Home Office at the End of the World: Ghost Protocol
There was a period of time where I couldn’t turn on a design show or flip through the pages of a shelter mag without running into a pictorial spread containing Philippe Starck Louis Ghost Chair. Besides Barcelona Chairs, there hasn’t been a designer chair – how silly is that concept – that has captured my imagination with such intensity. Even if I had all kinds of cheddar I can’t imagine purchasing a $400 chair, which goes against my blowout bargain bonanza mandate. I want a faithful approximation. If that makes me a bad person then I’m a bad person. I’m not talking about getting a Kartell from a back alley or catching one as if falls off the back of the truck. I’m talking about someone somewhere making a damn invisible chair in the under $50 range, which is about the most I’d be willing to pay for what essentially is a plastic chair. Aspirational or inspirational, I blame design shows and shelter mags for my undying lust for these Wonder Woman plane chairs.
Design shows tap into my irresistible idea of home, as understood by Dorothy in The Wiz. Playing on my faulty belief system, seductive HGTV shows like My First Place and Mission: Organization convince me I can turn crap in the back of my closet – armed with only a hot glue gun and a dream – into some kind of decor masterpiece, instead of merely another example of craft fail. Not to toot my own clown horn, but I’m great with design. I have a lot of experience with design gone hilariously and horribly wrong – I see you, fur boa lamp – and I’m quite fearless. Currently, my kitchen boasts stunning turquoise cabinetry, which once I come to my senses will vanish with sand paper, primer and a tasteful coat of Behr’s glossy Cocoa Motion. On the other hand, Apartment Therapy positions interior design as solely the domain of folks in big cities. Despite being drawn to it as a source of inspiration I realize many of its prescriptive rules – tasteful, quality furnishings only and Mid-Century Modern preferred – make me feel unwelcome.
Design shows, by their nature, are both shaming and encouraging – often simultaneously. An episode of HGTV’s Design on the Dime might offer kudos for mastering the core door-on-Ikea-legs concept, but admonish me for mismatch glassware or lamps sans lampshades – despite my seemingly legitimate reasons for doing so. Design shows urge me to paint when I’m seeking an affordable decor rehab, then insist I pay upwards of thirty dollars per gallon.
Design shows of the “rearrange; don’t spend” genre have their own sleight of hand, which often leave me more frustrated than inspired. Design Remix touts low or no money room rehabs, featuring items culled from the occupant’s existing belongings.
Or so they say.
FreeStyle boasted “no cost” redecorating, which definitely sounds appealing, except nearly every home they “freestyled” had closets and extra rooms filled with stuff far better than the room’s before picture would suggest. The occupants often unearthed lamps, tables, rugs and textiles of questionable origins they acknowledged as, “oh that old thing?” While enjoyable, I often suspected some of these “rearrange; don’t spend” shows were not all they appeared to be. In a 2006 article entitled “My $1,000 Free TV Makeover”, writer Jill Barshay chronicled her experiences with FreeStyle, confirming my chief suspicion – the definition of “found” was often quite flexible.
Barshay reminds the reader of the show’s premise:
“The show’s premise is that you can redecorate a room and solve all of your design problems absolutely free . By simply rearranging existing furniture, bringing in overlooked treasures from other rooms and getting rid of whatever is deemed unnecessary (and unattractive), anyone can create a photo-worthy habitat.”
Then Barshay goes on to describe in snarky detail how many of those “found treasures” were actually purchases she made at the encouragement of a show designer – to the tune of one thousand dollars. Granted, Barshay was made aware of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and still opted to proceed with the charade, so it’s hard to feel to sorry for her. That said, calling the show “no cost” redecorating is all kinds of problematic.
Melissa Sykes, senior vice president of programming attempts to provide some clarification:
“Occasionally a homeowner offers to make an additional purchase, but is in no way required nor encouraged to do so,” Melissa Sykes, a senior vice president of programming, told me when I called for a comment for this story. She said “the main idea behind ‘FreeStyle’ is to help people work with what they have and . . . we at HGTV feel the show is very successful at doing that.”
For the record, I never thought these shows were anything but escapism with a dash of DIY tossed in as a gimmick. It’s one thing to go to a puppet show with an awareness of the strings. It’s another to have the strings pointed out to you. It cheapens the illusion and definitely has diminished my enjoyment of the genre.
Design shows provide yet another lens in which to view our ideal selves, similar to weight loss shows, soaps and programs depicting the lifestyles of the fabulously rich. Except in most cases, the subjects producers select to are supposed represent and reflect real lives in ways other shows don’t. Thus their deceptions are much easier to conceal and the seduction far more delicious. That art student in Baltimore with the fabulous rowhouse has design issues just like me. Except unlike me, she’s been given nearly 20k worth of advice, decor and professional services. She’s had her house cleaned, well lit and filmed from its best angles. The camera crews are long gone after the honeymoon is over; the audience never sees all those ridiculous design “solutions” again except on Craigslist or if they sneak a peek into her closets.