Making Meaning in AirSpace: How an aspirational aesthetic is standing in for real culture

When Stripe Partners moved offices to Bermondsey, South London one year ago, we tacitly knew what we wanted from a new space. It’s an aesthetic that’s self-evident. Exposed brickwork, raw wood, modernist furniture, preferably a storied industrial past. When we came across our new office we all agreed it was “really nice”, and none of us had to explain why.

Kyle Chayka coined the term ‘AirSpace’ in his article mapping this increasingly ubiquitous aesthetic, driven by global platforms like Airbnb – ‘The realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go’. Our new office is classic AirSpace. How predictable. And, yes, we find ourselves seeking out the same style whether we’re in the US, China or South America. For work or pleasure, AirSpaces are increasingly easy to find.

The origins of AirSpace

Nowhere is the AirSpace aesthetic more pronounced than in the world of West Coast startups. One origin story for the style is the quintessential startup space: the garage. Every self-respecting business in Silicon Valley started in a garage of some description. The garage Apple started in has been deemed a Historic Site.

The garage exhibits many of the essential characteristics of AirSpace. Stripped back. Open plan. Industrially furnished. But we instinctively know that a garage is something different. It does not qualify as AirSpace because it is borne of necessity. It is the home of the cash-strapped entrepreneur, putting their livelihood on the line to pursue a dream. They didn’t choose the garage. It was the only space available.

AirSpace, on the other hand, is home to people who have the disposable income to choose where they live, work and holiday. It is the pronouncement of a taste. In this sense what defines AirSpace is not the design itself, but the act of choosing a particular aesthetic. And it is a paradoxical choice. Because in choosing we can divorce the space from the very meaning that we are seeking.

Outsourcing meaning to AirSpace

As consultants, we’ve engaged with companies that self-identify as startups, despite the fact they employ thousands of people and occupy enormous offices. I’ve come to believe these companies choose the ‘garage’ aesthetic because of its association with a range of positive practices synonymous with small companies. It’s as if the design will ‘rub off’ on employees, instilling the virtues of purpose, hard work and enterprise by osmosis.

In this sense people who choose AirSpace are outsourcing work to their environment. By hiring an AirSpace, the business owner is buying a ready-made culture. Of course, this is an extreme characterisation. We all know there’s more to a positive culture than good design. But the thought is strangely seductive.

Recently I visited a well-funded business in San Francisco. Following our complementary lunch at the staff canteen, our host told us about the fully-fledged coffee roastery recently installed in the company basement. My instinctive thought was “how exciting, I want to see it!”, followed by, “what an amazing place to work this must be!” After visiting the roastery, however, I became despondent. Not because it was disappointing (as far as I could tell it was a great roastery), but by the speed with which the idea become old news. After I’d told a couple of colleagues about it, the novelty wore off.

On reflection I realised it was a classic example of a business choosing AirSpace for the wrong reasons. The roastery quickly became old news because it was so obviously unnecessary. It adds nothing to the inherent capacity of the company to produce great work. More than that, it doesn’t even pretend to be useful. The audacity of its presence is precisely the point: to afford its employees some bragging rights.

But AirSpace can be chosen for the right reasons too. On another trip to the West Coast I visited the cafeteria of another major company. Looking out onto the terrace I noticed a row of street food vans. “How did they get into a sealed off area?” I thought. Approaching the nearest van selling BBQ I asked what was on the menu. “You have to order inside” I was told by the occupant, who wore the same apron as the staff in the main canteen. Returning inside I found a touch screen terminal with logos corresponding to the vans. I clicked through, ordered my BBQ, and returned to the van to pick up my food.

The experience prompted me to reflect on the question: at what point does a ‘street food’ van stop being a ‘street food’ van? Clearly the experience was devoid of many of the elements we associate with the culture (the integrated IT ordering system somewhat undermining the pop-up ideal).

However, in important respects the vans were making a positive impact. They were certainly encouraging more employees to eat together outside and added choice to the canteen menu. So while the vans are slightly ridiculous on one level, on another they seem to serve a meaningful purpose within the context of this specific work culture. They are an example of AirSpace chosen for the right reasons.

Putting AirSpace in its Place

The two examples demonstrate the difference between getting AirSpace wrong and right. At worst AirSpace is used as a proxy for meaning – “My day job is boring as hell, but did you see our roastery!” This culture can create a kind of AirSpace arms race, with businesses investing in novelty for novelty’s sake. Features of AirSpace become objectified as a currency to be accrued and compared.

At best AirSpace creates a positive environment which enables people to focus on the real generators of meaning – the work itself and the people you work with. In the same way staying in Airbnb doesn’t mean you are ‘living like a local’, working in AirSpace doesn’t provide access to the purposeful world of the startup garage. It represents a seductive shortcut, but a misleading one.

So, to return to the beginning, what does this all mean for our AirSpace in South London? It suggests we should appreciate it for no more than what it is: an aesthetic choice. A choice that stands for little more than our predictable taste.

// Tom Hoy