Books March 2006

Home Alone

The dark heart of shelter-lit addiction

The late Mario Praz—dandy, scholar, eccentric chronicler of interior- decorating styles through the ages—once observed that human beings could be divided into those who cared about such things and those who didn’t. An avid, even ensorcelled member of the first group, he confessed to finding people who were indifferent to décor both baffling and somewhat sinister. To discover that a friend was content to dwell in “fundamental and systematic ugliness,” he wrote in An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau, was as disturbing as “turning over one of those ivory figurines carved by the German artificers of the Renaissance, which show a lovely woman on one side and a worm-ridden corpse on the other.” All the more macabre when the friend was otherwise refined.

A venerated master of mine at the University of Florence used to say, from his lectern, many learned things about the Provençal poets. I hung on his every word. But it was a grim day when I first crossed the threshold of his house. As soon as the door was opened, I was confronted by a loathsome oleograph of a Neapolitan shepherdess (that same oleograph used to turn up often in the shops where unclaimed objects from the state pawnshop, the Monte di Pietà, are sold). The shepherdess, shading her eyes with her hand, affected a simpering smile, while Vesuvius smoked in the background.

Granted, for the “loathsome oleograph” (which now sounds enchantingly kitsch) one might want to substitute any number of contemporary abominations: fur-covered kitty condos placed nonchalantly in the living room, embroidered sofa pillows that say things like “She Who Must Be Obeyed” or “Bless This Mess,” Southwestern-style bent-willow furniture (barf), neoclassical wall sconces made out of glued and gilded polyurethane, monstrous sleigh beds from Restoration Hardware, Monet water-lily refrigerator magnets, fake “bistro” clocks, and just about any item of domestic ornament with an angel or a dolphin or a picture of Frida Kahlo on it. Yet even without a tchotchke update we can all sympathize with Praz’s baffled revulsion: “It’s curious, the squalor, the unnecessary and even deliberate squalor in which people who profess a sensitivity to the fine arts choose to live, or manage to adapt themselves.”

Or at least some of us can. I think Praz is right: you either have the “interiors” thing going on or you don’t. Sherlock Holmes would have no difficulty determining into which of Praz’s categories I fall: a quick riffle through the contents of my mailbox—engorged each day to the point of overflowing—makes it comically clear.

The surreal monthly haul, I’m embarrassed to say, includes just about every shelter magazine known to man or woman, from House and Garden, Elle Decor (not to be confused with Elle Decoration, a British mag that I also get), Metropolitan Home, House Beautiful, and Architectural Digest to Dwell, Wallpaper, Veranda, the British Homes and Gardens, and—holy of holies—the epicene and intoxicating World of Interiors, a U.K. shelter mag so farcically upscale and eccentric that it might have been conceived by P. G. Wodehouse. (Until its recent demise I also subscribed to nest. More on that dark Manhattan cult mag later.) Add to these the innumerable glossy catalogues—from Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Room and Board, Design Within Reach, Ikea, West Elm, Home Decorators Collection, Williams-Sonoma, Wisteria, Ballard Designs, Plow & Hearth, NapaStyle, Eddie Bauer Home, and the like—that regularly deluge anyone who has ever made the mistake (as I have) of ordering a distressed-teak milking stool or a kilim-covered ottoman online, and any residual doubt about my propensities will be removed.

The obsession, I confess, has its autoerotic dimension. At times, despite the ever renewing bounty on hand, I still mooch down to an insalubrious foreign newsstand near where I live in San Francisco and peruse Maison Française, Maisons Côté Sud, or Résidences Décoration—just to practice my French, of course. (Though rather more arduous linguistically, the German Elle Decoration also sometimes beckons.) Paging through the offerings on display, I am aware of bearing a discomfiting resemblance to various male regulars furtively examining the dirty magazines across the aisle. An ex-girlfriend (we split up in part over closet space) informs me I am a “house-porn addict,” and although the term is exactly the sort of metrosexual-hipster cliché, cheeky yet dull, that one finds every Thursday in the New York Times House & Home section, it does get at the curious feelings of guilt, titillation, and flooding bourgeois pleasure—relief delivered through hands and eyeballs—that such publications provide.

Yet more and more people, I’ve come to decide, must share my vice to some degree. The sheer ubiquitousness of interiors magazines—in airport terminals, supermarket checkout lines, big-box bookstores, doctors’ offices, and other quintessentially modern (and often stressful) locations—suggests I am not the only person, female or male, gay or straight, experiencing such cravings. (Though hardly one of the more soigné publications, Better Homes and Gardens, owned by ABC Magazines, has an annual circulation of 7.6 million and generates nearly $173 million in revenue a year.) And lately the oddest people have started to confess to me their shelter-mag obsessions—including, a couple of weeks ago, a scary-looking young ’zine writer with a metal bolt through her tongue and Goth-style tattoos all over her neck, arms, legs, and back. Crystal meth would seem to have nothing on House Beautiful—and the latter won’t turn your teeth into pulpy little black stumps.

How to understand such collective absorption? One might moralize, of course, and simply write off the phenomenon as yet another example of life in obscene America—home of the fat, spoiled, and imbecilic. How dare to broach such a subject when more than 2.6 billion people, or “more than 40 percent of the world’s population,” according to The New York Times, “lack basic sanitation, and more than one billion people lack reliable access to safe drinking water.” Easy enough to say that shelter mags are silly and odious—not worth even talking about—and leave it at that.

Yet while satisfying to the censorious, such judgmentalism in another way begs the question. Even the most embarrassing or guilt-inducing features of daily life, Freud famously argued, have their “psychopathology” and can be plumbed for truths about the human condition. One could as easily argue, it seems to me, that house porn, like the billion-dollar business of home improvement itself, is symptomatic—of a peculiar disquiet now haunting ordinary American life. However callow it may seem to point it out, being middle-class these days means feeling freaky a lot of the time. The heebie- jeebies are definitely a problem. The issues here are deep ones. Home—no less than the cherished “homeland” of dismal fame—seems in desperate need of securing. The precariousness of All We Hold Dear is dinned into our heads daily. It’s hardly feckless to feel scared or neurasthenic at times.

Might paging through a shelter mag be seen—in an analytic spirit and with a certain Freudian forbearance—as a middle-class coping mechanism? As a way of calming the spirit in bizarre and parlous times? House porn, I’m beginning to think, could best be understood as a postmodern equivalent of traditional consolation literature—Boethius meets Mitchell Gold. Though shamelessly of this world—and nowhere more so than in the glutted and prodigal U.S.A.—it’s as spiritually fraught, one could argue, as the breviaries of old.

Which isn’t to say that certain people aren’t, for complex reasons, particularly susceptible to the shelter-mag jones. Décor-fixated individuals (and you know who you are), according to Praz, are usually “neurotic, refined, sad people,” prone to “secret melancholy” and “hypersensitive nerves.” Quaint language aside (he enlists the “mad, lonely spirit” of Ludwig II of Bavaria as a historical example of the syndrome), the claim is weirdly compelling. Readers with the obsessive-compulsive gene—the twenty-first-century version, perhaps, of “hypersensitive nerves”—will be familiar with the low-level yet troublesome anxiety produced when something in a room seems misplaced, askew, or somehow “wrong.” I won’t be surprised when brain scientists discover the odd little fold in the cerebral cortex that makes one agitate over slipcovers or jump up and rearrange the furniture.

But along with whatever innate disposition may exist, the typical interiors fanatic almost always has some aesthetic trauma looming up out of the past—a decorative primal scene, so to speak—exacerbating the underlying syndrome. For the legendary American designer Elsie de Wolfe (1865–1950), the so-called First Lady of Interior Decoration, just such a shock awaited her, she recalled in her memoirs, when she returned home one day from school to find that her parents—pious Scottish-Canadian immigrants otherwise deficient in fantasy—had repapered the sitting room of their New York City brownstone in a lurid “[William] Morris design of gray palm-leaves and splotches of bright green and red on a background of dull tan.” Something “that cut like a knife came up inside her,” de Wolfe recollected. “She threw herself on the floor, kicking with stiffened legs as she beat her legs on the carpet.” The novelettish third person is a nice dramatic touch: Freud’s Dora had nothing on Elsie in the girlish-hysteria department.

And indeed, there’s just such a primal scene in my own childhood: the day my mother—faced with replacing our bedraggled old tweed sofa—decided, in a fit of desperate-divorcée economy, to spray-paint it instead. (When I succumb to rectal cancer, it will no doubt be the result of having sat on this unwholesome piece of furniture throughout my adolescence.) In a single sunny late-sixties San Diego afternoon—I can still hear the clack-clack of aerosol cans being shaken—our couch went from its normal faded-beige color to a lethal-looking southern California turquoise. That wasn’t the end, though: overcome by a sort of decorative frenzy, she then sprayed the flimsy shelf unit separating the “kitchenette” from the living room in our tiny pink-and-green motel-style apartment—and after that two discarded toys of mine, a hapless pair of plastic palomino ponies. Resplendent in turquoise from forelock to hoof, Trigger and Buttermilk were subsequently elevated to the unlikely role of room-divider ornaments. No doubt my adult hankering after Zuber papiers peints, Omega Workshop textiles, and Andre Arbus escritoires germinated at just this moment.

Now, it’s worth considering to what degree decorative trauma functions as a mental screen for more-troubling kinds of distress. Is the interiors mania rooted in deeper childhood travails? Elsie de Wolfe’s Calvinist mother seems to have been gruesome enough: she made de Wolfe wear sackcloth pinafores and shipped her off at fifteen to a Jane Eyre–style boarding school in Edinburgh. In his notes to the elegant new Rizzoli reprint of de Wolfe’s so-called “design bible,” The House in Good Taste (1913), Hutton Wilkinson, the president of the Elsie de Wolfe Foundation, suggests that the revolutionary decorating philosophy de Wolfe evolved in the first decade of the twentieth century—one favoring simplicity, creamy-white walls, natural light, informal furniture groupings, bright chintzes—had its psychic roots in juvenile pain and estrangement. (De Wolfe “simply didn’t like Victorian,” Wilkinson writes, because it was “the high style of her sad childhood.”)

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Terry Castle is a professor of English at Stanford. Her books include The Apparitional Lesbian and Courage, Mon Amie.

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