Culture

9347
the number of ‘Live, Laugh, Love’-branded items available for purchase on Etsy
Culture

Live. Laugh. Love. Why?

The cutesy phrase is a staple of home decor, as well as a mantra for tough times. How did that happen?

There are more than 2,000 results for the motto “Live Laugh Love” on Amazon, including decorative signs, throw pillow covers, wall sculptures, candles, decals, and area rugs, all bearing some formation of it. As of this publication, Etsy lists 9,347 things for sale that feature the dreaded credo; there are also 2.6 million results for the hashtag #livelaughlove on Instagram. You can scroll endlessly on Pinterest — past tattoos, rocks, cakes, even a sewing machine, all emblazoned with those three words — without reaching an end point. And if you step inside a Target or a Marshall’s, it’ll likely become apparent how exhaustively the trend has infiltrated affordable home décor.

Maybe it seems like the slogan has been with us forever, which is nearly true: A short investigation by House Beautiful traces the saying to a 1904 Bessie Anderson Stanley poem called “Success,” often misattributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Stanley’s relatives claim her poem won the $250 first prize in a contest for the best essay on “What constitutes success,” published in a 1905 issue of The Lincoln Sentinel. The words — “He achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much” — can now be found inscribed on her tombstone.

Who is buying this stuff, you might ask? It has to be someone, otherwise there would not be so much of it. According to the internet, and supported anecdotally, middle-aged white women and moms are the likeliest triple-L perpetrators. On an AskReddit thread entitled “People who have ‘live, laugh, love’ somewhere in their home: why?” (commented on by 20,000 people total), the answers ranged from “It came in my White Person Starter Kit” (a response with 1,200 upvotes) to “My mom gave it to me and thought it was the best gift she ever came up with. It goes up around the holidays” (1,800 upvotes). Many commenters confessed their moms or older relatives gifted an “LLL” sign to them, but most were too lazy or respectful to get rid of it.

While “Live, Laugh, Love” art is frequently slandered for its cheesy ubiquity, it also speaks to a mid-2000s rise of a plucky do-it-yourself spirit on sites like Etsy and Pinterest. Following the 2007 recession, DIY decoration became increasingly enticing, propelled in part by the growing number of affordable home supply and home furnishing options. Millions lost their jobs and could no longer afford to spend big on extraneous home goods; stores became more conservative with stocking inventory. A “word art” trend — inclusive of prints, posters, and cutesy signs with textural platitudes, phrases, and sometimes just single adjectives or verbs (“blessed,” “dream”) — resulted in décor that was both cost-friendly and attainable. Consumers got inventive; word art, in particular, combined individual tastes with easily marketable inspirational catchphrases.

Mercedes Kraus, the executive editor of real estate website Curbed, believes Pinterest culture played a definite role in word art’s ascent, with the increase of poster and illustration trends people could collect (or “pin”) on the idea-cataloguing site. As described by Kraus, your typical Pinterest post might include, for example, “some gradient and an outline of a young woman that says ‘Go Further,’ or whatever.”

“I have to imagine in a post-recession world, it’s probably much easier to sell word art than to sell other kinds of art,” she said. “Finally, creators have gotten really good at licensing their own images. You can just write a word, frame it, and sell it as art.” This kind of self-sufficient handiwork can be adapted to suit many spaces and tastes, and it’s a lot cheaper than investing in more permanent art, ideal for people prone to changing their minds or evolving their style.

Some representative LLL merch, available for your pleasure.

Some representative LLL merch, available for your pleasure.

Skeletor, amazingly.

Skeletor, amazingly.

Some representative LLL merch, available for your pleasure.

Skeletor, amazingly.

The accessibility speaks to the class of probable purchasers, too. The “Live Laugh Love” item is rarely found in high-end design or on the pages of Architectural Digest; it’s a phrase seen in inexpensive, comparatively unsophisticated spaces. Though words and phrases have also been aesthetically prevalent in high art, “high” word art differs from “low” word art sold at Target in depth of intention and resulting insight. Conceptual paintings like Ed Ruscha’s “Smash” or Lawrence Weiner’s typographic texts were not mass-produced, and their visual impact was considered just as important as the language used, with the two working in tandem. Meanwhile, the aesthetics of “Live Laugh Love” items (and cheap LLL-adjacent word items) tend to appear like an afterthought, with the words themselves trite or simplistic.

As to why feel-good, upbeat, low-price-point word art might appeal to the masses, Emily Henderson, a Los Angeles-based stylist, guessed it’s more about economic standing than differing tastes. “It’s easy to say that people with lots of money or who are design lovers just have better taste, but I don’t think that’s really it,” Henderson said. “Now, by no means does money make a person happy — but let’s be honest, it does tend to make life a bit less stressful. So a reminder to ‘Live Laugh Love’ isn’t as potentially needed as it would be by someone who maybe worries about paying their bills or not having enough time at home because both parents have to work. A visual reminder to still enjoy life feels more urgent and helpful.”

As maintained by Google Trends, in the last 15 years global searches for “Live Laugh Love” peaked in 2012, the same year Pinterest’s popularity surged (the platform launched in 2009, and according to statistics released by ComScore, by 2012 Pinterest had more than 10 million monthly visitors, making it the third most popular social networking site behind Facebook and Twitter). In a short piece about word art for Apartment Therapy, writer Julia Brenner poked gentle fun at the trend. “I think that word art has gained massive popularity over the last 10 to 15 years due to a few cultural shifts,” Brenner wrote me. “It found a resurgence in the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster trend, which made a big comeback in the mid-2000s (originally produced in England during WWII), and became popular again during the early days of Etsy.”

The e-commerce shop Etsy, which launched in 2005, quickly became a haven for handmade and vintage arts and crafts. In its idealistic infancy, Etsy played by its own rules in lieu of succumbing to conventional corporate practices, and the site presented customers with product customization options that made it easy to own personalized works at a reasonable price.

“We’ve sold thousands of this design, and almost all of our customers want them for their bedrooms.”
Amanda Maltz, designer

But the proliferation of word art perhaps has its strongest roots in reality television. Both Kraus and Brenner suggested that Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper — HGTV’s highest-rated show before it went off the air last year after a five-year run — personally ushered in an era of design complementing the LLL trend. Designer Gaines and her husband Chip converted uninhabitable locales in and around Waco, Texas into dream homes, often hewing to a “farmhouse chic” aesthetic. Gaines’s influence runs deep: she’s got a line at Target, a magazine that’s sold at Whole Foods, and a brick-and-mortar outpost called Magnolia Market in Waco.

Gaines’s farmhouse aesthetic isn’t shabby-chic but rather clean, simple, and cozy, harkening back to (theoretically) simpler times. To express her vision, Gaines oftens “reclaims” items, searching for old pieces in thrift shops and refurbishing them, transforming something rusted into an item suited to the present day. This sort of folksy, sentimental approach to decor is LLL-adjacent; the phrase certainly evokes an earthy, wholesome feeling.

Mike Crowder and Amanda Maltz both sell LLL merchandise on Etsy and via their own personal websites. Crowder, a woodworker in Indiana specializing in handcrafted wood signs, said his 3-D “Live Laugh Love” item — three separate, cursive cutouts sold together for $50 — is “very popular.” Maltz, a designer based in North Carolina, offers easily removable vinyl wall decals featuring the phrase for about $25 a pop. Both Crowder and Maltz said that their LLL products are primarily purchased by women between the ages of 25 and 55. “It’s a positive reminder in a sometimes dreary world,” Crowder said of the phrase. Amanda said her clientele likes to hang the quote above their beds; one of her wall decals, a cursive-print hybrid of the phrase — “Live every moment. Laugh every day. Love beyond words.” — is an Etsy “bestseller,” with 85,000 hits on the site.

Waterproof stickers.

Waterproof stickers.

Packing tape.

Packing tape.

Waterproof stickers.

Packing tape.

“We’ve sold thousands of this design, and almost all of our customers want them for their bedrooms,” she told me. “That tells me they love seeing this positivity when they rise in the morning, and before they go to bed.”

Simran Winkelstern, a Los Angeles-based interior designer, believes the word art trend continues to trickle down from fine artists like the British sculptor Tracey Emin, who is known for her colorful neon signs that spell out nebulous phrases like “I can feel your smile” (Kylie Jenner has several in her home). “Graphic images make a bold statement and bring a lot to a room at any price point,” Winkelstern said. As for the gender of people who buy such art, Winkelstern agrees with Crowder and Maltz: “‘Décor,’ in general, skews female,” she told me. “Women, in my experience, are much more likely to be interested in accessorizing their homes than men.”

In 2015, a team of researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario conducted a methodological study titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit,” published in the scientific journal Judgment and Decision Making. This involved constructing random sentences (in this case, generated by a website), stealing buzzwords from Deepak Chopra’s Twitter feed and mixing them up to create “word salad”; the sentences had no intended meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”), having been written without concern for the truth — the definition of “bullshit,” as put forth by the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt in his book On Bullshit.

The study found that among its almost 300 participants, those who believed the meaningless sentences held profound nuggets of wisdom also tended to be less analytical, more inclined to go with their gut feelings, more religious, and more likely to believe in the paranormal and conspiracy theories. While the “bullshit” sentences were nonsensical, the phrase “Live, Laugh, Love” does, technically, make sense.

A burlap wreath.

A burlap wreath.

A “book-folding pattern.”

A “book-folding pattern.”

A burlap wreath.

A “book-folding pattern.”

In contending with this distinction, University of Regina behavioral science professor Gordon Pennycook, who worked on the study, notes that he tested vaguely motivational quotations as well (e.g. “the creative adult is the child who survives”), and found that the same people rated both types of quotes as profound. “What people do when they see these sorts of things is they don’t think about it,” Pennycook told me. “‘These are words that I like’ — that’s the end of the thinking. Live, laugh, love are three very popular words.”

As suggested by Crowder and Maltz, convenient positivity may be the primary qualification for LLL purchasers, who aren’t thinking too hard about their wall trappings. “It’s a bit ironic to print a phrase associated with venturing forth and exploring the world on a home accessory,” Winkelstern pointed out. “But, I suppose a pillow or an art piece with a phrase such as “Live Laugh Love” serves as a reminder to do those things — whether at home or further afield.” Wilkenstern said that in the last apartment she designed for herself as a single woman, she wanted a custom neon sign but couldn’t come up with a phrase that spoke to her. She ended up using her address: “1234.”

When I first began to research the LLL trend, it was with an air of snobbery. I have never owned any such signage, though I did have a female roommate with no less than three variations scattered around our house, and I’ve never felt less at home. Judgment of others’ design and lifestyle decisions can often be sexist or classist in nature; again, it’s mostly women buying downmarket word art from lower-cost retailers. Critics, including myself, should consider how difficult it is to decorate a home, a task that arguably falls to women in heterosexual partnerships, while they’re also juggling kids and careers.

“I think people like that it’s not pretentious,” Kraus said. “I don’t know that they’re making conscious choices — but you can look at it and be like, ‘this isn’t too serious and it’s relaxing and fun.’ It’s easy to produce, and sell, and buy, and decorate with.” The three words together put forth a positive message — but a pliant, amorphous one, not one that’s overly didactic — and they are pleasantly alliterative, to boot. What more could you ask for?

Naturally, not everyone is a fan. Show any expert a mainstream trend sweeping their field, and it will likely be met with some semblance of disdain or fatigue. “I don’t have any insight about this ghastly trend, other than I hope it ends soon,” one interior designer told me anonymously. Another designer’s assistant wrote back more diplomatically: “I think she would only have criticism for it, but we try not to be critical of others’ opinions/taste, even when they don’t align with ours. To each his own, even if we wouldn’t put it in our house/projects.”

Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles.