Last spring, several months into the pandemic, a series of images appeared on Instagram, depicting a luxury home nestled into the cliffs of the Scala dei Turchi, on the coast of Italy. The building appeared to be sculpted from cream-colored adobe, and its rounded, uncovered windows and doors looked out over a peaceful aquamarine sea. Furniture by Gerd Lange for Bofinger and Le Corbusier sat invitingly by an ocean-fed pool; inside, Picasso ceramics were arranged artfully around a minimalist seating area, and bathed in early-afternoon light. The residence, Villa Saraceni, was the work of designers Riccardo Fornoni and Charlotte Taylor. It also didn’t exist in real life: the house was built with rendering software, and its design was entirely speculative. In reality, the Scala dei Turchi is a tourist destination that has seen erosion and damage from overuse. In 2007, the surrounding municipality applied to designate the area a unesco World Heritage site, and last year it was seized by Italian authorities concerned with its preservation. Still, some admirers of Villa Saraceni were transfixed to the point of sending booking inquiries. “Gorgeous,” one Instagram user commented. “Do they rent?”
Instagram is full of such images: living rooms, patios, bedrooms, and estates that do not and will never exist. The pictures are strangely soothing, with their fanciful palettes, evocative silhouettes, and enticing water features. Sunken living rooms are full of pillows, or clouds; spiral staircases are wrapped in cyan glass. Against the backdrop of something resembling the Mediterranean, a striking, ergonomically nonviable chaise lounge is flanked by two human-size vases and a climatically confused cactus. A high-ceilinged, white-tiled, cerulean spa offers arched, curtained relaxation nooks painted in a soft pink. Atop a brass-plated console table, in front of a geometric, color-blocked backsplash, a floral arrangement seems to be suffering, in a dash of realism, from dehydration. The spaces project order and calm, and rely on a visual vocabulary of affluence, indulgence, and restraint. They are uncluttered and private; welcoming but undamaged by human use. They are also slightly sterile. Although some incorporate hints of activity—a rumpled bedspread, an open magazine placed poolside—the spaces are uninhabited. An important part of the fantasy, it seems, is the absence of other people.
Though C.G.I. models are nothing new, the technology has improved over the years, and the images have become increasingly realistic, as well as cheaper and faster to produce. (Since 2014, the bulk of images in the ikea catalogue have been computer-generated.) Today, digital artists have a menu of software tools to choose from, including 3-D-modelling programs like SketchUp and Rhinoceros 3D, and rendering engines such as OctaneRender and Enscape. There is a large international talent pool of render artists: Fiverr, a marketplace for freelancers, has profiles for hundreds of artists in Nigeria, Ukraine, Vietnam, and Turkey, who offer rendering and 3-D-modelling services. YouTube tutorials abound—“10 Tips for a REALISTIC Interior Rendering”—and many have been viewed millions of times. To the trained eye, some of these images look less convincing than others. But, for the casual observer, they may scramble a sense of reality.
Certain elements—plastics, curves, and soft, indoor light—are more straightforward to create with 3-D-modelling software, and relatively fast for render engines to process. These features tend to dominate the genre of computer-generated fantasy architecture. (Curves also tend to be legible to the human eye, while sharp, precise edges register as unrealistic.) This has cohered into something like an aesthetic: colorful, spacious, textured, bold. The lighting is flattering, the edges are rounded, and the pools of water ripple just so. “We’re always trying to evoke a mood within the spaces,” Taylor, one of the artists behind Villa Saraceni, told me over the phone. “We always have the same low lighting, and it’s really this calming atmosphere, between fiction and reality.” Taylor is a co-founder of Dello Studio, a London agency specializing in set design, and also oversees Maison de Sable, a 3-D and moving-image studio that collaborates with render artists to produce digital dioramas featuring dreamlike and futuristic elements, such as sliding terrazzo walls and fantastical rock formations. Taylor often has five to ten fictional interiors in progress at once, and said that she preferred to sketch by hand before passing her designs to render artists—a process that could take anywhere from a week to several months.
Taylor tends to meet her collaborators on Instagram, where she is part of a loose community of like-minded designers. Some highlights from the world of C.G.I. interiors were showcased in “Dreamscapes & Artificial Architecture,” a collection of high-design render art released by the German publisher Gestalten, in 2020. “We have never before had such capacity to render the world as we would like it to be, which means 3D modeling software has the potential to be immensely liberating,” Rosie Flanagan wrote, in the book’s preface. If, she went on, “it can free architecture and design from the constraints of reality, then surely it can do the same for other aspects of our life.”