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Wall Street Journal


The Comforts of Home

December 05, 2008

By Kay S. Hymowitz

Most readers are probably familiar with the economic theory that when bad times threaten, women's hemlines go down. The proposition may not be Nobel-worthy, but it seems as accurate as a lot of dismal hypotheses have proved recently, and it leads me to propose another theory, this one about the economy and interior design: When the economy goes south, sofas go overstuffed. Prepare for the return of what anthropologist Grant McCracken calls "homeyness." Goodbye to the sleek, the geometric and the minimal. Hello to the tufted, the floral and the cluttered.

About 10 years ago, perhaps partly in recognition of the coming millennium, the interior design industry turned its back on the reigning sumptuous traditionalism best personified by celebrity decorators Mark Hampton and "Prince of Chintz" Mario Buatta and began cultivating a modern and minimal style, spacious and light-filled. You probably know the look: clean, unadorned lines; high-gloss wood or stone floors; a muted palette of soft gray, beige and "greige" (a bold combination of the two); glass tables; white bed linens; and, at its most sublime, lacquered kitchens with no visible appliances, pots or stray spoons—in fact, no signs of culinary activity whatsoever. Part European modernism, part feng shui (the ancient Chinese art of correct placement)—the aesthetic demands only a few pieces of carefully placed and precisely designed furniture. It's a good thing that flat-screen TVs and iPod docks came along when they did, because this austere aesthetic has no place for French Provincial armoires housing bulky TVs and stereo sets.

During the past minimalist decade, Design Within Reach and West Elm personified the sleek style for the masses, but even more traditional-look companies like Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn subdued their upholstery and whitened their linens. Now these companies have begun advertising slipper and wing chairs in cheerful, floral patterns; the new Williams-Sonoma catalog is filled with traditional tartan plaids, paisley duvets, elaborately paneled walls and imitation English Staffordshire china. Recent shelter magazines, as home-decor catalogs are known, are showing rooms painted or wallpapered in deep rich tones, and in the Home section of the New York Times there was even a promotional photo for emerald-green flocked wallpaper, a species of decor that had only yesterday seemed as endangered as the snow leopard.

Like the long hemline principle, which was based on the premise that Depression-era women wanted to hide their legs when they could no longer afford silk stockings, my theory about the shift from the minimal to the ornamented has both economics and psychology behind it. It begins with a simple observation: Over the past decade or so, high-rise condos have been going up like so many dominoes in cities all over the country, including, among others, Chicago, Washington, Seattle, Miami and Philadelphia. To sell these glass towers, marketers had to promote a "clean," "uncluttered," "spa-like" look to blend in with the airy, open surroundings. The style soon became the epitome of urban glamour.

Given the long lead-time between building planning and completion, such marketing can still be found in real-estate sections nationwide. Consider, for example, a glossy newspaper pullout ad for a condo going up in Brooklyn. A modelicious couple placed in front of their floor-to-ceiling windows float high before the East River and Wall Street skyline like Olympian gods; he stands with casual muscularity, wine glass in hand, behind his blond Significant Female Other, who is perched on a tailored beige sofa. In front of her is an ovoid glass coffee table with a few carefully edited, sculpturally evocative and ecologically correct vases. (Feng shui teaches that a horizontal surface should have no more than three objects, in order to "harness the life energy around you.") There are no books, photos, shells from last summer's vacation at the beach; no toys, games, papers or magazines; no heirlooms or personal objets; no signs of individual lives actually lived.

Ads using this style satisfy two commercial imperatives. First, they clear out individualized items that prevent potential buyers from imagining the space as their own. And, second, they promote the condo-friendly design vocabulary that will, with luck and economic stability, sell more units. The overall vision is as perfectly sleek and honed as Mr. Condo Owner's enticing biceps. "Home should look good on you," the ad's text says. And so it does.

In an irrationally exuberant age such as the one that is vanishing in our rearview mirror, the appeal of cool condo glamour was clear enough. It not only promised an urban existence far above dirt, noise and unkempt strangers. With its clean lines, built-in, handleless cabinetry, molding-less walls, it evoked a life of calmness, order and Zen-like serenity. Architect Richard Meier reportedly tried to ban baseboards from his new glass building in Brooklyn until more practical-minded developers persuaded him to reconsider. At least as advertised, this aesthetic provided escape from—and masterly control over—multitasking lives. These homes promised the dream of a life without junk mail, insurance claims, 401(k) statements, cellphone contracts, appliance instructions, plastic shopping and dry-cleaning bags, half-read books, and all of the other detritus of upper-middle class affluence.

But now that a financial crisis threatens both the bank accounts of potential buyers and the real-estate bubble they were helping to inflate, the condo aesthetic and the yearning it represented may also be set to decline. Achieving condo glamour requires deep pockets and, despite its calm appearance, constant vigilance.

This may seem counterintuitive. After all, you don't need to spend many hours shopping to live the minimalist life; a white leather sofa, a glass table, a Philippe Starck Ghost chair, and you're good to go. But not only are these items—and the condos themselves—high-priced. The condo aesthetic also means that unless you want to spend all your time constantly filing papers, picking up pens, recycling plastics, and removing magazines, remote controls and forgotten wine glasses from the coffee table, you will have to hire a staff to do so—lest your slovenly habits be visible to all through your floor-to-ceiling glass walls.

Still, the primary reason the condo aesthetic is likely to become yesterday's fad is that it fails to nourish the uneasy soul in troubling times. The Master and Mistress of the Universe aspired to create atmosphere that reflected their perfect self-discipline and achieved ambition; recession-era homesteaders will probably be looking less to harness life energy than to turn off the engine. Instead of the coldness of bare, polished horizontal surfaces, home decorators will prefer the comfort of family photos, memory-stirring objects and cheerful patterns. When thermostats go down and anxiety goes up, they're likely to choose soft cushions and inviting chairs. Instead of gleaming, flawless kitchens whose message was "I'm too busy making deals to cook," humbled yuppies will go for lively spaces that can handle spilled flour and splattered oil, as well as the groceries that will replace expensive take-out meals.

Of course, there will be those still making deals instead of nesting. For them, I've got a tip: Buy chintz.



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