Books March 2006

Home Alone

The dark heart of shelter-lit addiction

It’s true that in the aftermath of 9/11 at least one gallant Un-Mother—to her credit—tried to address the matter as best she could. Dominique Browning, the melancholic editor of Condé Nast’s House and Garden and a dead ringer for the Lady of Shalott, ran a number of columns in which she wrote awkwardly yet movingly about the effect of the attacks on her mental world. These columns were painful—I remember starting to cry while reading one—not least because one saw Browning struggling against the banality of the context in which she wrote. Such pathos in Shelter-Mag Land was a shock: like finding a dismembered corpse in a beautiful meadow. Et in Arcadia ego indeed.

A similar pathos suffused a Metropolitan Home essay by Emily Prager (“Safe as Houses,” September 2004)—the only interiors article I’ve come across so far to tackle 9/11 at any length. Prager, a longtime Greenwich Village resident who witnessed the collapse of the South Tower, candidly recounted how the day’s events left her “wounded in my sense of home.” The piece ended with its author in a state of panicky ambivalence, wanting to flee New York yet unable to follow through on any of the fantastical moving plans she kept devising. Scarcely a comforting endpoint—but at least Prager seemed able to articulate her confusion.

Other responses, however, have been less honest and sometimes freakishly dissociated. For example, the editor of Elle Decoration (a publication aimed largely at fashion-conscious working women in their twenties and thirties) recently offered this schizoid hodge-podge of girl talk and carpe diem:

Colour. Pattern. Decoration. Ornamentation. It’s all coming back. I think it’s to do with celebrating life—perhaps it’s because, in these terrorist-aware times, we’re more conscious than ever that this life isn’t a rehearsal, it’s the main event. And what simpler way to add some joy and pattern to your life than with flowers.

Though priding itself on being hip, even the House & Home section of The New York Times has gone a bit bipolar lately. Opposite a jaunty piece about co-op residents catfighting online (December 2, 2004), the editors ran a full-page public-service ad for a government disaster-readiness Web site, complete with a huge picture of a grim-faced FDNY firefighter and apocalyptic copy. (“After a terrorist attack your first instinct may be to run. That may be the worst thing you could do.”) The emotional dissonance was nerve-jangling, corrosive, surreal. Maybe the best thing, after all, would be to go round to the neighbors and make up with them.

Yet the most disturbing case of 9/11 schizophrenia involves the now defunct nest. Often heralded as the most iconoclastic interiors publication since Fleur Cowles’s short-lived Flair, in the 1950s, nest set out to be everything the ordinary shelter magazine was not: louche, sly, sexy, so dark and downtown in sensibility it was funny—an interiors rag for the John Waters set. Typical features had to do with Hitler’s decorating tastes, the phallus-studded home of Miss Plaster Caster (she who once made plaster moulds of rock-star penises), Lucy and Ricky’s sound-stage “apartment” on I Love Lucy, how to arrange kitty boxes when you live with 114 cats, and the joy of clear-plastic sofa covers. My all-time favorite piece was about the Toys “R” Us–style “playrooms” of “adult babies”—men and women who find sexual gratification by wearing diapers and lying in oversized baby cribs. Every now and then amid the camp one would encounter authentic blue-chip writing: Muriel Spark on “Bed Sits I Have Known,” John Banville on Gianni Versace’s Miami villa (outside which the designer was shot), the poet Eileen Myles on sleeping on a city sidewalk in a cardboard box.

The magazine was quite stupendously mannered—rather like Ronald Firbank trawling for hunky handymen at Home Depot. Yet manner proved bootless when nest fell victim to grotesque and unfortunate coincidence. Attached to the cover of the fatal thirteenth issue—Summer 2001—was a black silk mourning ribbon, the sort of thing one might find on a Victorian scrapbook or photo album. (nest regularly violated ordinary packaging conventions.) On the cover itself was a cleverly Photoshopped image of the U.S. Capitol wrapped in a huge white shroud with black-and-white funeral bunting. It transpired that Rei Kawakubo, the fashion force behind Comme des Garçons, had been asked by nest’s editor and presiding genius, Joseph Holtzman, to design a “mourning” dress for the Capitol building, precisely to ready it for “whatever calamity may befall us in the future.” The shroud tarp and bunting were the result: Christo meets Edgar Allan Poe.

The “national grief” theme was playfully reflected in the issue’s editorial content: one item had to do with the planning and decoration of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege, another with Sarah Bernhardt’s coffin bed.

One can hardly overstate the spookiness of it all—for those morbid enough to notice—when the imagined “tragedy” came to pass a few weeks later. The Summer 2001 nest suddenly seemed ghoulishly prescient—akin to the British journalist W. T. Stead’s uncanny 1892 short story about a White Star ocean liner’s sinking in the ice fields of the North Atlantic (Stead would go down on the Titanic twenty years later), or “King’s Cross,” a melancholy Pet Shop Boys song of 1987 that seemed to predict the terrible Underground fire at that ill-starred station two months later. Odder still, however, was the official nest response to 9/11.

There wasn’t one.

No comment on Kawakubo and the shrouded Capitol; no mention of the attacks; no nuttin’. Given nest’s Manhattan address and relentless downtown feel, the absence of immediate acknowledgment was creepy—as if the magazine had suffered a brain injury and been rendered selectively mute. The blankness and blockage never went away. nest carried on for several more years, through the Fall 2004 issue, but one couldn’t help feeling that the debunking zest had gone out of it—the punkish will to provoke seemed tainted and damaged. I lost some of my enthusiasm for the magazine after the 9/11 watershed: nest, it seemed, was just too hip to be human.

In retrospect the aphasia seems part of a more pervasive syndrome. Despite the rad profile, nest was as knee-deep in bathos and bourgeois denial as any other shelter mag. But who among us isn’t? How could anyone reconcile the scarifying truth—all men are mortal—with that illusion of calm and safety to which most of us still regularly aspire in everyday life? Regardless of means, status, or political investment, just about everyone craves warmth, light, four walls, and some bits of furniture—a shelter, in a word, from miseries we know are out there and others still to come. Our vulnerability is too extreme to be “integrated” in any supposedly therapeutic fashion.

So we devise psychic buffers. The habits of bourgeois life—first adumbrated in Northern Europe as early as the sixteenth century—have been for some time the buffer of choice, civilization’s all-purpose comfort-and- happiness maximizer. But the bourgeois outlook could hardly be called valiant or hardheaded: it’s all about not staring death in the face. Under its sway one seeks a world without pain. The search is doomed, of course—the “safe house” a house of cards. But maybe we needn’t start thinking about that yet.

I find myself hung up on the predicament—how to strike a balance between the longing for security (that infantile need on which shelter mags batten) and the more grown-up recognition that any “serenity” to be achieved is illusory, or at best fleeting. I’m a dawdler on the road to unhappy consciousness. Yet there are signs—this essay among them, perhaps—that I’ve started to wean myself of the more brainless aspects of my addiction. I’ve let some of the crap subscriptions lapse—Old House Interiors (too boring-Berkeley-in-the-seventies) and the ludicrous, vamping Architectural Digest. House Beautiful had started to irk me: its former male editor—odd and smarmy—was always twaddling on in fake-folksy manner about his adorable daughter “Madison.” But is he gay or straight?—that’s what I want to know.

And I’m getting tired of the whole Let’s-Pretend-There’s-Nothing-Wrong trip; it’s become so breathless and false. Death has lately been popping up rather explicitly in Shelter-Mag Land, but hidden in plain sight, as it were—like the purloined letter. Something one might call “taxidermic chic,” for example, has become a huge fad: cow skulls, fossils, mounted “jackalope” heads, stuffed rodents in doll clothes, lizards embalmed in varnish or the like—all deployed as “edgy” urban décor. (Trendy rag-and-bone-cum-interiors shops like Evolution in SoHo and Paxton Gate in San Francisco make a bundle out of this strange and desiccated style.)

I’ve even had bouts of outright revulsion. The worst came not long ago as I was innocently paging through Homes and Gardens. I had found a feature—instantly mesmerizing—about a renovated English farmhouse built in 1604. My sort of wattle-and-daub thing exactly! One could just see Vanessa Bell in it, paintbrushes in hand. I was fascinated to read how the current owners, a handsome couple with children, had kept “the carcasses of the original kitchen” in the interest of authenticity. And I also loved the milky gray “period” color chosen for the drawing room: a Jacobean hue named “Silken Flank.” But the pièce de résistance was undoubtedly the Vintage Hospital Bed—late-nineteenth- century and loaded with pricey Stieff teddy bears—taking pride of place in their daughter’s bedroom.

A lovely white iron bedstead: funky, fresh-looking, impeccable shabby chic. I wanted it immediately. But suddenly I found myself imagining all the people who had slept, and possibly died, in this particular bed over the past hundred years. In fact, the more I looked at it, the more it reminded me of those metal beds you see lined up in haunting photographs of First World War military hospitals, in which a ward full of grievously injured young men—heads bandaged, empty pajama sleeves pinned up—lie propped against pillows and (if they can) glumly regard the camera. Teddy bears notwithstanding, one could almost smell the carbolic. How many blind or limbless soldiers, I wondered, had succumbed in little Scarlett’s bed?

From there my thoughts went naturally on to the avian-flu epidemic of 1918–19. That appalling global contagion killed more than 20 million people: surely one or two of them must have expired in this particular bedstead? Bird-to-human influenza viruses have been in the news, of course, so the speculation was not unduly morbid. If the earthquakes, floods, or dirty bombs don’t get us, I gather, the Asian poultry will.

In Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, there’s an unforgettable passage in which the ill-starred heroine, brooding on mortality, wonders on what “sly and unseen” day she will die. “Of that day, doomed to be her terminus in time through all the ages, she did not know the place in month, week, season or year.” Tess could have used www.deathclock.com, where you fill out a health questionnaire and get back your exact date of death. Having discovered when mine will be—January 28, 2038—I’ve found myself wondering lately where I will die. On a city street? In an overturned car? In some dark and fathomless polar sea into which my plane has crashed? But what about at home, in bed, Evian on the nightstand and Wally the mini-dachshund snoring stertorously under the covers? Given my “home” fixation, that would be an especially poetic fate. Will my 400-thread-count Egyptian-cotton bed linens be any comfort to me then? And what about the teak milking stool? If she ever knew—and I doubt she did—the Un-Mother isn’t telling.

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