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The tyranny of home makeover culture
Another wrinkle of consumer culture emerges.
I’ve been enjoying our discussions the past few weeks of paths out of consumer culture—or at least, more intentional paths through it.
A few people have pinged me with this essay by Anne Helen Petersen: How your house makes you miserable. I subscribe to her (wonderful) newsletter so had been mulling it over for several weeks.
In it she reviews a research study about the impact of home remodeling shows on homeowners’ sense of self and home. The basic idea is that through our home we tend to derive a sense of rootedness and even a sense of self. But because homes are generally our biggest asset, there’s also pressure to make our home appealing to the masses via resale value, or what the study calls “market-reflected gaze.”
This market-reflected gaze is largely reinforced and spread through home remodeling shows on HGTV (et al), where everyone ends up with basically the same neutral design in the end. This can ultimately make us feel alienated and displaced from our home, the very place that was supposed to give us a sense of self.
As AHP puts it:
“How do you make your home entirely your own — a reflection of your good taste! — while also making it wholly acceptable to the market-reflected gaze? The only solution is to make the market-inflected taste your taste. And that experience can be incredibly alienating…”
The market-reflected gaze wants all bathrooms to look like a Hilton hotel bathroom, kitchens to look like a chef-worthy workspace, etc etc. So in the end, people are “unhappy when they haven’t remodeled, and they’re still unhappy after they do.”
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I’ll get back to that last statement in a minute, but want to share the ways the study’s authors say home establishes identity, which I found super interesting. I’ll abridge, but the abstract goes into more depth:
It is within the home that the unique self is developed — as shown when people bring possessions from home into the workplace to share their private identity
Home is the site of family identity as family members engage in holiday rituals that reaffirm family membership
People rearrange furniture and sacralize objects as ways to establish family identity
It’s a place associated with the negotiation and practice of gender roles, such as the identity of the at-home father
People construct ideals of comfort and cleanliness that align with their own unique identities
I don’t disagree with any of this. Home is a really important place. Obviously I buy all this which is why I write a neurotic newsletter about organizing and creating peace in your home.
It seems one of the emerging themes of said newsletter is how to resist capitalist dynamics that encourage unnecessary consumption. So addressing capitalist pressures around home design and remodeling seems appropriate here.
As for the “market-reflected gaze,” it feels similar to me given all the other aspects of life with a market-reflected gaze: the performance of motherhood, staying current with clothing fashion, keeping up with the Joneses, etc.
I don’t really know how often people consciously experience this anxiety from HGTV’s influence, but then again whenever one person’s X is held up as exemplary it will invite a (generally negative) comparison to your X.
I used to be a huge consumer of HGTV content (oh life before kids!). I’ve probably been though all the stages of influence from HGTV — inspiration, inadequacy, despair, indifference.
I’ve always been interested in literal home-making and have worked over the years to develop a perspective on all this. Here’s what I’ve come up with, which feels like a path out of (through?) this quagmire:
Reject the premise that your house (as in, the structure of it, what gets remodeled) is about you. It’s not.
Consider yourself a steward of whatever home you live in, whether you own or rent. You are just a temporary caretaker of your home, which will almost certainly outlive you. Your job is to nurture and feed your house what it needs for the time it’s in your care. Leave it better than you found it. Respect all it offers you. But remember it doesn’t “belong” to you in any permanent way.
When making changes to the structure, think about improving the house and reifying the house’s identity—not your identity.
Save your self-expression for things that are easily changed and temporary: furniture, light fixtures, paint colors, art on the walls, etc. All the identity-creating functions of a home listed above are achievable through these temporary furnishings.
And when it’s time to sell, yes, of COURSE you’ll need to de-personalize the house and make it as appealing as possible to the market masses. That’s just good business sense. And because you’ve limited your self-expression to easily changeable things, this shouldn’t be too hard.
I’ve considered that in all this, maybe I’m just brainwashed by HGTV and can’t think outside the market-reflected gaze. But it feels like making your home about honoring its own history/origin is a pretty reasonable approach.
So let’s say your kitchen is nonfunctional, or someone remodeled your mid-century gem very badly in the ‘90s, or you just need to change something to make your house more livable. How do you make changes to your home with this steward mentality?
As steward, honor the home itself — consider when it was built, and make choices that make the home feel true to its roots. You may love the modern aesthetic, but if you live in a Victorian, choose permanent finishes that honor the Victorian heritage (focus on the aesthetics, and I think using updated technology is ok — we replaced our non-functioning, cracked original windows with new wood ones in a vintage style, though I know doing this is a point of contention with some). Once that’s done, feel free to put in super modern furniture if that’s your jam.
For instance, when my family needed a spot to store records, books, and miscellaneous entryway stuff like hats and gloves (more on that whole enterprise here), we added built-ins but made sure they matched the rest of our home and felt like they could be original to the house. People who come over are constantly surprised to hear they’re not original. Success!
Maria Killiam’s instagram informed a lot of my thinking about this. She’s a color expert, but talks a lot about how to change a home while still honoring its time period.
She talks a lot about trendy updates that make no sense for most homes. She helps people sharpen their skills so they can discern what’s timeless vs what’s trendy. It’s harder than it seems—trends seep into our subconscious and make us think we came up with these preferences ourselves. This discernment is a useful skill if you’re planning to (ever) remodel or even paint the outside of a home.
Another big influence on me is Laura Fenton’s Living Small Substack, books and general ethos. This pitch for her dream TV show in which she only makes minimal changes and sources used materials, is brilliant in its wisdom but also hilarious in how unlikely it is to get picked up by HGTV (says a lot!).
Here’s Laura’s review of a book about “light touch” kitchen renovations, wherein you leave what’s good and only change what’s needed. It makes me feel really good about our own light touch kitchen remodel a couple years ago, where we changed only a couple things (floor, backsplash, added windows and crown molding) but still made a huge impact.
I’m less confident about how to approach something like a 1995 suburban tract home. It seems like architecture needs to age about 40 years before it becomes classic rather than trendy (the market-reflected gaze is back!), which is why the 70s is the most current decade where I can confidently get behind embracing the architecture of the times.
Maybe if your home was built less than 40 years ago it’s more about being “contemporary” than about honoring its architectural origins. I’m not sure, but curious if anyone has thoughts. No doubt greater minds have pondered this more deeply.
I hope I didn’t put everyone to sleep with this theory-heavy post. If you’re still with me, you get a gold star!
I’m curious if anyone else has felt pressure/anxiety from HGTV shows or a pull to make your house look like a hotel? How did it turn out and how do you feel about it?