Corporate-Core is in (again)

by Lola Webster
  • Our cultural mindset around ‘the workplace’ has shifted, and brands are trying to appease us
  • The landscape is becoming saturated with lo-fi content
  • Is there a link between the corporate Mid-century aesthetic trend and our increasingly 😬muddled😬 feelings towards capitalism?


AppleTv+’s MASTERPIECE Severance offers a scary but enticing premise: A company offers a brain-altering service that allows you to completely separate your work and home versions of yourself. When you enter work, you have no memory or concept of who you are on the outside.You complete your work like a good little corporate cog, and when you leave, you have no idea what you did all day. 

Having a balanced work/home life is a dreamy concept that most of us fantasise about – especially after the turbulence of the pandemic when WFH became the norm, sending us into a spiral of burnout. But as you can imagine, this set up turns out to be a little less idyllic liberal workplace, and a little more dark and dystopian – much of which is depicted through Severance’s art direction. The office setting is cool-toned and stark, in the style of Mid-century modern interior design. It’s Eero Saarinen (Mid-century architecture king) dialled up to 100. Partitioned desk cubicles, speckled paper folders, cool panelled ceiling lights adorn the set. Its faded green carpet appears to infantilize the workers locked inside, making a mockery of the real grass they’ll never see. It’s delectably bleak and unsettling, and it all nods to the thinly veiled soullessness behind performative corporate wellness activism.

We don’t dream of labour

Severance feels like the mainstream breakthrough of zeitgeisty conversations surrounding the workplace that have been bubbling in ‘the culture’ for years. “We don’t dream of labour” has become a Gen Z Twitter mantra, and it feels as if the show’s writers took this theme and ran with it, playing with the tensions between our demand for structural institutional change in the workplace, and our own individual symbiosis with Capitalism.

These conversations may be decades old, but it does feel like the pandemic really brought them to a head when our relationship with work was turned upside down in 2020. The mainstream media gave space to highlighting inequity in workplaces across the board, calling out institutional racism, sexism and ableism at the core workplace institutions. Corporations were called out and ‘cancelled’ (whatever that really means), allowing people to reclaim a little bit of power over their relationship with work.

The fall of hustle culture aesthetics

We use aesthetic trends to gauge social shifts like this. This conversation was really kicked off by Gen Z on TikTok a few years ago, as they started to enter the workforce. Now on a daily basis, we see parody ‘corporate millennial’ memes, and the rejection of the Girlboss aesthetic. The idea of aspiring to be ‘a professional’ is dissipating. A stunning example is the Instagram account @WFHfits, which celebrates the weird ways we dress when we work from home. The rigid rules that we lived by when we were obsessed with ‘climbing the ladder’ seem insane, now that hunching over a laptop in the corner of your bedroom, wearing a shirt and pyjama trousers, is the new norm.

Gradually, then all at once, the way we represent ourselves changed. We all started photo dumping instead of curating our feeds. We started sharing gradient-saturated wellness infographics. We filmed ourselves doing yoga in our living rooms, showing our stretch marks. We broke out of the soft, perfect ‘millennial pink’ structure that we had been living in since the late 2010s. We decided it was ⚠️TIME TO BE REAL ⚠️. This is mirrored in the advertising media we create and consume — the biggest brands in the world are now showing us 9:16 UGC content in TV ADS… need I say more?

We’re in our Lo-Fi era 😎

Brands have distanced themselves visually from the traditional ‘corporate aesthetic’ in order to appear human and authentic, hooked on UGC storytelling, quirky illustrations, self-deprecating copy, dynamic organic type and 35mm portraiture campaigns. If you look at any new fintech bank brand identity, you’ll see how far they’ve come from the image of 80s Wall Street. But consumers are smart and can see through this facade. And we’re already getting tired of it. Our visual advertising language is in the era of lo-fi, and tbh, it’s over-stimulating – there’s no differentiation between an ad and real life.

…And as always, when we become oversaturated with a marketing style, we see reactionary trends. Right now we see the revival of the Mid-century corporate aesthetic breaking into mainstream through high-production shows like Severance, but disruptive brands like Pangaia and Ader Error have been referencing it for the last few years. And for what reason?

There’s subversive empowerment in reinterpreting an aesthetic that’s historically associated with toxic capitalist culture, and there’s irony in using it as a way to stand out from the visually overwhelming ‘attention economy’ capitalism has created. This trend is also driven by the inherently relaxing and familiar clean grids of modernist design. It gives us order, organisation and tranquillity in a visual culture that is so full of contradictions and complexities.

Corporate-core as an aesthetic trend is nuanced – and inextricable from our warped relationship with capitalism. But it’s back around for sure, allowing our eyeballs to holiday from the vibrant, overstimulating world of UGC, into the 4 office walls of impeccably stark, coldly inspiring corporate bleakness.

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