Books March 2006

Home Alone

The dark heart of shelter-lit addiction

Having now become “interested in a home only for myself,” she would like nothing better, she says, than to live in a “nun’s cell”—a sort of little medieval crypt-world. (“I imagine a bed covered in a creamy, heavy hemp fabric in a tiny room that has rough, whitewashed plaster walls, a small Gothic window, a stone sink; outside a bird sings. Peace prevails.”) The book’s illustrations—chill, austere, and undeniably gorgeous—give form to the tomblike aesthetic: not one of the exquisite rooms shown (all designed by Tarlow) has a human being in it.

Shelter-Mag Land is a place in which other people are edited out—removed from the picture, both literally and metaphorically, so that one is free to project oneself, forever and a day, into the fantasy spaces on view. In any given interiors piece this “disappearing” of other people is usually a two-part process—beginning retrospectively, as it were, with the ritual exorcism of the last owner before the current one. Former owners invariably have atrocious taste, one discovers, and every trace of them must be removed. When the former owner is also the Mother in Need of Banishment, heroic measures are necessary. A 2004 article in The New York Times Style Magazine has a telling item about how Goldie Hawn’s daughter, the actress Kate Hudson, bought “the Los Angeles house she grew up in” precisely in order to gut the interior and remodel it in “her own image.” No Goldie vestiges will be allowed to remain. “Goldie’s taste is more classic,” notes a male designer assisting Hudson. “Kate wants to turn everything on its ear.” Don’t look now, Private Benjamin—the kid’s just decoratively cleansed you.

But other  people need cleansing too—most urgently the lucky oinkers now in possession. It is common for interiors magazines—higher-end ones like World of Interiors especially—to suppress the names and images of current owners. There are exceptions, of course: Elle Decor, for some reason, likes to run pictures of blissed-out property owners—usually Ralph Lauren–ish white people relaxing on patios, cuddling their French bulldogs, or flourishing salad tongs in a gleaming Corian-countertopped kitchen. In some cases, especially when he’s gay and humpy, the designer responsible for the new décor will be shown lounging about the premises looking highly pleased with himself, like a porn star who’s just delivered big-time.

And small children—especially if beautiful, blonde, and under five—sometimes get a pass, though they are liable to appear in curiously fey and stylized ways. For several years now I’ve been keeping tabs on a shelter-mag cliché I call the Blurred Child Picture: a light-filled shot of some airy urban loft, all-stainless kitchen, or quaint Nantucket cottage in which the child of the house is shown—barefoot, pink, and perfect—either whizzing by in the background or bouncing joyfully on a bed. The face and limbs are often fuzzy, as if to suggest a sort of generic kidness in motion. These hallucinatory urchins usually turn out to bear excruciatingly hip names—Samantha, Cosmo, Zoe, and Miles are current favorites—and seem as branded and objectified as the furnishings around them. The ongoing reproductive anxieties of young, white, middle-class American professional women—a crucial segment of the shelter-magazine demographic—would seem to prompt such wish-fulfillment imagery: here’s your new space and a designer child to put in it.

But the ideal room in Shelter-Mag Land is unpeopled—stark, impervious, and preternaturally still—like the haunted castle in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. As aficionados know, just about every room shown in a shelter magazine has been meticulously staged by unseen stylists: flowers placed just so; covetable objects illuminated; expensive art books arranged on tables; takeout menus, sex toys, and drug paraphernalia discreetly removed. The place is usually flooded with heavenly light—as if an angel had just descended outside, or a nuclear flash had irradiated the environs. When windows in a room are visible, one typically can’t see through them: they remain opaque, like weirdly glowing light boxes. The unearthly illumination from without is mesmerizing. Whether or not one likes the space on view, one finds oneself absorbed, drawn in by the eerie promise of peace and immutability. It’s seductive, sanitized, calm- verging-on-dead: mausoleum chic.

The standard interiors shot might be categorized as a degraded form of still life—a kind of iconography distinguished, traditionally, by the absence of human subjects. And as with the painted form, the viewer is faced with puzzles and paradoxes. Confronting the perfectly styled objects before us, are we, the spectators, in the presence of life or death? Where are the human beings? In the traditional nature morte (the French name for the mode is telling) the depiction of food and drink—fruit, bread, goblets of wine, limp game birds—alluded to organic processes (here’s something good to eat), but a “life” inextricably dependent on the death and decay of other living things. In the most profound and unflinching still-life arrangements (Zurbaran’s, say, or those of the seventeenth-century Dutch school) the viewer is suavely implicated in the cycle of mortality. A human skull sometimes appears, Hamlet-style, as an explicit and sobering memento mori.

There’s one big problem here, and you don’t need to rent old Ingmar Bergman movies to see it. There’s a real skeleton at the door, and whoa—looks like he’s aiming to get in. He was first spotted in Shelter-Mag Land, scythe in hand, one sunny September morning a few years ago, and recently he’s turned up again—in true Seventh Seal fashion—in one of its favorite “style destinations.” (Two days into the unfolding Katrina disaster, New Orleans Style: Past and Present, the most lavish of recent shelter books devoted to the doomed southern city, had sold out on I know: I was trying to order it.)

It’s fair to say that even while seeking to exploit readers’ existential fears, the shelter-lit industry has itself been traumatized over the past five years, its Benday-dots dream world cracked open by explosions from without. The first shock to the system was 9/11, an event so cognitively strange, so incomprehensible according to shelter-mag logic, that what to do about it—rhetorically, psychically—remains unresolved in most interiors publications. What sort of high-gloss feature to run when other people not only won’t go away but also want to blow your trendy “sanctuary” to bits? “Home,” after all, is what terrorists set out to destroy: the everyday illusion of comfort and safety, the rolling-along-as-usual feeling that is bourgeois life. Floods and fire and civic breakdown in the Gulf Coast states put a further grisly spin on the problem. It’s hard to focus on window treatments when bodies are floating by outside.

Presented by

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

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