The Rise of The Supreme Therapist™
In the era of the aesthetics-obsessed hypebeast, can you judge a therapist by their office?
Screengrab via Amazon.
For pedestrians, navigating the line that snakes around the New York Supreme store on Thursdays is an annoyance that varies in intensity depending on the drop. Metal barriers and folding chairs hint at probable chaos, and the line is occasionally raucous enough that passersby might crave serenity, a sound machine, a prescription pad. As luck would have it, there are therapists two doors down.
Sydney Smith, a Berlin gallery staffer, who maintains that “everyone should go to therapy in Soho,” said her psychologist on Lafayette Street was sometimes late because of parking trouble due to the Supreme line, and that cutting through the squat cult to get to her appointments “felt like crossing a picket line in a weird way.” But despite the anti-union associations, she loved it. “I would dress up for therapy sometimes to turn a lewk passing the line,” she quipped. “I think it actually helped me to feel more comfortable with being in therapy, because it made it feel like a cool, luxurious experience.”
The Supreme Therapist™, whose waiting room had a “beige brocade and lilies vibe” with an office that boasted an expansive view of the Manhattan bridge, does seem awfully luxurious. All therapy conducted in private practice is luxurious, which is chic but like, unjust–a practice that should be a necessary service for the many contorted into a gift for the few. We do live in a nation that doesn’t particularly care about accessible health care, especially when it involves the word “mental,” a time of medical GoFundMes and widespread despair. And so if you’re able to go so far as to actually pay someone to discuss your innermost thoughts, why not consider the aesthetics? Can you judge a therapist by what their office looks like? Does a doctor’s interior décor convey anything about their psychological, uh, interiority?
In the canonical The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bauchelard was dismissive of the visual preferences of brain doctors, writing that a psychologist will “describe” feelings about an image, and the psychoanalyst “understands” the image, but that neither understand its “poetic power.” Maybe it’s why their workspaces tend to be so similar. There is a sort of vision of what a psychologist’s (or analyst or psychiatrist or nutritional life coach or any other variant of mental health professional) office is supposed to look like. The many leather bound books dealing with the multitudinous disorders of the DSM-5, lined on expansive shelves from floor to ceiling. Inoffensive posters from museums–Hockney’s pools are always popular. A couch. Framed diplomas. Tchotchkes that imply the doctor lives in a classic six on the Upper West Side. The platonic ideal might be Molly’s therapist’s office on Insecure, which has a rosy Turkish rug and enormous bookshelves and a working fireplace, with tasteful art objects carefully placed against a fictional pure LA sky.
But of course the average therapist office does not look quite so refined. Most counselors charging anything less than $150 an hour are heavy on the dorm room furniture, light on actual light. Olivia Orley, a psychotherapist who works out of a Midtown center called Alma (peacock blue paint, many plants) says that most New York City therapists sublet or share spaces, and thus have little control over the way they’re presented. Orley, whose ideal workspace would be Dr. Melfi’s from The Sopranos, said that the Woody Allen-era analyst style of office only exists within a “certain subset of Park Avenue therapists that are completely inaccessible to most people.”
When it comes to practical décor, Orley asserted that a therapist’s office should have two chairs, without a desk or any object separating therapist from client (the desk should be unobtrusive and off to the side somewhere, á la Melfi). According to environmental psychologist Sally Augustin, as per MEL, therapist and client should not directly face each other, so that “if they want to make eye contact they can, yet if they’re talking about a particularly difficult subject, they also can look away gracefully.” Water should be available to drink, and ideally there would be a phone charger available. Psychologists should be careful about displayed pictures–personal photos can be inappropriate, and you never know what could trigger a patient. Orley also said not to pull a John Waters if there are no books on display; if a therapist works out of multiple offices, they’re not going to carry them around (plus, “the internet exists.”)
I have sought counsel from at least eleven (too many) therapists, psychiatrists, and psychopharmacologists over the past fourteen years, and most of them have occupied barren, bloodless offices that didn’t reveal much about their personalities. But the ones who managed to decorate were pretty obvious. I knew one white psychologist was not to be trusted after she began accumulating a collection of rainsticks; her eager love for what she called “tribal art” implied a vast ocean of political difference that could never be crossed, and lent credence to a kooky persona that went side by side with memory loss (after multiple sessions, she still frequently asked if my parents were alive). A psychopharmacologist in Williamsburg with velvet settees rendered in the soulless pinks of a pop-up museum wore Everlane and asked robotic questions about dating apps; the basic choices in furniture and clothing were an echo of the fact that she seemed like an algorithm disguised as a human woman. And while my brain has surely gotten smoother because of Big Algorithm or whatever, I don’t have a desire to flay myself while in conversation with one.
My first, best therapist worked by the ocean, across the street from a retirement home called the Casa de Mañana, the House of Tomorrow (though it seems cruel to taunt those on the precipice of death with the concept of a new day). The office was in a wooden cottage, up a steep incline with crumbling steps shaded by squat palm trees. White paint crumbled against the window frames, and I split faded issues of W while trying not to openly stare at my doctor’s skinny legs. Patients sat in a rickety wicker chair with their backs to the sea, open windows blowing in salt air and the easy pitch of shorebreak crashing and controversial seals barking; auditory Xanax. It would have been comically idyllic if it wasn’t for the fact that there are never any parking spaces by the beach. The office on the whole was so serene that I never wanted to leave, so I was always on time and never shut up–my very best self, an open patient who told minimal lies.
A survey of fifteen friends and mutuals working in creative fields around the country–writers, artists, stylists, photographers, the dubiously employed–revealed that they certainly evaluated the décor of their therapists’ offices, Descriptors like “bland,” “modern,” and “cozy” were in the majority. Clothes were also a topic of consideration; my best friend Hannah sees a psychologist who wears overly bright leggings and is fond of accessorizing her dog.
Perhaps it’s wrong for patients to judge their doctors on aesthetic choices. But the world is judging us. A few months after it was necessary to stop seeing her (too expensive) Soho therapist, Sydney started working “as a shopgirl at a fancy pajama store down the street from OC on Clout Alley. We would have to wear full sets of formal button-up pajamas. One time, roaming around Prince Street on my lunch break, a guy yelled ‘There goes an escaped mental patient!,’ and I was like, ‘Actually, my analyst is right up the block!’"