The Cult of Pharmaceutical Decor

From quaalude candy canisters to string lights made of empty pill bottles, what's behind the trend of furnishings that glamorize prescription drugs?

Welcome to The Trend Times, a column that explores design fads in the age of doomscrolling.

During the pandemic, being quarantined inside our homes meant Interior Design Tok was the closest we’d get to an escape from ours. Videos of strangers living spaces provided the euphoric rush of visiting a friend’s house in the before times and hesitantly asking if it’s okay to touch an exciting new tchotchke on the coffee table. In the case of my new digital "friends," that frequently meant quaalude candy canisters, resin serving trays filled with brightly colored pills, and string lights made of empty pill bottles. 

As the collective mental health of the country plummeted—and drug overdoses were reaching a record highpharmaceutical decor became a way to destigmatize life-saving medication or glamorize drug abuse, depending on who you ask.

Though artists seeking inspiration from medication is hardly new, in the more immediate sense, this trend can largely be credited to Jonathan Adler, who has long been selling a midcentury, kitschy, Valley of the Dolls aesthetic to younger generations. He’s been pushing expensive oversized acrylic pills and brass prozac boxes for years, despite a steady drumbeat of backlash. In 2017, some argued that he was glamorizing psychiatric drug abuse, but the items nonetheless remained popular—to others, they make life saving medication fun and glamorous. In February, Adler himself felt compelled to post a TikTok making clear his motto is "live clean, decorate dirty."

Reanna Yenger has been a pharmacist for 13 years, but it wasn’t until the start of the pandemic that the 37-year-old began to notice an explosion of functional art featuring pharmaceuticals. She was inspired to make a couple resin trays filled with pills herself, thinking it would provide a creative outlet that’s a natural extension of her career. Yenger decided to list some items on Etsy to try and cover costs for supplies but Alchemy Art Co. quickly took on a life of its own—and not necessarily for the audience she intended. 

"Initially, I thought my audience for this art would be other pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, and healthcare professionals, but over time I think that's really grown to include many people who see my work as a way to view prescription drugs in a different and more positive way," she says. "I've had numerous people reach out and tell me how my pieces have helped them reframe their chronic medical or mental health conditions. I think the bright colors, glitter, and sprinkles help put a positive spin on taking medication and I'm a huge supporter of anything that helps to destigmatize mental health." One of Yenger’s best selling pieces is a base of faux $100 bills that combines pills and the Lizzo lyric "All The Rumors Are True." 

"We're making a statement through the pills that we are in thrall to these things, that our lives are in some ways controlled by them."  

This was the thinking that inspired 23-year-old Emma Atkins to take a bunch of their empty pill bottles and fashion them into string lights, after seeing a couple of other crafty people do it on TikTok.  

"I was just feeling really discouraged and down about everything…and thought it would be fun," they tell me over Instagram DM. "Every time they are in the background of a video or photo I tend to get at least one positive comment about them which makes me feel better…it helps normalize people needing to take medication for whatever reason and is a fun way to engage with medical products in a way that isn't health related!"  

Illustrations by Louis Otis

When I first noticed this trend, my gut instinct was to associate it with cheugy, over-medicated, Prozac Nation-reading millennials who think having an anxiety disorder makes them quirky. But I was shocked to find that many Gen Z people are into it, despite the recent flood of media exposing the corruption of the FDA and the danger of highly addictive drugs that were once marketed as safe. P.E. Moskowitz, the writer behind the Mental Hellth newsletter and a forthcoming book about the role drugs play in our society, says the impulse to align our identity with medication transcends generation and goes further than destigmatization; it’s about identity and finding community, especially during the pandemic.  

"People are very overwhelmed by the world, by the internet, by disconnection and isolation, so if they can label themselves as something, anything, they will—finding a diagnosis allows you to feel like you're part of something larger, taking a pill allows you to feel like you're part of a community (The Depressed, The ADHDers, etc)," they say. 

Though prescribed medication saves lives and obviously has uses beyond the recreational, the trend in some ways reminds me of the vast array of aesthetic signaling that’s inspired by a love of alcohol or cigarettes (which, in addition to Big Pharma, also have powerful lobbies!). A light made of an old Jack Daniels bottle or decorative ashtray are not just functional; they also signal to others the kind of lifestyle you’re all about.

Moskowitz also points out our culture’s obsession with "science," which, despite being "responsible for bomb making and Oxycontin," is seen as endlessly infallible and progressive. "People literally have shrines to our modern science in their homes in the form of pill decor," they say. "But maybe less cynically it’s kind of an acknowledgement of how much these things govern our life—we're making a statement through the pills that we are in thrall to these things, that our lives are in some ways controlled by them."  

As is the case with all art, the meaning is entirely dependent on the context of the viewer, but it’s interesting to see that happen so intensely with interiors objects sold at Neiman Marcus. If someone has a chronic condition that means being medicated for the rest of their lives, a giant acrylic pill might be a fun reminder to take their meds. But for someone who watched a friend go down the deadly (and not uncommon) benzo-to-opioid pipeline, a $150 dollar hiding place for Xanax is the opposite of comforting. 

Perhaps, as a millennial with an anxiety disorder, I’m overthinking it. As in the words of one TikTok user (that are really the words of Kourtney Kardashian): "It’s just never been my thing, so not into it, so not approved by me."  Bonus points for "drugs kill [cowboy hat emoji]" in the caption.

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