How the Other Half Lives


Brent loves Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. And I mean he really loves Tommy Lee. He has “mayhem” tattooed on his stomach just like Lee; in his house, he has a wall of Mötley Crüe CDs displayed in a glass case as if they were precious items in a museum. Brent loves Lee so much that when the drummer came over to redecorate Brent’s garage in his style (drums for a coffee table, red flames on the walls to induce visions of hell), Brent was so overcome with joy he nearly wept.

This touching moment took place on VH1’s foray into the home-decorating reality-TV show craze Rock the House; the premise is that a person’s favorite rock star comes over, and unbeknownst to the fan, decorates a room in a paean to, well, himself.

Rock the House is just one of many shows that focus on the transformative powers of decorating and interior design. Martha Stewart might stoke the creative fires of Connecticut housewives, but programs like TLC’s While You Were Out and Trading Spaces, MTV’s Cribs, and innumerable others stoke the average Americans’ heretofore unknown need to get in touch with their interior designer. What’s more surprising is that the people watching these shows are younger than you’d think. Michael Klein, While You Were Out‘s executive producer, says that his audience is between 18 and 34 years old. “For the younger demographic, it’s about personalizing space,” says Klein.

A home can say much about a person. We can tell from their books and their music collections what their interests are. We can see if they are messy or neat, if they are a minimalist or a pack rat, if they are a family person or a single swinger, if they like to cook or eat out, if they are a modernist or nostalgic in their style. We can glean these things from the furniture, the collectibles, the colors of the walls, the curtains, the cookbooks, the stuff strewn around the house. What does it mean, then, when people need a designer to tell them what they like?

The people featured on WYWO and Trading Spaces usually live in the suburbs, and have actual homes—as opposed to New Yorkers’ “cozy” closets—but don’t know what to do with them. Their furniture is mass-produced, their home entertainment centers are awful monstrosities, and their wall-to-wall carpets are hideous (like the sweet man on WYWO whose bedroom was engulfed by a cringe-inducing shade of forest green). While Klein says that the rooms on While You Were Out are “designed to be reflective of the owner’s personalities or desires,” the homeowners tend to be so indistinguishable they are almost interchangeable. They most certainly wouldn’t have thought of making a light fixture comprised of Gummi Bears like John Bruce, one of WYWO‘s designers, does in one episode. But we root for them just the same. We want to see their living room morphed from dull to fabulous the same way we like to see Cosmo makeovers of plain-looking women re-created as sirens. The transformation is beguiling, even if we never want to live in a room that looks like a French boudoir.

The popularity of TV shows dedicated to home decorating and interior design can be traced to the ’80s program Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Robin Leach’s posh nasal whine introduced sick levels of wealth and extravagance, but while we felt ill watching it, we couldn’t turn it off. The pools, the gilded toilet seats, the private screening rooms, the things one could never have, tortured us even as they elicited excitement. Cribs‘ playful take on the same idea—showing how the pop star, athlete, or celebrity lives—is equally voyeuristic, but we watch, not just to see how many fancy cars line their driveways, but also to see what kind of person they might be. Mariah Carey’s walk-in closet, with its rows and rows of color-coordinated clothes, leaves us wondering if she is a neatnik or if she simply hired one.

Sometimes money changes nothing. The stars who had bad taste before they hit the jackpot continue to have bad taste, except extravagantly so. Big bland couches are plopped in the middle of Carey’s living room like beached whales. The only thing that’s impressive is the sheer size of the ugliness. Carey’s trashy Vegas lounge doesn’t inspire as much as the room where she stashes the gym equipment. We feel a little comforted because it is like a gym room the rest of us might have. Unused and lonely.

This fascination with interior design is twofold. We want to see how the other half lives, but we’ve also become more interested in design itself. The beauty of objets d’art has seeped into mass consciousness. In Fight Club, Ed Norton’s character reminisces bitterly about his apartment furnished with IKEA furniture as the camera pans across the room, each crevice filled with a well-designed piece of particleboard from the Swedish retailer. “I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct,” says Norton’s character. “I would flip and wonder, ‘What kind of dining room set defines me as a person?’ ” It is a joke that, had it been told a decade ago, would have been met with silence. Futurist Bruce Sterling complains in the interiors mag Dwell that well-designed pieces remain “trapped in the museum vitrine,” but some of the everyday products at Target are created by white-hot artists like Philippe Starck, Todd Oldham, and Michael Graves. And even though it still holds garbage, our Umbra trash can, designed by Karim Rashid, is no longer an eyesore.

Magazines dedicated to interior design seem to outnumber the plain old art magazines at the local newsstand, and they nearly overwhelm the music rag section. While old standbys like Martha Stewart Living concentrate on doilies for your grandma, magazines like Real Simple and Dwell also suggest that younger folks previously concerned with partying now have interiors on their minds. Ready Made, a quaint how-to mag from Berkeley, breaks down simple home-decorating tricks for the design impaired.

Indeed, much of the supposed appeal of While You Were Out and Trading Spaces is their how-to aspect. But for most people who watch and think, I’ll try that, the walls remain white, the mirror rests on the floor, and the artwork goes unhung. “It’s probably similar to somebody choosing a new wardrobe,” says John Bruce, the WYWO designer who made the Gummi Bear light fixture. “They want it to be an expression of themselves but they don’t know exactly what cuts or colors to try. It ultimately has to come from the person, but they often need somebody to put the stake in the ground and say, ‘Start here.’ ”

Nest, an artsy design mag, dispenses with the notion that we could ever do any of these things ourselves, or that we would want to. Its m.o. is purely Peeping Tom. The whorehouse featured in the latest issue is intriguing simply because of its function. The design is slutty yet quaint: Tacky floral prints on the bedspreads give the rooms a homey feel, but the mirrors surrounding the beds remind us of the rooms’ real purpose. We don’t want to live there, we don’t want our homes to look like that, but we want to know.

Nest also shows a house built totally underground in Las Vegas, with air-conditioned everything, replete with fake evergreen and palm trees surrounding a garden terrace. There’s even a controlled skyline where the sun sets and rises at will. Forget it. We will never have it. But we can revel in it.