The Uncanny Joy of Gawking at Ugly Things

The Uncanny Joy of Gawking at Ugly Things

Our appetite for home design content that’s absurd, garish, and downright bad is only becoming more insatiable, and the market is expanding to deliver.
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This story is part of Pretty Ugly, a package celebrating design that’s so bad, it’s good.

There’s a post on the Instagram account @PleaseHateTheseThings that I recall fondly and often. It’s a picture of a bedspread printed to look like the back pocket of an enormous pair of jeans, with a set of denim-printed pillows to match. Each time the image resurfaces in my mind, I have questions:

Do you sleep inside the pocket? Whose fantasy was this?

The post’s caption, "Blue jean babies are made here," is a true gem of comedic genius. Its comments, including the delightful "sweet jeans are made of jease who am i to dissagreee," are pure gold.

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that ugliness is in the eye of the beholder, but "There are a lot of things that collectively, people can agree on," says Massachusetts interior designer Dina Holland, whose 574,000 Instagram followers prove her point. She created @PleaseHateTheseThings in late 2018 as a spin-off of her design business account, @HoneyAndFitz, which it quickly eclipsed in popularity. Where Holland’s professional persona aligns with tastefully decorated New England interiors, @PleaseHateTheseThings is her crass, irreverent alter ego. Part of a burgeoning world of design-troll accounts, it finds delight in contractor and designer fails so hideous that they’re truly special, including light fixtures that cast breast-shaped shadows, or a pair of residential toilets installed side-by-side, captioned, "No one is this in love."

The perverse, exhilarating joy of gawking at ugly things is an age-old phenomenon of human nature. But rather than getting our fix from cruel carnival freak shows as we might have in the past, we’re online, cackling at the carpeted bathrooms of @PleaseHateTheseThings and other accounts like it—Instagram’s @whatthecrazyhouse (tagline: "Always visually antagonize when possible"), or TikTok’s @zillowtastrophes ("Hidden gems & outright disasters").

Online, there is no shortage of hideous content to behold, across platforms, demographics, and international borders. For high-fashion, grotesque nihilism in products and clothing, there’s @UglyDesign (tagline: "Only the crème de la crème") posting such treasures as an iMac CPU finding its second life as a mailbox, or a bikini made of plastic roaches. YouTube channel @aPrettyCoolHotelTour’s brand of ugly leans more into the dated, kitschy, and gaudy, detailing the interiors of semi-erotic fantasy hotels outfitted with all the classics: the enormous champagne glass bathtub, the too-many patterned pink wallpapers, and furry flourishes where they simply don’t belong. (Tagline: "Exploring America’s hidden gem hotels.")

But for the record, @aPrettyCoolHotelTour co-creator Margaret B. finds the majority of the spaces she posts beautiful and romantic; she only thought otherwise when she saw comments and reposts calling her content a horrific nightmare. "One of my favorite rooms in the world has a bed carved like a giant clam shell," she says. "As it turns out, a lot of people think it’s ugly."

Using the quantifiable metrics of the internet, it’s easy to see how the unsightly appeals to the basic laws of virality. In a world hyper-saturated with content, "Social media amplifies the bad and the ugly," says New York University researcher Steve Rathje. When you’re flooded by a sea of frequently contrived, forgettably anodyne content, ugly may not be ideal, but it is inherently exceptional. "It demands a reaction," adds Margaret B. "You can’t just ignore the weird erotic chair in the room."

Kate Wagner, creator of the super-popular blog McMansion Hell and its Instagram account by the same name, charts ugly displays of wealth, specifically the aggrandized or cacophonous architectural features occasionally gracing the homes of the one percent. "The McMansion is such a perfect encapsulation of American excess in the reality TV era," she says, and "the ones that really take off and do well on the blog are ones that are crazy." They’re the most maximal, dated, or bizarrely themed, including one specimen full of Santa Claus figures, or the many that haven’t been updated since the ’80s.

In these times of unprecedented income inequality, Wagner adds, dunking on the poor aesthetic choices of apparently wealthy people can be cathartic: "Being a hater is fun, and I think people will read McMansion Hell because they’re also haters. The reason for the hate is sometimes complex or psychological, but sometimes the houses just suck."

Regardless of who might be living inside, however, she also feels a genuine affection for these houses: "Ugly is transgressive; I’ve always found it more fascinating than beauty in general. These floor plans are a weird metastasizing organism that don’t make any architectural sense. How can you not be fascinated with that?"

As a natural consequence of ugly’s surging popularity, the bar for what’s considered adequately grotesque is perpetually and astoundingly being reset. In 2013, the year Swiss designers Jonas Nyffenegger and Sébastien Mathys started @UglyDesign, social media was awash with "pictures of cappuccinos, yoga, and [...] perfect interiors," Nyffenegger told the New York Times. They easily caught their early following with pictures of awkwardly proportioned furniture, not the surrealist, often dystopic wares they’re known for today. Out of necessity, the account’s only gotten uglier over the years, Mathys says. "I have the feeling that our followers expect us to get uglier with every post."

"One of my favorite rooms in the world has a bed carved like a giant clam shell. As it turns out, a lot of people think it’s ugly."

For Wagner, this means taking McMansion Hell from a weekly to a biweekly blog in order to meet "the demand for more and more absurd houses," she says. "To find that really spectacular house takes quite a lot of time and investment." In the early days of @PleaseHateTheseThings, "maybe an oddly placed outlet would make the account," Holland says, but today, "Your average, dated-looking weird curtain? That’s not doing it. That’s not @PleaseHateTheseThings enough.

Is it cheap to punch down at bad design? One hundred percent. But "it’s just meant to be light-hearted and funny," Holland insists. "Maliciousness is never the intent." (Conversely, Wagner does have a slightly malicious intent, but contends that poking fun at the one percent is like taking swings at Goliaths.)

Besides, ugliness has the uncanny power to bring people together. "It sounds cheesy to call it a community," Holland says, but her comments section functions like a digital public square, where followers take turns celebrating and roasting a clam-shaped bathroom sink. Her DMs are also perpetually inundated with new content to post. "People really do feel invested."

The OG, self-explanatory Instagram account @UglyBelgianHouses is still going strong after 13 years, having started at the dawn of the social media age. Despite having a separate, full-time job, creative director and account creator Hannes Coudenys has been able to keep the account going with the help of a "community around ugliness," he says, which diligently keeps him supplied with imagery. "I get a lot of pictures sent in. Some are actually quite experimental and cool, but I'm looking for more disproportionate stuff, where people change a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and you end up with this mishmash that doesn’t feel like beauty anymore." The good stuff is distinct, chaotic, and somehow difficult to describe; imagine the architectural flourishes of ordinary brick houses zhuzhed up to vaguely resemble a block of goose liver. Or Bane. Or a phallus. These are facades that only a mother could love.

The surprising popularity of @UglyBelgianHouses over the years has led Coudenys to book deals, TV appearances, and a litany of foreign accounts who wanted to build their own communities around ugliness: the unaffiliated but appreciated @UglySpanishHouses, @UglyGermanHouses, @UglyDutchHouses, @UglyIrishHouses and more, plus the American version, McMansion Hell. "Ugly Belgian Houses is a classic," Wagner says. "It’s been going since I was in high school."

Says Coudenys, "I get a lot of people saying, ‘Why don't you call it Special Belgian Houses?’" because, he admits, "ugly is a very harsh title." But he sees ugliness as a badge of national honor. In Belgium, he explains, "We’re all a bit surrealist; I like to say there’s a little Magritte in all of us." It’s a spirit succinctly expressed in his tagline: "Better to be ugly than to be boring."

Top art by Jon Stich

Related Reading:

A Comprehensive Taxonomy of Unfairly Maligned Building Materials

17 Projects That Use "Ugly" Materials in Beautiful Ways

In Praise of Bad Taste




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