COLUMBIA — The design at the recently opened Front Coffee and Tap could hardly be more minimal. The libation and caffeination spot in the CanalSide development on the banks of the Congaree River is marked by a clean white interior, with little other color aside from modern furnishings and wall canvas art that is white and blue.
Owner Sean Powers told Free Times it has had at least one pronounced impact: It’s conducive for people who want to take social media pictures of their purchases, and otherwise browse during their visit.
“I think it’s a combination of versatility and design,” Powers said, describing the concept as “modern” and noting the lighter color palette opens the door for more creative interior design down the line. “Also, it’s just what is generally accepted. … It’s the trend right now.”
Indeed, a wave of restaurants and other hospitality businesses with minimalist designs and neutral palettes have opened in recent years throughout the country. Columbia is no stranger to this trend.
From downtown in the Vista to out the suburbs, many businesses have adopted such style, seizing on what academics say is a new generation’s tastes and habits — and potentially helping to redefine the aesthetic of “cozy.”
On the industry website Restaurant Development and Design, one of the top article topics is “neutral palettes.” Exploring this topic brings up stories on new restaurants, mostly chains, that prominently feature the minimalist, neutral design trend.
“The trend of minimal neutrality, it has arrived, it’s been here,” said Meena Khalili, assistant professor of design at the University of South Carolina. “Going forward, this will make sense. Nods towards safety and hygienic features will be key in all features of hospitality, retail and dining.”
She said this trend is explainable in two ways — data and theory.
The data, she explained, describes the trend as it is, marked by clean looks, clean lines, neutral palettes and, perhaps, a pop of color or letting against stark neutrals.
The theory goes like this — as people have grown more and more entrenched in a world dominated by mobile technology and constant notifications, they subconsciously yearn for less stimuli. Khalili said it’s an extension of a theory that famed Japanese graphic designer Kenya Ahara crafted to describe how technology and culture develop in tandem with one another.
“We’re seeing the spaces we inhabit reflect our behaviors,” she elaborated. “That space, to be most enticing for us to spend time in, might be the antithesis of the overload we’re experiencing daily from the overload of the screen.”
A forthcoming outpost of the rapidly growing Crumbl Cookie fits into the minimalist model. A company photo of a different store showed stark white walls, with pops of cream pink packaging that stands out. Stencil-like outlines of cookies dot a portion of one wall.
Local franchise partner Tyler Hinckley described the stores as “an experience” and nodded to the way people live alongside technology.
“(It) appeals to people that like to post on their social media and Instagram, to influencer-type people,” he said in August.
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The current design trend differs starkly from previous ones, particularly more cluttered ones from the ‘80s, said Robin DiPietro, a USC professor and director of the International Institute for Foodservice Research and Education.
She pointed to casual sit-down chains like TGI Fridays, Applebees and Chili’s, which aimed to generate a party-like atmosphere in their bars through their decor and their menus in those years. Independent restaurants were also “louder” than they are now, with more lighting and decor. Some could be considered “tacky” by today’s standards, she said.
DiPietro theorized that restaurants noticed that consumers, particularly millennials, wanted their dining experience to reflect something more akin to home, while also remaining compatible with their social media usage.
“it was really a millennial’s desire to be in a more simplified environment, not have too much getting in the way,” she said. “When you talk about social media, it’s much easier to take pictures (in this design).”
Khalili speculated the minimalist trend fits snugly into our pandemic-infected world as well. She pointed to the openness of the spaces, which provide the visual ability to see everything, and thus provide security.
“Spaces that have a nod towards those safety measures… it’s a trust mechanism, protection of ourselves,” she said. “If we’re feeling that we’re walking into an interior space and we see lots of draperies … we’re going to see it put upon to protect ourselves in spaces like this.”
Further she wondered if the new trend is emblematic of people feeling that neutrals may soothe people more than warmer colors.
“Does cozy really mean smaller and more refined now?” Khalili concluded. “Or does it mean more open and airy?”