. We were enjoying some excellent pizza at a spot called Hail Mary in Atwater, on the East Side of L.A., (shout out SpyFriend Rashida Jones for the tip), and digging the overall vibe of the place — positive ‘90s Native Tongues / Dungeon Family / backpack rap on the speakers, unevenly plastered walls, faintly sticky wooden booths, weird black quilted utility fabric on the ceiling — when we realized something about the place:
It was somehow cool yet UN-GRAMMABLE!!
The pizza was delicious & beautiful in a perfectly photogenic way, but the restaurant itself was charmingly un-photogenic, at least when held up against the dominant aesthetic fetishes of the current Instagram era.
It was a lovely and welcoming place to actually hang out, in other words, and the kind of place where you were not remotely tempted to indulge in the modern cyborg tic of whipping out yr phone and documenting yr visit for the timeline….
For instance, look at this suburban-Milwaukee lookin’-a** bar & grill style stained-glass fixture hanging over Hail Mary’s counter —
… this is a wonderfully unattractive YET vibe-enhancingly UN-GRAMMABLE piece of décor.
It dawned on us that whoever designed & decorated Hail Mary was fully steeped — whether they knew it or not — in what we call “UN-GRAMMABLE HANG ZONE” (U.G.H.Z.) Principles.
And, as we sat there vibing, we realized how much we truly love spending time in an U.G.H.Z., now more than ever.
So, yr asking, what’s an Un-Grammable Hang Zone??
It could be a few things, but what we have in mind specifically is the kind of warm, welcoming, unpretentious place that proliferated in the ‘90s, back in the quainter, earlier days of globalization — the type of teahouse, coffeeshop, dive bar, pizza parlor, etc. that features any number of the following U.G.H.Z. signifiers:
Big saran-wrapped cookies studded with M&Ms for sale alongside enormous muffins with jumbo chocolate chips,
Board games and a little library of FUNKY and/or classic books,
Second-run movie nights, or even, like, “Live Zydeco Thursdays”??
Slow internet / no internet,
A hodgepodge of mismatched china / mismatched furniture possibly including a beanbag and an old couch,
Maybe, like, a burlap coffee sack pinned to the wall next to a Japanese parasol as décor,
That stained-glass fixture pictured above,
A playlist full of, e.g., Talib Kweli and Jurassic 5 and nothing cooler than Tribe, OutKast, or Erykah Badu.
A bulletin board with a bunch of “DRUMMER WANTED” and “CATSITTER AVAILABLE” fliers.
An ersatz version of this kind of place can be seen today on Netflix, in streaming episodes of Friends, as “Central Perk,” but the real thing can be found I.R.L., too, albeit in dwindling numbers, from NYC to L.A. to Chicago to Oakland to Athens, GA, to Eugene, OR, to Chapel Hill to Bennington to a constellation of U.S. college towns, and outward to Berlin, Toronto, Barcelona, Melbourne, etc., etc.!!
Part of our affection for places like this has to do with ‘90s nostalgia — a relatively recent past that feels extraordinarily distant. And it has to do with our interest at BBSP in identifying the moment when aesthetics that were prevalent, only to become passé, round the corner of reappraisal and somehow become more popping than ever.
Digging beneath that, our affection is also about the modest, chill and non-corporate ethos that these places embody: “Come pay a few bucks for a big cookie and a big coffee served in a weird Garfield mug, sit a while with friends or a great book, maybe f**k around and do a puzzle, take a d*mn gander at the bulletin-board fliers and tear off a phone number so you can LINK & BUILD with a local ceramicist!”
That’s an ethos that sits in striking contrast to the new high-efficiency, low-humanity kind of eatery where you point yr phone at a QR code and do contactless payment before eating a room-temp grain bowl under a pink neon sign that says “Living My Best Life” in cursive… the kind of dystopian place, in other words, that exists substantially as its own watered-down image, which people can enter into — dazed and automaton-like — and maybe take a BLEAK selfie in front of the neon sign.
And the pandemic has only accelerated this dismal impoverishment of gathering spaces!!
Compare the two cafés above, chosen at random except for their immense illustrative powers: On the left is a Berlin spot called The Greens, in Mitte, offering “coffee & plants,” decorated with terracotta pots, matching sets of industrial furniture and floors tiled just so …
THEN on the right we’ve got a longstanding Oakland café called Jump’n Java (temporarily closed, prayers up), decorated with funky metal sculptures by local artist Mark Bulwinkle, wonky hand-painted murals, old dented-aluminum-topped diner-supply sugar dispensers and hella uncool (therefore cool) bamboo folding chairs…
No shots at whoever may have put ample effort into the spot above left, but we are clearly not the only people feeling FATIGUED and PANDERED TO by spaces that look like that, which I think is ALSO how you can account for the spike in love for classically charming and beautiful cliché-free pre-internet hang zones, most prominently Bemelmans Bar in NYC:
Shout out to Bemelmans, an inarguable treasure. And shout out to the immensely & similarly charming Tosca, in San Francisco, where Erin & I had dinner the other night and which never disappoints.
BUT these places are not U.G.H.Z. because they are highly grammable and therefore susceptible to invasion by annoying hordes, screaming out to be documented on the TL just like a much-less-charming N*stlé-owned Blue B*ttle that’s all blond-wood “Scandinavian” furniture and clean white angles…
Right now, in year ~15 of the fetish for “clean lines” and “understated elegance,” I wanna hang for hours in a FRUMPY, MISSHAPEN, INVITINGLY INELEGANT place like Jump’N Java instead, during which time I would never even think to take out my phone and let the feed know I was there because, despite being packed with vibey curios, the place is way too much of a CHAOTIC VISUAL HODGEPODGE to “work” in the form of an iPhone pic on social media …
There is one major flaw with U.G.H.Z — the food and drinks on offer typically range from passable to abysmal !
But it doesn’t have to be that way, and that’s why our visit to Hail Mary was eye-opening: The décor was firmly on that good U.G.H.Z. s**t AND the food was very good, too.
If I was opening a SPYPLANE CAFÉ right now I’d brew some fair-trade single-origin Maru-caliber coffee BUT I’d serve it in chipped Far Side mugs alongside ARTISANAL ENORMOUS COOKIES WITH ARTISANAL M&MS ON THEM 😉!!
And not only would my discerning clientele respect the Mach 3+ U.G.H.Z. aesthetic but they would actually savor the provisions while inhabiting a real place, conceived of with love and care, ROOTED in the local soil with ZERO INTEREST in “social media shares.”
If disgustingly high rents prevent such places from existing these days, making it so that the only ppl who can get into the café game are V.C.-a** / N*stlé-type operations, well, that’s just one more illustration of how we need to fight hard to reverse all manner of WACKLY ANTISOCIAL TRENDS in modern life!!
Here’s a beautiful thing about U.G.H.Z Principles — they apply to virtual spaces, too. (No, you would probably never “gram” a website, but we are talking metaphorically here baby!)
Compare the TORCHED “contemporary” e-commerce templates below left, for instance, with the heavily UGHZ’D-OUT cool webstores and Geocities pages below right:
I would never “join a community” or cop a jawn (at least not excitedly) at a place that looked like it came from column A, whereas I would be stoked to chop it up and share FAR-OUT visions with all manner of eccentric weirdos AND psyched to cop some FLY FUNKY s**t from a place that looked like it came from column B — that’s U.G.H.Z. magic !
To pick just 2 contemporary sites that effortlessly embody U.G.H.Z. principles (while keeping things tidier than the chaotic Geocities look), check out the webshop below of Mach 3+ Portland jawnshop Stand Up Comedy (who make their s**t look like a .jpeg-embedded Windows 95 era Word .doc with comic sans for the designer names), or the website of Mach 3+ California artist (and Blackbird SpyFriend) Shana Moulton:
One glance and you aren’t subsumed by “visual cacophony” (no disrespect to visual cacophony, which we of course love) but you can tell that these sites are clearly operated by cool people with unique & interesting taste nonetheless…
Listen — Blackbird Spyplane is “unbeatably prophetic” and influential, so it’s only a matter of time (could be months, could be more) until the holy wisdom we are spitting today reaches corpo forces.
Realizing that the neutered, rounded-edge aesthetic is TIRED, these forces may very well pivot to some focus-grouped, heavily diluted version of U.G.H.Z. Principles.
But we know that “unbeatable real ones” will ALWAYS detect the fugazi frequencies and go somewhere actually cool with BEAN BAGS AND BOARD GAMES instead!!
SPYPLANE: OUT ☮️
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