Cottagecore, Japandi, Dark Academia: Cutting through fads on Instagram and Pinterest to figure out what I genuinely liked required strategy — and expert help
The only bad thing about this ragtag inheritance was that it was entirely devoid of style. The best thing was we had the necessities, so we could take our time figuring out what “style” even meant to us. Because in a time of bountiful inspiration — when a thousand trends bloom on Instagram and Pinterest, and online shopping provides custom couches and antique lamps with alarming ease — identifying our personal aesthetics has been a mess.
As San Francisco interior designer Noz Nozawa told me: “Your appetite is always bigger than your actual stomach. The same is true of design.” I sought the counsel of other interior designers, stylists, artists and aesthetes, too, all of whom echoed: We’re in an era of overwhelming options, and it’s never been more challenging and more possible to exercise an individual taste.
I’d been enticed by plenty of groovy, low-slung living rooms and sleek home offices on my social feeds; but I also had the sense that these visions were someone else’s taste, not my own. Leonard Bessemer, a furniture designer and the founder of Objects for Objects, confirmed my suspicions: The ease of one-click inspiration often doesn’t lead to lasting fulfillment. “People want to imitate really cool aesthetics they see on Instagram, which I think is great, because then your home is going to look nicer,” Bessemer said, “but the fallacy is that it isn’t necessarily your personal style.” When the shine of the trend fades, you’re living with a boucle chair that feels like it belongs in someone else’s home.
I obviously needed a much firmer sense of my own taste to navigate this seemingly infinite landscape, and my path toward a personal interior design style had begun to remind me of a different trip I took a few years ago. Back then, I was struggling with fashion overwhelm, so I adopted TikTok’s favorite framework — the three-word method — developed by stylist Allison Bornstein. The approach isolates three adjectives that should allow you to articulate an entire aesthetic. Bornstein’s words, for example, are classic, ’70s and elegant. Figuring out my words (playful, edgy, effortless) helped me both streamline my clothes and shop more intentionally. I wondered if the method could also apply to my home.
I messaged Bornstein to see if she’d thought about using these words for home design. My timing was perfect. She had just moved into a new house and realized she badly needed to amend her three-word method. “I bought a couch that was so freaking cool, very ’70s, very artful and interesting,” she told me over the phone. But the couch was uncomfortable. She realized that she needed her home to be warm; “warm” was one of three keywords that should describe everything she acquired. “I just got so excited because the couch was so cool. So, we all make mistakes. And hopefully not everyone makes a mistake as big as a vintage couch.”
To “find the words,” she suggests looking beyond images and reading about interior design. She even suggests expanding the method to four words for interiors: your core three and one additional word for each space in the home. For example, if your words are modern, earthy and elegant, you might want to add “calm” for your bedroom and “eccentric” for your office.
Bornstein and I chatted about how, for interiors, there’s a different finessing of sensibility than for fashion. For example, I need a little humor with my clothes: an acidic color, an ironically glamorous pair of boots. Yet “playful” definitely did not make it into my home decor pantheon. In fact, that word was the impulse behind some of my greatest home-furnishing regrets. I bought an embarrassingly expensive mirror with imprints of people applying lipstick on it; it looks just as complicated as you’re imagining. My partner suggested I stop buying food-themed stools. In my defense, it’s wild to live in a time when you can type “stool that looks like ear of corn” into a search bar and find just what you’re looking for.
At the time of the regrettable stools, I felt so envious of people who aligned with the trends of the moment: cottagecore, dark academia, Japandi. Yet I resisted falling into a ready-made look. Shannon Maldonado, the creative director of home store YOWIE, agreed that drawing a distinction between what inspires you and what you actually want to live with is tricky. Like Bornstein’s three words, Maldonado suggested a radically simple method of her own. She advised asking yourself: What have I always liked?
“What things do you react to on your own consistently, versus stuff that the algorithm is feeding you?” She suggested keeping tabs on colors, textures, art styles and patterns that have appealed to you for years. “There are certain things throughout my life I’ve always been attracted to, like line drawings. You’re always going to see things that will entice you or influence you. But I think it’s exciting when you start to figure out the things that you really love. And that really does take time.”
Defining your aesthetic also requires playing around with words, says Bornstein. For example, “sleek” could apply to both industrialist and minimalist — but the color schemes, atmosphere and textures of those styles are very different. I found if I broke down popular decor trends into their three-word components, I could start to pick out some words that resonated individually. Cottagecore would be rustic, romantic, soft. Dark academia: moody, gothic, cultivated. Japandi: organic, utilitarian, sleek. Cultivated — I liked that one! Utilitarian — not so much.
I found it particularly helpful to list words that didn’t resonate. I didn’t like “spare” or “neutral” at all. I was anti-minimalist, but was I maximalist? I landed on “lived-in.” I would whine when my partner suggested a black iron coffee table because it was “too masc.” But was my style “femme”? No, but it was “lush.”
Another tried-and-true strategy, according to Tamara Kaye-Honey, an interior designer and the founder of House of Honey, is to conduct an interview with yourself. Kaye-Honey noticed many of her clients were lost in a sea of inspiration. So, she developed a questionnaire about taste in general: “What’s the last book you read? What’s your favorite thing in your home? Are you a morning person or night owl? What’s your favorite hotel, your favorite restaurant, that song on repeat, your favorite movie? Margarita or martini?”
The most important thing, Kaye-Honey said, is that your personal aesthetic means something to you. It’s a feeling. If you feel that one dining table is “martini” and one is “margarita,” and you know you’ve got a three-olive aesthetic through-and-through, you can choose the right table with confidence.
Bessemer suggested going even more associative or even onamonapeatic, like oozy or cushy. “What word is gonna give the emotional feeling?” he asked. And that’s how you avoid the algorithm, because it will never understand oozy the way that you do.
That’s one of my words, by the way, for my home office, which I only isolated in my conversation with Bessemer. I found the best way to identify my words was talking them through — professionally, for this article, but also over the past few weeks with friends, asking if they thought something had a “martini vibe.” At an antiques market, I picked up a lamp that seemed particularly “cultivated” and knew it deserved a place in my home. I rejected a set of sculptural dining chairs because they weren’t “lush.” And, maybe as an explanation for why I had to let all this thinking marinate for a while, I finally settled on “lived-in” as my last — and most clarifying — word.
Maggie Lange is a writer who covers style, culture and art. She lives in Philadelphia.