At Primark, the £6 best-selling bikini of the season has pineapples on it. If it has sold out in your size, though, don’t worry: online shop Asos has three different bikinis with pineapples on them. It has got phone cases, necklaces, backpacks and dressing gowns to match, too. At John Lewis, one in five products sold in the summer party department has a flamingo on it, as does every other birthday card in Paperchase. Ditto the fairy lights in the US clothing chain Anthropologie, and the USB sticks in Urban Outfitters. The vases in the window at Zara Home are shaped like cacti, as are the ones at The Conran Shop. At Oliver Bonas, you can find watermelon-slice earrings to match the watermelon beach ball you picked up at Selfridges, which goes so well with your new Dolce & Gabbana watermelon-painted handbag.
Describe a 1950s Palm Springs poolside cocktail party using only emojis, and you capture the aesthetic of summer 2017. The colours are pink and green (a flamingo with a palm tree, a watermelon slice). The shapes – pineapple, cactus, Martini glass – are as sunnily evocative and as easy to draw as a smiley face. Move over industrial chic bare bricks and copper pendant lights, because we are living in the Age of the Pineapple.
If you thought pineapples and flamingos were last year’s story – well, they were. Flamingos starred in a Gucci advertising campaign, and novelty items emblazoned with pink birds were the runaway high-street success of 2016. Now, halfway through 2017, John Lewis reports that flamingo-related sales are up 40% year on year. “The flamingo is still king for us,” says buyer Lisa Rutherford. “It’s on greeting cards and wrapping paper, and it tops the sales list in every single category week after week. Now we have expanded into watermelons and cacti. We’ve got an inflatable lobster, too.”
Palm Vaults, in Hackney, is this year’s most Instagrammed cafe. The serenely kitsch pink-and-pistachio decor nods to the famous Beverly Hills Hotel, whose dusty pink walls are offset by Martinique banana-leaf wallpaper, which was designed for the hotel when it opened a century ago, and has become a classic. Authorship is hard to define in popular culture, but the Beverly Hills Hotel comes up again and again as the mothership of tropical kitsch. Its swimming pool is all swagged cabanas and striped beach towels, a stage set for an heiress in a kaftan to step out of a Slim Aarons photograph and order a margarita. Perfect, then, for our ultra-connected age, in which holidays have become intensely social. (Consider: a decade ago, the ultimate aspirational holiday image was having a paradise beach all to yourself. Now, it is sharing a giant inflatable flamingo with your best friends.)
“This look is a kind of shorthand for summer and cocktails and festivals. All those nice things,” says fashion editor turned style blogger Erica Davies. “Social media drives desire, because you open Instagram and see people dancing under palm trees at Coachella, and that makes you want a bit of that in your own life.”
The plastic lawn flamingo was a smash hit across America when it went on sale in 1957, the year of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock: an expression, perhaps, of a sublimated suburban yen for escape. “Flamingos aren’t something you see in everyday life,” says interior stylist Emily Blunden. “And that’s the whole point. By having one in your house, you bring a little bit of fantasy into your home. We’d all like to live in a Malibu beach house. But that’s not feasible, so we work with what is.”
You can buy a pineapple for 79p in Tesco now, but the fruit still carries symbolism from the days when it was a sign of status – there is a 17th-century painting in the Royal Collection of Charles II being gifted a pineapple by a visitor on bended knee. It is also a symbol of hospitality: in parts of the US, the pineapple is a traditional door-knocker icon, because it stands for welcome. Dressing your home as if setting the scene for a party comes naturally in the age of Fomo (fear of missing out), when events and experiences are the ultimate treasures. “It is about being positive, about having something to look forward to even when the world looks a bit grey,” says Davies.
Several times in the course of talking to people for this article, I asked a question about pineapples and was given an answer about emotion. Or I brought up cacti only to find the conversation segueing into the economy. “As designers, we reflect what’s going on in the world,” says Molly Park, head of design for home and gifts at Oliver Bonas. “These kinds of purchases are driven by emotion, so what we create is a reflection of society’s emotional needs at a given moment. Right now, we are going through an age of activism. Everyone has a cause. And that means that the colours and graphics that people respond to are quite punchy and loud.” She predicts that the upbeat mood of tropical kitsch will give way, next season, to something starker and more hard-edged.
A trend puts a time stamp on a product. Greeting cards and gift wraps are trend-driven because, subconsciously, you want the recipient to know that you took the time out of your lunch hour to buy those items specifically in honour of the occasion. Before tropical kitsch we had “coastal”: whitewashed everything, handpainted signs on rope handles, shells and starfish. Before that, “chateau glamour”: faux deer heads, chandeliers, velvet sofas. What is different about this look is that rather than being founded on a colour scheme (pebble and cloud white for coastal) or a specific piece (a chandelier for the chateau), it is built around immediately identifiable mascots. The flamingo brands your home just as a Nike swoosh brands your T-shirt or a smiley face sign-off signals the tone of a text.
Beneath the surface feelgood factor, tropical kitsch has a subversive edge, in its nostalgia for pre-Trump America. Popular culture has always had a soft spot for milkbar-era Americana – Katy Perry was namechecking Cherry Chapstick on I Kissed A Girl in 2008 – and this mood is currently making itself felt across film (the baseball jackets and retro diner uniforms in Baby Driver) and fashion (cowboy boots and stars and stripes in Raf Simons’s Calvin Klein debut, a collection soundtracked at New York fashion week by Bowie’s This is Not America).
And, for all its jazziness, this is a fundamentally egalitarian trend. Put bluntly, it does not make you look wealthy. Its origins are in the sophisticated Hollywood Regency taste of America’s first interior designers, Elsie de Wolfe and Dorothy Draper, but it is sold in a way that makes a virtue of the cheap, cheerful and temporary. Generation Rent want Instagrammable interiors that they can take with them when they move. There is no point saving up for a fitted kitchen in a rented flat, but you can buy a bar cart and a pineapple-shaped ice cube holder to go on top. The economic circumstances of the target market have shaped this trend. Interiors tell the story of our lives. In 2017, that message is written in emojis.