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.”)
Again, no question but that family ructions—notably my parents’ nuclear- war-style divorce when I was seven—left me, like de Wolfe, with a bit of a shelter neurosis. As soon as the papers were filed, my British-born mother yanked me and my little sister out of the standard-issue suburban West Coast middle-class home we had occupied for as long as I could remember and took us off to a dreary seaside bungalow in the U.K. Returning to San Diego three years later—my mother then in flight from British Inland Revenue—we landed in the aforementioned cheesy apartment, the best she could do on the child support she received from my father. I spent my mopey teenage years there like an exiled monarch, dolefully contemplating the spindly 1950s hibiscus-print bamboo armchairs and roll-up window blinds (courtesy of Buena Vista Apartments management) and lamenting the fate that had befallen us.
The real nightmare, however, was a squalid domicile across town that threatened off and on to become our future home: the “snout house” (a boxy So-Cal tract house with garage and driveway dominating the frontage) owned by the man my mother would later marry—a hapless submariner named Turk, whose previous wife had dropped dead there of alcohol poisoning a few months before my mother met him. The place was my private House of Usher; I worried over the ghastly reality—maternal lack of cash—it represented. And as if to confirm its baleful role in my imaginative life, it was an abode of surpassing ugliness: dank and malodorous, with fake wood paneling and a tattered Snopes-family screen door at the front admitting numerous flies. The only decorative touches were the grimy ashtrays on every surface, a faded Navy photo of the U.S.S. Roncador surfacing, and, in one dim corner, a dusty assemblage of bronze baby shoes—one for each of Turk’s five wildly delinquent children. Luckily, by the time my mother married him I had already left for college, so I—the female Fauntleroy—never had to live there. Staying overnight was bad enough, though: I have dreams to this day in which the mother who dropped dead emerges from the closet—here, now, in my grown-up bedroom in San Francisco—to enfold me in a noxious and crumbly embrace.
Which brings me back, by a somewhat gothic route, to shelter mags and their allure. One essential part of their appeal, it seems to me, lies precisely in the fact that they proffer—even brazenly tout—an escape from the parental. (The step-parental, too, thank God.) They do this in several ways—perhaps most conspicuously through a glib, repetitious, wonderfully brain-deadening “express the inner you” rhetoric. Now, supposedly no one actually “reads” shelter magazines; you just drivel over the pictures. Patently untrue in my experience: I devour all the writing, too—such as it is—no matter how fatuous and formulaic. I take special pleasure in the “editor’s welcome”—usually a few brief paragraphs (next to a little picture of said editor) about new decorating trends, the need for beauty in one’s life, how to create a private “sanctuary” for yourself, the meaning of “home,” etc. It’s always the same stupefying tripe, but soothing nonetheless.
Who is this editor? She (rarely he) might best be described as the Un-Mother. She is typically white, middle-aged yet youthful, apparently straight, and seldom much more ethnic-looking than the Polish-American Martha Stewart. She is often divorced, and may (paradoxically) have grown-up children. But her authority is of an oblique, seemingly nontoxic kind—more that of a benevolent older sister or a peppy, stylish aunt than any in-your-face maternal figure. And the therapeutic wisdom she dispenses—almost always in the cozy second person—is precisely that you don’t have to do what your mother tells you to do. In fact, your ma can buzz off altogether. You can now buy lots of nice things and make “your own space,” from which all signs of the past have been expunged.
Yay! No more U.S.S. Roncador!
If you enter the words “not your mother’s” on Google, you’ll get nearly 200,000 results, a huge number of which point you immediately toward shelter-mag articles. “Not your mother’s [whatever]” turns out to be an established interiors trope, endlessly recycled in titles, pull quotes, advertisements, photo captions, and the like. “Not Your Mother’s Tableware” is a typical heading—meant presumably to assure you that if you acquire the featured cutlery you will also, metaphorically speaking, be giving your mom the finger. (Other online items that are not your mother’s: wallpaper, mobile homes, Chinette, faucet sponges, slow cookers, backyard orchards, and Tupperware parties. Beyond the realm of interior decoration—it’s nice to learn—you can also avoid your mother’s menopause, divorce, Internet, hysterectomy, book club, Mormon music, hula dance, antibacterial soap, deviled eggs, and national security. Thank you, Condi.)
“Your House Is You, So Start Reveling in It” is a virtual creed in Shelter-Mag Land, one derived from the holy books of interior design. “You will express yourself in your home, whether you want to or not,” proclaimed the prophet Elsie in The House in Good Taste—best to “arrange it so that the person who sees [you] in it will be reassured, not disconcerted.” In The Personality of a House, a rather more florid copycat volume from 1930, Emily Post was no less insistent: “[Your home’s] personality should express your personality, just as every gesture you make—or fail to make—expresses your gay animation or your restraint, your old-fashioned conventions, your perplexing mystery, or your emancipated modernism—whichever characteristics are typically yours.” Narcissism in a go-cup: the ladies say it’s okay.
Now, in 2006, the message is ubiquitous, sloganized, inevitable. “Not Everything in Your Home Is All About You, You, You,” reads an ad for flooring in a recent issue of Elle Decor. “Oh, Wait. Yes, It Is.” Unsurprisingly, it is taken for granted that one’s inner life—externalized in décor—will be an improvement on whatever has gone before. “What do you think you want?” asks Elle Decoration (September 2005). “A bigger house? A better view? Frette bedlinen? A matching set of original Saarinen dining chairs?” It seems that “you” have very expensive tastes. But that’s fine too, because shelter literature is all about consumption, luxury goods, and the pipe dreams of upward mobility.
When one has pretensions to taste, such dreams can be hard to resist. Out of necessity my own decorating style has long been fairly downmarket and bourgeois: your standard Academic-Shabby-Chic- Wood-Floors-Vaguely-Ethnic- Somewhat-Cluttered- Bohemian-Edith-Sitwell- Crossed-With-Pottery-Barn- Squeaky-Dog-Toys-Everywhere- Eccentric-Anglophile- Lesbian. (The last two elements being signified by various grubby Vita Sackville-West first editions on the shelves. No one else on the Internet seems to want them.) Yet raffishness notwithstanding, the entire visual scheme is as fraught with socioeconomic symbolism as any. Having been plucked out of the (semi-) prosperous middle class as a child, I have spent thirty years or so trying to wiggle my way back in. Indeed, to the degree that such mobility is possible on an academic salary, I’ve sought fairly relentlessly to upgrade to even higher status—1920s-Artistic-British-Boho-With-Inherited- Income has usually been the target look, as if Augustus John and Virginia Woolf had mated. (The “British” part has no doubt been a way of renegotiating childhood fiascos on my own terms.) Say the word “Bloomsbury” or “Charleston” and I become quite tremulous with longing.
That the “express yourself” ethos of the shelter mag is both illogical and manipulative should go without saying. While encouraging you to find your “personal style,” the Un-Mother also wants to show you how. Even my own fanatically considered décor, I’m forced to admit, may be part of some greedy stranger’s business plan—a version of that nostalgic “vintage” or “Paris flea market” style heavily promoted to urban college-educated women of my generation throughout the United States and Western Europe over the past decade or so. (Other incessantly marketed “looks” now vying for dominance in Shelter-Mag Land: “mid-century modern”—a variety of Baby Boomer Rat Pack retro distinguished by funky space-age design, Case Study houses, pony skins on the floor, and, if you’re lucky, lots of Eames, Mies, and Corbu—and the more minimalist, Asian-inspired “W Hotel” look, involving wenge wood, stark-white walls, spa bathrooms, dust-mite-free bedding, solitary orchids in raku pots, etc. Chacun à son goût and all that, but the latter mode—like the frigid minimalism of the British cult architect John Pawson—always strikes me as simply the latest twist on twentieth-century fascist design.) But whether my never-ending quest for antique finials, faded bits of toile de Jouy, old postcards, and other quirky “flea-market finds” is a product of disposition or suggestion, I am, I realize, as much a slave to commodity fetishism as any McMansion-owning reader of Architectural Digest—hideous bible of parvenus from the Hamptons to Malibu.
Resentful, matriphobic, pretentious, gullible: could the shelter-lit addict be any less appealing? Unfortunately, yes, as a brief foray—into Shelter-Mag Land’s heart of darkness, its paranoid psychic core—will reveal. Here the real-world rooms on display—static, pristine, and seemingly uninhabited—are key. To be “at home” in the World of Interiors, one rapidly gathers, is to bask in the privacy of your own space, serene and unabashed, while the rest of the world goes kaboom all around you. (Not for nothing does the industry term “shelter magazine” play subliminally on “bomb shelter.” Self-fortification is one of the goals here; likewise the psychic eradication of other people.)
Some shelter-lit purveyors are tough-minded enough to cop to it—that the urge to “project the self” through décor can be deeply allied with misanthropy. “I live inside my head,” the decorator Rose Tarlow declares in The Private House (2001), “often oblivious to the world outside myself. I see only what I wish to see.” In her own home, she acknowledges, other people aren’t really part of the scene.
I know there are times when we plan our houses as much for the pleasure of our friends as for ourselves, because we wish for their enjoyment, and rely on their appreciation and praise—especially their praise. Thankfully that stage of my life has passed!
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 Amazon.com. 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.
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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