As with so many tastemakers today, Colin King’s rise to design prominence started on Instagram. Just a few short years into his career as a stylist and photographer, the 32-year-old, self-taught maven has an agent, a forthcoming book deal, and his own line of rugs. His Instagram is filled with images of quiet, colorless rooms, tableaux of rustic vases, gauzy curtains, and delicate twigs illuminated with gentle rays of natural light. “This reminds me of Europe!” says one comment on a photo of three white vases. “Fabulous composition! Give peace!!” gushes another to a glass of water placed on a stone table.
Shunning the anything-goes, oversaturated look of recent memory, King is part of a growing, like-minded group of young aesthetes—from decorators and product designers to retailers and publishers— who avoid primary colors, shun anything steely or industrial-looking, and consider pattern strictly verboten. Their discerning, drama-free aesthetic is easily recognizable: earthy, neutral tones; Shaker-like simplicity; a love of abstract forms; and a penchant for natural materials. It perfectly suits our era of unending crises: It’s affordable, it’s authentic, it’s durable, and it transcends cultures. The look is as achievable and glamorous in West Hollywood as it is in Paris. All you need is a sunbeam, a clay pot, and a fanatical level of consistency.
Welcome to the Terracotta Cult.
“There’s a desire to go back to timeless shapes, forms, and materials,” King says, explaining the look that’s made his career. “We’re being inundated every day by hundreds of images, however long you spend on social media. Our eyes are subconsciously being constantly refined and refined.”
Indeed, while the medium of Instagram has long rewarded the churn of extreme, attention-demanding designs and locales, the platform is now fueling the opposite.
The Cult has many influences, but they’re all devoted to one Grand Poobah: Vincent Van Duysen. The Belgian architect and product and interior designer has grown in prominence recently as a sort of spiritual successor to the reigning king of Flemish design, 73-year-old Axel Vervoordt. Aside from winning a wide array of awards, the 58-year-old, Antwerp-based Van Duysen is the artistic director of the venerable Italian design brand Molteni & C., which produces the works of titans such as Aldo Rossi and Gio Ponti.
Van Duysen’s last major design for the brand before the pandemic was a simple wooden armchair called Walter. With its black-stained ash frame, gentle curves, leather seat, and invisible joinery, it looks like it could have been designed today, or 50 years ago. And that’s the point. “I work with very pure and natural materials like desaturated oak woods, lime-washed brickwork. Really pale nuances and toned-down touches,” says Van Duysen. “It’s in line with the calm and serene atmospheres I create.”
He’s pleased to see so many collaborators today following in his footsteps. “Where it was all about color, color, and even more color a few years ago, now they gravitate to these pared-down interiors. It’s a kind of awareness, a whole lifestyle. It relates to sustainability, and even to food—it’s about everything. This younger generation is much more about enjoying things in life.”
Tariq Dixon, the entrepreneur behind the online design shop TRNK (pronounced trunk) is a key purveyor to the Cult. Through his wares, he espouses a mantra of quiet living. “That’s the beauty of furniture, for them to develop texture and show their history,” Dixon says. “Most of the stuff on our site isn’t too delicate.” His furniture and accessories have a strong Scandinavian-modern bent, from brands such as Menu, Gubi, and Frama, as well as a line of furniture Dixon designed himself. There’s lots of marble, solid-black lamps, and metal-framed, low-profile chairs. “I always look for opportunities for very striking forms,” Dixon says. “They bring me happiness.”
Both Dixon and King draw inspiration from a new, like-minded design magazine, Ark Journal. The oversized Copenhagen-based biannual was founded in 2019 by longtime journalist Mette Barford as a magazine with “a more holistic view” of design, she says. “It’s about the way we live today. It’s not just about the sofa or the table, but the space and the people around it.”
To Barford, the interiors found in Ark Journal herald a cultural shift, hastened by the pandemic. “Staying at home for so many months has made us more aware of how our homes should look. It’s a new kind of luxury. It’s not about brands, but materials and sustainability. People will consume less but collect more.” And this next generation of mindful designers will lead the way. “We need to rethink our priorities,” Barford says. “Does the world need another chair?”