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Class of 2020

Class of 2020: How Kate Wagner Is Making Everyone Question Everything About Design

published Oct 29, 2019
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Who: Kate Wagner, architecture critic 
Nominated by: Sophie Donelson, former Editor in Chief of House Beautiful and author of “Style Secrets
Where to follow her: Twitter

Apartment Therapy’s Class of 2020 Design Changemakers is a specially-selected group of the 20 people in the design world everyone should know about by next year. We asked experts (and you!) to tell us who they think should be included—see the rest of the nominees here.

Why Kate is part of the Class of 2020: “It’d be enough to name Kate Wagner to the list based solely on McMansion Hell, her whip-smart and scathing blog calling out the injustices of ugly houses, from “pool-noodle cornices” to “car holes.” But her essays and talks pair belly laughs with enlightened ideas about living today. You hear climate change, she hears, plant a victory garden not a lawn. I rail against dour grey paint, she cites the divorce between conspicuous consumption (B-list paint “upgrade” now for potential resale later) from the actual joy of living. By connecting big-think ideas with our small-seeming lives, Kate is making us both happier and more aware home-lovers. And with her new column in The New Republic, she’s also the youngest mainstream architecture critic in America, pulling no punches with her memes.” Sophie Donelson, former Editor in Chief of House Beautiful and author of “Style Secrets

If you’ve had a rough day, a surefire antidote is a quick perusal of McMansion Hell, the hilariously irreverent blog serving up deliciously witty commentary on the state of American suburban design. The person responsible for these sharp-yet-slapstick-like critiques? Kate Wagner. “We’re a gateway to the broader world of architecture,” she says. “That’s something the blog does really well. It makes it accessible but also knocks design off its high horse. It’s a necessary intervention, I think.” As she sees it, everybody has an architecture critic inside of them—what she wants is to provide people with the knowledge and skills to be able to point to a part of a building and say, “I hate that,” or “I like that”.

“Architecture hasn’t done a good job of meeting people where they’re at,” says Wagner. “It’s not just architects at fault. It’s the fault of arts education in America, where most people K-12 don’t learn anything about architecture.” That’s why she says it’s up to her and her peers—as writers and critics—to be that introductory force. 

Wagner didn’t exactly set out to start a blog to be consumed by the masses—she originally began writing it as an inside joke for her then-boyfriend and a couple of friends. “I didn’t expect it to take off in any way, shape, or form. Incidentally, that actually sort of launched my career as a design critic,” she says. But her self-proclaimed architecture obsession began years before that when she was a child, on the way to a family reunion in Goshen, New York. “We were looking for Dunkin’ Donuts, and we took a wrong turn. We ended up in the parking lot of a Paul Rudolph building—the Orange County Government Center he built for the town of Goshen. It was unlike any building I’d ever seen,” says the critic. “It captivated my adolescent imagination. I spent a long time searching on the internet, trying to find out what that building was. That led me down this rabbit hole of architecture and architectural history… and to think, it all started with one single building.”

Wagner’s observations about McMansions—the gargantuan homes riddled with questionable design decisions dotting the streets of America’s suburbs—have helped her morph into a formidable voice within the airtight circle of architecture critics. “I’m on the Wikipedia page filled with good architecture critics,” she divulges. “I have my own Wikipedia page now—that’s how I define success.” While that’s a fair barometer for most, Wagner’s list of accolades and accomplishments goes well beyond the confines of an online encyclopedia. We sat down with the architecture critic and writer to talk about the rise of maximalism, her plans for writing a book, and reinvigorating the tradition of writing about the American landscape.

Apartment Therapy: What do you remember as being design inspirations growing up? What is your inspiration now?

Kate Wagner: I definitely grew up with HGTV back when it was not just house flipping shows. They had how to do embroidery, how to redecorate on a super small budget, stuff like that. I grew up in a rural area. I didn’t grow up in the city. My parents are not designers or connected to the design world. My introduction to design was definitely through pop culture. I always liked to look at picture books or coffee table books as a kid.

AT: What’s your favorite project you worked on in 2019 so far? (and why?)

KW: I started writing a print column in the New Republic called “American by Design,” which is about the intersection of design and politics in America. It allows me to look at this intersection in a diverse way. The first essay was about the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and all that mess that is. The next one is about graphic design in presidential primaries.

AT: Is there a specific piece or design of yours that you think is particularly indicative of who you are or what you’re trying to do?

KW: Absolutely. If I could point to any essay I’ve written, it would definitely be “The Archivists of Extinction” that I wrote for TheBaffler. It’s about people in groups of online communities that document everyday architecture in America, and what that says about the culture of preservation and how architecture approaches itself. That’s the keystone essay that synthesizes all the different ideas together.

AT: What three words would you use to describe your work or style?

KW: Accessible, irreverent, and interrogative.

AT: What makes you feel at home in your own space?

KW: It’s my house plants. I have a large collection of house plants. I love them very much. They stay with me. They make me feel stable. Because the seasons will change—and they change quite dramatically—but inside it’s always a tropical paradise. It offers comfort in a way. The other thing is seasonal candles. I really love a good candle.

AT: Any big plans for 2020 or beyond you can share with us?

KW: I am planning on writing a book. It’s a selection and group of essays about the American landscape. I’m in the proposal stage right now. Hopefully, that will be done by 2020-2021. I have to sign the proposal before I can really be like, “It’s mine, this is happening.” But I’m in that process now.

AT: What three words would you use to describe where you see the design world going in 2020?

KW: From a trend perspective, maximalism is definitely starting to emerge from this minimalist, new world thing we’ve been dealing with for the last 10 years. Playfulness is another one, too. And colorful. We’re past white walls at this point.

AT: What legacy do you hope to leave?

KW: I really hope to reinvigorate the tradition of writing about the American landscape that was started by the landscape writers, like John Brinckerhoff Jackson, who looked at everyday places from a perspective of sincerity and empathy. I hope my legacy is to make the world of architecture writing a more equitable and acceptable role. It shouldn’t be necessary that you’re from a family that works in design. Everyone I meet in this world, their parents were architects, graphic designers, or something like that. Making the world of design accessible to people from backgrounds like mine is important.