We all love Instagram, right? After all, we’re all on it – from interior designers to artists, makers, stylists and writers. It’s a friendly place, and visually attractive too, unlike the vipers’ nests of pithily written content that other sites can become. Recently however, researchers at the University of Bath declared that social media is killing creativity. Apparently, scrolling mindlessly through posts, reels and stories prevents us from becoming so bored that we go and develop new passions or skills; instead, we languish contentedly in a moronic state of ‘superficial boredom.’ If this is true, then the news gets worse: the average amount of time internet users spent on social media last year is 147 minutes per day. Add all those minutes together, and I could – and perhaps should – have written a novel, or learnt to play the cello, read Proust in the original, or at least knitted something useful. No wonder there are people who do social media cleanses in January.
But before we beat ourselves up too much over the amount of time we spend doom scrolling, what about the inspiration that we derive from Instagram? What if we’re not chuckling our way through cat videos, or stalking ex-boyfriends’ new girlfriends, but are actively engaged in close examination of images posted on notable design accounts, trying to find an original idea for a kitchen? Or being reminded by a gardener’s grid that now’s the moment to bed in bare root roses, and start our sweet peas (aka ‘bloom’ scrolling)? “I don’t think that Instagram is the enemy of creativity,” remarks Brandon Schubert. And, “I find Instagram far less of a hindrance to the design process than something like Pinterest,” says Philip Hooper, joint Managing Director of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler. “Instagram at least allows you to use it as a library of images, picking things out which are inspirational and a potential catalyst for ideas for projects one might be working on, whereas Pinterest ends up being a jumble of unrelated aspirational shots.” But then Brandon follows up: “where I think Instagram becomes pernicious is when it influences everyone all of the time.” Evidently, it’s not clear cut. So how do we ensure that we are using Instagram to improve our creativity, and not kill it?
Firstly, let’s look at the negatives, which include the annoying algorithm; “Instagram rewards certain colour combinations and highly patterned rooms, because calmer interiors don’t look as attractive on screen,” explains Brandon. This is fine – and can be fun – as long we don’t fall into the trap of judging the merits of a room by its number of likes. Also, we need to remember that Instagram will feed us what it thinks we want to see, to the point that, if you’re susceptible to a frill, it’s almost possible to start believing that kitchen cabinets should now all come with skirts, rather than doors.
Another issue is that Instagram isn’t a reliable witness. We’re not just talking about the filters, and the ability to increase and decrease the warmth or saturation of an image, but the social media-driven competitiveness of demonstrating interior style. While Brandon points out that this “has helped do-it-yourself interior designers find inspiration and new techniques by seeing what other people have done,” conversely, “people can feel like their homes don’t live up to what they see on Instagram.” It tempts us into late-night Insta-trawl-and-hauls, Burglar Bill-ing our way to instant room-sets: “that’s a nice ruffle-edged cushion, I’ll have that; that’s a nice scalloped lampshade, I’ll have that; that’s a nice bobbin-legged side table painted in Farrow & Ball Inchyra Blue, I’ll have that.” Not only would our taste develop more organically if we were to approach the process more slowly (and spend time getting our eye in at, for instance, antiques fairs), but there’s every chance we’ll soon no longer want anything that we’ve just bought, because “Instagram speeds up trend creation, adoption and saturation to the point where it sometimes feels like nothing is new anymore,” says Brandon.
The key – aside from favouriting the accounts we want to regularly see in our feed – is to ensure we’re not using Instagram and other social media to the exclusion of everything else. And, maybe we shouldn’t act on it quite as instantly as its name suggests we should. “When I see something on Instagram that has inspired me I will save it the same way I would an image from a Book,” says Philip. He explains that he finds inspiration in all sorts of mediums, “it could be a detail on an 18th century dress of Spitalfields silk that inspires a grand curtain design, or a Renaissance oil painting could provide ideas for a simple piece of furniture, or travel – and using your eyes to engage with your surroundings.” And while yes, museums and galleries have Instagram accounts, and we can follow someone else’s trip through the streets of Lisbon, appreciating the tiled houses that they choose to share, there are, says Philip, “gleaning details of atmosphere that can never be passed on through a two-dimensional image.” (Maggi Hambling is one of the few artists who does not have an Instagram account – or indeed a computer. “I thought people would look at an image of a painting in a tiny square, and think they’d seen a Rubens, when they hadn’t,” she says.) Similarly, Brandon notes “books, magazines, in-person visits to all sorts of places. That all goes into the barrel of uncategorised memories in my head and some of it eventually comes back out months or years later. I try not to look for inspiration specifically, but close my eyes, use my own imagination, and think of things without intentionally consulting external influences.” This does, of course, involve putting down his telephone – and what should be noted is that there are designers who don’t necessarily work from images at all; Nicky Haslam decorated an entire ranch based on a novel, specifically Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.
That said, notes Brandon, there are moments when having an image in front of you – which might well have come from Instagram – is not only helpful, but vital. “Into this category, I place curtain-making, architectural detail, and joinery,” he says. “Because with these things, there is a right way and a wrong way to approach them, and if, say, I’m, thinking of ideas for a stye of cornice, I will look at loads of images. People have been working on perfecting their craft in these areas for hundreds of years. Why on earth wouldn’t I try to learn from that?” (The heading of my bedroom curtains, incidentally, is inspired by a pair that hang in Emma Burns’s house – that I saw on the House & Garden Instagram feed.)