The New York Review of Memes
northwest_mcm_wholesale and the rise of the shitposter as critic
These are stagnant times. At least that’s what the critics say. I don’t know exactly how much I buy into that idea since culture is always changing and moving, and (sorry) we’re all just getting older with each passing day. I think sometimes a genre of music or a movie originally panned by critics or certain design trends that were maybe considered ugly when they first showed can take on meaning over time. But I will say that right now, this very moment, there is something I notice a lot that does bother me, this feeling of sameness I can’t shake. It’s ugly new glass buildings going up where beautiful brick ones used to be or how I’ll see one funny video on social media and think “This is silly and original!” Then I see 10,000 more like it.
The sameness really can get to you if you spend too much time on social media, looking at the latest viral TikTok food trend or noticing that every other person in your Instagram feed has decorated their living room the exact same way. Endless scrolling can make your eyes hurt and faith in things plummet. And in what I can only consider an act of delicious irony, one of the few things that stop me from throwing my phone at a wall is that there are a number of meme accounts that offer bite-sized moments of clarity.
The one I find myself enjoying the most is @northwest_mcm_wholesale, much-needed, bitingly hilarious, and often dead-on skewering of our current bout of cultural stagnation. The account has amassed over 170K followers with some of the funniest, and smartest, memes that skewer the bland, boring, and sometimes just plain bad.
For starters, yes, the account is run out of the Northwest. It’s helmed by a guy named Nate. He grew up in “a boring mid-size American city” filled with the chain stores and corporate logos that sprout up like weeds, one of those kids who was curious for something, anything more than just whatever was easy and convenient. “I got into thrift stores and estate sales. They had the interesting stuff.” Nate ended up doing what countless bored and artistically-inclined people do, and he went to design school. One of the things he noticed was that design people were really obsessed with some of the stuff he’d seen in the thrift stores of his youth, namely chairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames.
“I came in through the back door with my whole perspective on design and what I like,” he says. “I was collecting Mid-Century chairs and coffee tables when I was young and before it actually occurred to me there was architecture involved in the process.” He says most people he knows that are interior designers always wanted a career in that field since they were young, so an interest in architecture came early on for them. “I learned architecture after I learned about the chairs the architects made,” so it was the other way around for him. But in the end, Nate says, “I just like things.”
And that’s the way to begin understanding how Nate has turned an Instagram account into a source of cultural commentary. He appreciates things so much that he needs to find some sort of outlet to point out that, simply put, there’s a lot of garbage out there. It’s ugly squiggle candles and horrible restaurant signage, people that will spend a lot of money on stuff they don’t need, and the absurdity of corporate wokeisim, and it’s resin river tables. Especially, those. Nate says he’s careful about who he points his memes at because he doesn’t want to hurt small businesses or designers, “Except maybe some of the resin people. Maybe I do want to hurt their business,” he concedes.
There have been more than a few recurring targets that Nate has taken aim at with his account, but the resin tables are a perfect example of one of the big themes you notice by following @northwest_mcm_wholesale. “I truly hate those,” he says of the tables you’ve likely seen on in some influencer’s living room, the ones with the rivers of blue flowing through walnut that have the look of something that’s been encased in the wood for centuries. Part of it is aesthetic and lasting impact. “You’ve got these really nice pieces of wood and you’re pouring this bullshit plastic all over it that ruins the wood. And I don’t even want to know the carbon footprint of resin.” But it’s a broader thing in his eyes. “These are things that have been fed to you by the algorithm and people haven’t bothered to do the basic sort of investigation or dig deeper and learn a little bit more about design.”
I’ve been racking my brain and trying to remember the first time I heard somebody call something a “meme.” I’ve been on the Internet for nearly my entire life, and I honestly can’t recall when I saw something we’d consider a meme today, but I have to imagine when I did, it was something contained within the small community of whatever message board I likely saw it on. Probably something making fun of crust punks or straight edge kids or something silly like that. But I became aware of memes, or the idea of them maybe 10 or 12 years ago. And what I understood then—and know now that I possibly misunderstood—was that a meme was an organic thing. It was something somebody made, then somebody else saw it, they passed it on, then somebody else, and another person, and then it went viral.
From time to time the meme would take on a life of its own and other people would rework it. Countless people would take some silly photo or piece of clip art that everybody was laughing at and add their spin on it. Eventually, the person who first made the meme was an afterthought, but from time to time, I’d notice they’d try to hold on. I’d see bios on social media that read things like “I created the Baby pooping himself meme! 500K views and counting!”
This is all a personal history of me and memes. I realize there are actual books on the subject and you could likely find an academic on Twitter who’d be willing to talk about the theory of memes or whatever. But I mention the personal history because it leads me to where I’m at now with memes, and how I’ve come to look at them as more important than we might give them credit for. I see memes as serving a purpose in our attention-drained society. Memes, when done well, can serve as a form of criticism. Bite-sized and (usually) funny, they are the opposite of most of what we’d call criticism. It isn’t a 5-10-thousand word review. It’s not even a 500-word review. Now, I love reviews and I think critics play a vital role in our culture. But I don’t know how many other people do, unfortunately. That’s why I appreciate memes. They aren’t always great. Some of them are downright terrible. But certain ones can get people thinking and talking, maybe even looking at things differently. And they’re easy to make. Nate isn’t sitting around all day brainstorming these ideas or looking for the perfect piece of art to type something witty on. Something pops into his head, he thinks of an image that’s popular as a meme template, and boom.
It’s easy to be dismissive and say @northwest_mcm_wholesale is just another meme account and that memes don’t do anything except make us laugh for a second, we share it, and that’s it. Yet that undersells the fact that the account resonates with a lot of people. It also looks past how meme accounts have become a viable source for not just entertainment, but also for filtering through the endless sea of content in a more condensed manner. Want to understand the arcane world of publishing—you’ve got @Publishersbrunch; chef and restaurant owner Eli Sussman has carved out a space for himself posting funny, but brutally honest looks at what the service industry can really be like.
You can find a meme account for just about any niche interest, industry, or even religion with a few seconds of searching, and the reason some of them resonate beyond the communities they come out of is that they say something that a lot of us might already be thinking but don’t know how to articulate. It maybe started out as more design-oriented, but with @northwest_mcm_wholesale, Nate has found an audience making fun of the cultural embrace of boing and sameness.
“People get so upset when you make fun of the sort of ugly signs or farmhouse chic,” he says about some of his critics. And the thing is that Nate is out there in the real world. When we talk he mentions he’s covered in sawdust. He says he tells people his job is a furniture repair man because “It sounds way less obnoxious than saying I’m a Midcentury furniture dealer slash meme maker.” He lives in Portland, which won’t surprise anybody that follows the account given its name and the fact that the city plays a part in many of his memes. Yet the thing that makes Nate’s memes stick is that it doesn’t matter if you live in Portland or Chicago, Atlanta, Austin, Brooklyn, or Minneapolis; there’s something eerily familiar about the jokes no matter where you are. The deluge of trends the high price we’ll pay for things we don’t care about, ugly architecture, and the cognitive dissonance we all seem to suffer from at times to it all is not relegated to any one place or region; it’s everywhere.
Ultimately, Nate swings back to what he sees as the big problem. It’s the fact that an account like his does have a bit of the old snake eating its own tail problem. He’s making fun of culture that really is driven by the Internet and he’s doing it on the Internet, on Instagram. He understands there’s something off about that. “Social media is, is the real enemy of design right now,” he says when I ask about this. He goes back to something we talked about earlier on in our conversation, about being younger, wandering into a thrift store, and seeing something he’d never seen before just sitting there. How he’d go to those places because he was looking for things that felt authentic or meaningful, items that could tell a miniature history of the world. “I think that the world that we live in now is kind of devoid of meaning in a lot of ways, that’s why there’s this endless quest for authenticity.” He adds, “That’s why I don’t feel bad fighting back on social media.”