When Andy Warhol, American genius of mass-produced visual art, famously said “I like boring things,” he probably wasn’t taking into consideration what uses the print-to-order home décor industry might someday make of the words just then leaving his mouth. Today, at least eight different wall-art products bearing Warhol’s less-than-inspirational quote can be purchased on Amazon, plus three more on Etsy, all for sale for under $30 in a variety of cheerful fonts and frames.
To suggest that Warhol’s wall slogan epitomizes the vacuity of the art one encounters in a typical vacation rental is to risk ironic understatement. His quote—either a sarcastic celebration of dull taste or a declaration of care for what others take for granted in design—is too controversial and, well, too interesting for many Airbnb hosts to consider hanging in their properties. Somewhere edgy like Marfa or Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, maybe. As for most other short-term rentals (STRs) in Texas, in the words of Melissa Andrews, an Austin-based former Airbnb host and start-up entrepreneur in the STR industry, “There’s going to be a horse in sepia. There are going to be some pictures of cactus. And there’s going to be a ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ quote. You start to see the same thing over and over.”
Andrews is one of several industry veterans questioned for this article about the market pressures, design principles, and supply-chain realities of STR art. Together, these experts on the ground paint a coherent, if dispiriting, picture of why so much of the art we spend time with on vacation tends to be dull and cheeseball: Because we like it that way, and we vote with our reservations.
Andress Eichstadt, the creative director of Staging Studio in San Antonio, offers online and in-person training courses in the fine points of home staging—that is, filling out empty houses and condos for sale with furniture and décor. The company is intertwined with a related family business, BY Design, which shares the same 20,000-square-foot warehouse. Recently, both companies have opened up lucrative sidelines in STR decoration. Eichstadt says the STR side of BY Design has been growing rapidly, from about 2 percent of clients in 2021 to 40 percent in 2022.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that home stagers, who are already experts in sourcing, storing, and moving nice if bland-looking furniture and home goods on a budget, have become a force in the decoration of STRs. As Airbnb moves farther from its “sharing economy” early days, when half the fun of renting on the platform was experiencing a slice of someone else’s life, and becomes a vehicle for impersonal real estate investments and standardized consumer expectations, the task of decoration falls more and more to seasoned pros. Oftentimes, Eichstadt says, a referral comes in immediately after a staged home sells, when the buyer turns around and hires the stager to prepare the place for its new life as an STR.
Eichstadt nods to a few factors that STR decorators must keep at top of mind when it comes to art on the walls: how well it photographs in listings and on Instagram, how easily bachelor-party puke can be wiped off of it, and, above all, how much it costs. “As the designer, it’s important to think through it from the investor’s perspective, and also the cleaner’s perspective,” she says. “So, it’s not just about what is the coolest art that’s going to make the best background for a vacation selfie. It’s what’s the best art that’s going to make the best return on investment.”
One reliable principle when it comes to ROI on wall art purchases is that bigger is better. Small art tends to get lost in the mid-range photos that make up an Airbnb listing, and decorators often find it more cost-effective to purchase and transport one big piece to cover a wall than many smaller pieces. Eichstadt says BY Design often buys wall art from shops that pump out oversized paintings through a hybrid mechanical and creative process. “They’ll print it, and then they’ll have real artists take paint and quickly put it on,” she says. “So, each of them is unique, but they are mass-produced.”
Eichstadt stresses that the designers she trains and works with also put in effort to find one-of-a-kind touches that relate to the city and state that STR customers are visiting: display cases of medals from San Antonio’s annual Fiesta holiday, wall arrangements of vintage cowboy hats, and work by local artists discovered at Blue Star Arts Complex’s First Friday Art Walk, where artists sell directly to budget-conscious collectors.
Alex McBride works as design program manager for Portland, Ore.–based vacation rental management platform Vacasa, which represents about 35,000 STRs across North America, and from that pool averages about 150 opt-in design clients annually. McBride tells a similar story about the origins of the artworks she uses. Her designers get their larger pieces from retail aggregators, including the Wayfair and Williams-Sonoma families of brands, but they often source smaller pieces from independent creators on online marketplaces such as Etsy and Society6. For the latter category, says McBride, “Our designers are really focused on finding something that pays homage to the locale, but isn’t too kitschy or overt. You know, we don’t want to put sea turtles in every single coastal home.”
Like Eichstadt, McBride also mentions a wall installation of vintage cowboy hats as an example of her designers’ “unique” localized offerings. Sadly, however, when asked for a photograph of the Vacasa cowboy-hat arrangement, a company representative replies that only an “inspiration photo” is available, because the Austin STR’s guests “helped themselves to the hat collection.” One more reason, apparently, to hang big artworks, which guests can’t stow in overhead on the flight home.
Though professional STR decorating is on the rise, not every STR is designed by a rental manager or staging company; on the contrary, such professional services are still the exception to the general rule of DIY design by owner. Abby Hatteberg of Dallas is in business with her husband Luke both as part-time Airbnb hosts and, under the brand name Wayfaren, as makers of handcrafted décor that frequently sells to people decorating STRs. In her experience, Hatteberg says, there is very little gatekeeping in the STR decoration market, and she typically finds herself in direct contact with owners who are decorating their STRs themselves.
Wayfaren’s first successful product was a push-pin world map, used as an interactive decoration in STRs to track where different guests have visited from. The Hattebergs developed it after being unable to find a push-pin map that would fit in their modern living room. “We really couldn’t find anything that didn’t look like it belonged in, like, a really stale office,” Hatteberg says.
These days, that stylish map, which sells for $230, is featured on Airbnb’s sponsored Etsy page, called “The Art of Hosting.” Still, it’s not easy to compete with mass-produced decorations in a market dominated by budget concerns. “It is just such a fine line between what I can price my product at where it’s going to be successful in the market, but also be profitable for the business,” Hatteberg says.
Hatteberg says that now, when she and her husband dream up new products for Wayfaren, they think about what might appeal to STR hosts. Other artists and makers who are interested in trying to make a living, or even just a meaningful sideline, selling to STRs are well-advised to follow their example in this. On the other hand, the Hattebergs’ commitment to hand-craftsmanship seems to be, in the end, a labor of love, and not something most makers in this market will be able to afford to replicate.
“It’s important for the artist to recognize what their own market is,” Eichstadt says. “Are they able to create volume art that works for a volume decorator? If they’re that person, then they should reach out to the local STR decorator or designer in their area. But if it takes them painstakingly long hours to create their fine art—that is a beautiful thing, and I want that art in my home, and I want to pay for that, but an STR might not be the place for it.”
Unless, of course, you own an STR yourself, as many working artists do. Raul Rene Gonzalez, a San Antonio–based painter and sculptor, has converted his guest house into WerkHouse SA, an Airbnb crash-pad-slash-gallery for his own art. He says he’s made two or three sales of smaller items, all of them during his first year in operation. Even if he hasn’t managed to turn many renters into collectors, Gonzalez still feels his vision for WerkHouse SA has been successful. He says much of his feedback from renters mentions his art and says that it helped provide an energizing experience. He suspects the unique décor helps increase bookings, too. “I know three or four other Airbnb hosts in San Antonio, and it doesn’t seem like they’re as busy as I am,” he says.
Melissa Andrews is the Austin-based founder of an early-stage start-up called ArtUP Co-op, which aims to build an OkCupid-style app to link local artists to Airbnb hosts who might want to display their work. Andrews thinks Gonzalez is probably right that STR renters are on the lookout for something different when it comes to décor.
“I really think that that standardization of the art on the walls is creating a problem for the vacation rental industry,” Andrews says. “When someone is traveling, they are actually looking to have a unique experience. If they wanted standard, they would go to the Ramada. People who are booking an Airbnb, they’re wanting something unique. And then they show up, and they get Hobby Lobby.”
Andrews envisions a future of thousands of Airbnbs like WerkHouse SA all across the country—not necessarily artist-owned, but transformed by partnerships with local artists into live-in galleries geared to selling reasonably priced artworks to visitors who are on vacation and in the mood to bring home a souvenir.
“We’re opening up the space for emerging artists, but we’re also opening up space for emerging buyers of art,” Andrews says of ArtUP Co-op’s long-term vision. “People who maybe won’t go in a gallery—they don’t feel like that’s really their space. But when they’re in a vacation rental, they have time to sit with the art. I think we might be able to convert people who’ve never been buyers of original art to maybe take that first leap, because they’ve had breakfast in front of the same piece for three days in a row. They get extended time with it, which you don’t get at a gallery.”
Andrews has not been able to make this service a reality yet, only running a few experiments with the concept at STRs in Austin. She says her biggest roadblock has been marketing the service to STR hosts. Still, it’s a lovely vision and gives some sense of the broad untapped potential for visual artists and people who love art in the past decade’s explosion of vacation rentals.
Until or unless someone figures out a way to better harness that potential, however, we’ll remain mired in a world where STR wall art is abundant yet anodyne, geared more towards how it fills out a virtual listing than what it feels like to spend time with, and where the most interesting questions about STR art are the boring ones, such as: Who the heck makes this stuff? And why is it always the same?
Jay Reynolds, who has decorated about a hundred STRs with his Austin management company Zilker Properties, adds one more rule of thumb to the list of STR design principles, alongside the core tenets that works should be big, cheap, and wipeable: art should never be framed behind glass. If it is, you’ll get glare in the photographs, which both obscures the work and looks sloppy online.
“And if you can’t see it in the pictures, then, you know, what’s the point?” Reynolds says. “Because that’s what you’re selling, is pictures.”