Above: Iceland House, a digital architectural project by London designer Charlotte Taylor and Milan’s Évoque Lab.
Picture a world in which you exist only as a digital avatar. Your home is designed with waterfall walls rather than oak. The exterior is surrounded by flames rather than lush green landscape. As for your property’s location, please consider the most remote part of the globe, where neither the laws of physics and geography nor permits and budgets exist. It’s hard to envision, right?
Enter tech’s new obsession: the metaverse. A term coined by the writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, it refers to a place where virtual, augmented, and physical realities collide in a fully digital world. It goes beyond non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and cryptocurrencies and crosses into gaming. If you’ve ever created a house in Animal Crossing or the Sims, then you’ve experienced interior design in the metaverse at its most basic level.
“The metaverse offers a sense of ‘familiarity’ with the physical world but challenges scale, materiality, physics, and function,” says architect Luis Fernandez, whose MetaEstates_Gallery project put a focus on displaying art in surreal natural settings, juxtaposing elements that don’t coexist in the real world. Tiffany Howell, the interior designer behind Night Palm studio in Los Angeles, adds: “You can build spaces that would otherwise be architecturally impossible in locations that one could only dream of—it’s an opportunity to bring dreamscapes to life.”
But is this real or simply a gimmick? And if it’s just a gimmick, should we be celebrating it? In March 2021, the first digital house, created by artist Krista Kim, sold for 288 ether tokens—equivalent to $514,557.79 at the time. In August 2022, Fernandez’s Meta-Estates_Villa sold out as an edition of 42, with buyers ranging from NFT collectors to award-winning TV and film producers.
Though it seems that the biggest benefit of buying a meta-property right now is bragging rights, there are other reasons. “These assets are being purchased as sets for shoots and movies or a digital space to exhibit art collections,” Fernandez says. He also sees them as entertainment venues or even just places to interact with people in a more personal way than over Zoom.
Often, the metaverse is positioned as an overcomplicated idea. Yet many of us are already there, using multiple platforms to communicate and meet in the virtual world. And while Facebook’s parent company may have changed its name to Meta in October 2021, its platforms have never been complex beacons of innovation. A simple scroll on Instagram (another Meta company) shows avatars of its employees that neither look like them in the most basic sense nor eschew the beauty standards of today. Part of what makes social media interesting is its spectrum from unfiltered reality to aspirational fantasy, and Meta’s avatars deliver neither. Added to that, this October internal documents revealed that Horizon Worlds, the company’s metaverse platform, is falling short of internal performance expectations, with glitchy technology and disengaged users. (The company’s stock price dipped below $100 for the first time since 2015.)
But don’t be fooled by one company’s short-term challenges. Whether we like it or not, global interest in the metaverse is building to a fever pitch. That means we will be seeing more digital interiors soon, simply because of just how intertwined the space is with shopping. The fashion world is obsessed, and as brands expand their digital presence they’re going to need pleasing interiors for their stores. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting people to spend money.
As your avatar becomes more like you, it will be individual designers who entice us in with improved architecture and interiors. “Their understanding of the technical limitations of space will ease the shifting between the real and digital worlds,” says Ismail Tazi of Trame, in Paris, who is working on an art collection that seeks to push the boundaries between physical and digital spaces. Likewise, designers are using the metaverse as a new platform for exploration. “The surprise is discovering that within this seemingly limitless space, you can encounter new challenges you’d never considered,” says Harry Nuriev of Crosby Studios in Brooklyn.
Metaverse interiors still feel so primitive that the escalating hype seems overwrought. That’s not unexpected; most technological advances follow that pattern. Design in the metaverse as it exists now is more a form of entertainment than anything else. The average person will experience it through brands and gaming much sooner than they’ll own a second metaverse home on Mars. But it’s that idea of limitless potential that will undoubtedly continue to pique our collective interest.
Those who dismiss the metaverse will be left behind, simply because it will eventually become even more pervasive. But only when it surpasses gimmick and starts to change people’s lives through practicality will it have real impact. Consider shopping online from your living room: Your avatar, built to scale, tries on outfits in the metaverse. All this within a wild digital interior that’s much more appealing than anything in reality. That’s the future.
Kristen Bateman is a writer based in Brooklyn.
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE