July 23, 2013

Interior decorating more popular in cocooning times, leading ultimately to greater alienation

Ever since people began to abandon public places and spend more and more time at home, the attention to interior design and decoration has taken off like a rocket.

There was that whole obsession with IKEA that began in the '90s era of feeling richer (the Clinton years), when we all felt the urge to purge our embarrassingly cheesy '80s furniture. It picked up even more steam during the mid-2000s housing bubble, when everyone felt like it would only add to the already guaranteed soaring value of their home. And yet it's still going strong, right through the recession. The whole Western world has become obsessed with interior decoration.

How can you look at a room and tell that its owners had the interior decoration bug? There are too many signs of conscious, deliberate choices, and cross-coordinated choices (will these picture frames echo or clash with the drawer pulls?). Like, "Hey, look over here! A decorator chose meee to play in the cast of characters here. Good choice, wouldn't you agree?"

None of it looks haphazard, or organically grown over time. Aside from the deliberateness of the whole look, it also looks like you could have bought the entire room yesterday and had professionals install it today -- a room in a box, a carbon copy of the showroom where you purchased every one of the items. That's another thing -- the items all look like they could have been bought in the same store (and just may have been), further emphasizing how artificial and effortful it looks, rather than organic and intuitively thrown together.

Here are a few views of the ideal style of the early 21st century:

Look at how many shades of blue are cross-coordinating with each other in the top-left picture, and the heavy use of different shades of orange and brown in the bottom picture. The top-right one is using texture more, but the effect is the same -- so many cross-coordinated woody or grainy textures. So many items in a single room that fit together so precisely could never have occurred by accident. We're very aware of how deliberately designed the room is.

However, in the not too distant past, living rooms have more of that "What were we thinking?" kind of look. But that's precisely the point -- we didn't give that much thought to interior decoration back then, because we spent so much more time outside the home. As long as it had a little homey charm, and even if it would look cheesy to a designer, it was fine by us.

Have a look at how uncoordinated rooms used to look in the 1980s:

I know, it's totally a low blow to put that pastel-o-rama room in there, but that was a pretty common look. The upper-right room doesn't look too offensive, though -- could have been used for a teen comedy movie. And the top-left one is looking understated, sophisticated, and most of all organic and lived-in. It looks like it took awhile for the owners to acquire all of the different items. Is that a sheep holding up the coffee table? LOL. The Eighties style could get so irreverent -- not at all like the on-the-nose irony or camp of the past 20 years. It could have been the location for a dinner party scene in Hannah and Her Sisters or When Harry Met Sally.

What they all share is a lack of a matchy-matchy feel. In the top two, a few colors, textures, and shapes are repeated -- but that could have been by chance (and probably was). The bottom one does look a bit more like the gay decorator with AIDS next door had more of a say, still, even there you have to examine it more closely to see the repeated colors. They don't pop out like the 21st century ones do. The sofas are clearly copies of the same design, but it doesn't look like you slaved away thinking how to match them with other things in the room.

Summing up: not exactly what you'd find in a museum of interior design, which would be more designer-centric.

Nah, for the heavily designed look of a cocooning culture, you have to go back to the mid-century. Indeed, during our own age of cocooning, reviving the mid-century modern style has become a national mania. Here's a look:

These are obviously decorator rooms, judging from the stand-out signs of a "color scheme" that pervades the place. The furniture all has that signature style of the legs being tapered and super-smooth in texture, increasing your awareness of the non-accidental nature of how these items wound up in this space. They were chosen to have a common "signature style."

Also, like the Millennial-era pictures, there's a heavy use of display objects meant to tell the viewer something about the owner's personality or interests, or to just look impressive. There aren't as many objects on display in the '80s rooms, aside from things you could find in anyone's home, like lamps and flowers. We expect to see flower vases, lamps, and potted plants. But when we see statuettes and figurines, we're meant to ask why they made that choice? And even the expected things like vases are given unusual shapes that call attention to themselves. "Hey, look at me! I'm not your ordinary flower vase -- I'm designed."

And of course, before the cocooning mid-century was the outgoing Jazz Age. Everything looked more elegant at that time, but compared to the mid-century, it still looks so undesigned. The left picture is from the '20s, and the right one from the early '30s:

Each of the furniture pieces looks different, not obviously from a single designer or single store. Some colors match each other, but it could be by chance. It's not an overpowering color scheme. And the display objects are pretty soft-spoken -- vases, lamps, or plates that aren't meant to blab about your uniquely awesome individuality. They have that same homey, charming, lived-in look of the '80s rooms. It doesn't look like the owners lost sleep over what would be put in the room and how they'd be arranged.

They could easily have been acquired at different times from different sources, the only requirement being that they basically get along with the existing ecosystem -- not that they have to loudly conform to the other elements and strengthen the single unified style.

So did people just not care about design during the '20s and the '80s? Far from it -- they simply directed that concern outside the nuclear family's house. In those periods, the home was not our sanctuary from the outside world, which was way more exciting and stimulating than your dull living room. If you weren't going to lock yourself in your house all day long, why obsess over it trying to meet all of your aesthetic dietary needs?

When you're more outgoing, you'd better worry more about non-domestic architecture -- public buildings, commercial areas, outdoor entertainment places like parks or golf courses. As spiffy as the mid-century and Millennial-era domestic interiors look, everything else architectural was soul-draining in those periods. The spiritless big box skyscraper, the strip shopping center, the drive-in or drive-thru fast food joint, the abandonment of parks -- those staples of mid-century and Millennial architecture more than cancel out the design-y look of their homes.

The Roaring Twenties and the Go-Go Eighties had Art Deco and a Deco-inspired revival, the elaborate department store and the bazaar-with-oasis shopping mall, and fast food restaurants that were not garish or covered in advertising on the outside (visible from the next street over). All of those enriching places more than made up for the domestic interiors that don't look like much effort went into making them look nice for the owners and visitors.

Something important to keep in mind when you hear the triumphalist accounts of how epic our homes look today compared to the '80s, and how fierce our toothbrush holders look nowadays. True, they don't have that nondescript look of the '80s or '20s, but no one would have minded back then because they had a rewarding social life outside of the home.

The dramatic rise of all these designer wall paints, designer nesting tables, and designer wastebaskets is merely a reflection of how deprived our lives have become of a sense of belonging outside of the nuclear family. Having given that up, we're struggling to create amusement and pride of place within our homes -- all while the look and feel of places outside the home only become more and more bleak, depressing, and alienating.

Man is not a solitary animal, and at least outside of Sicily is not meant only to "belong" to a nuclear or extended family, but a broader community of genetically unrelated fellows. It can be no surprise, then, that there's such a pervasive mood of anxiety, malaise, and atomization in those periods that try to create a sense of place only within the home and not across the broader community.


  1. I feel like the Housing Bubble also had some link in with the recent changes. People were trying to maximize their property's value - that seems to be the recurring theme on all the interior design TV shows.

  2. any signs that things are changing? maybe make an article about them?


  3. "I feel like the Housing Bubble also had some link in with the recent changes."

    Definitely during the housing bubble euphoria of the mid-2000s, but if anything people are more obsessed with interior decorating than they were before, well after the housing market blew up and the recession had set in.

    And it got going well before the widespread belief that the home was a miracle investment. The housing bubble euphoria didn't extend back into the 1990s, even though there was a general feeling that every middle class person was suddenly a wise investor, and that prosperity was rising (which it was).

    I remember our family's first pilgrimage to IKEA around 1993 or '94, no later than '95. We'd never made a design pilgrimage before, and I'd never seen so many pilgrims all packed into one great big sprawling store like that. It must have taken over an hour to get there.

    Strange how few specific shopping trips you remember, but that was a big one. I remember complaining about why we needed to go so far away, and once there, why we needed to spend so much time and get so many new things.

    I don't remember the exact words, but it wasn't just needing new things -- something more like "I don't like the way our house looks" that covered the entire style of the interior. We needed to trek out on a pilgrimage as a costly and honest sign of our design contrition ("cheesy / tacky '80s furniture"), seek guidance from our spiritual superiors and experts, and after being broken down, to return home transformed with our new Scandinavia minimalist stuff.

    It didn't matter if you were rich or not -- it's not as though we transformed our entire house overnight. But getting enough new things to start the redemption process, and making semi-regular pilgrimages back to IKEA (or wherever) to further along the design-y look of our home.

  4. You know, the same shift in attitudes has happened on college campuses as well. In the '80s, nobody cared how thoughtfully and purposefully designed their dorm room or campus-area apartment looked.

    Sometime during the '90s, that began to change. I remember arriving for freshman year in the fall of '99 with a good load of junk from the Container Store etc. to make the dorm room more attractive and functional... when I could've cared less and wanted more to hang out and shoot the bull in other people's rooms or at the common eating spots outside the building.

    By now, college kids' dorm rooms get the full OCD treatment that their parents show toward the home. If their kids are going to stay locked in their dorm room, it had better look appealing. Otherwise they might feel like leaving their room, unsupervised.


  5. "any signs that things are changing? maybe make an article about them?"

    No, if anything I see it getting worse than two or three years ago.

  6. 'Fellow praised my chairs! Damned cheek!'

    Paul Fussell's 'Class', upper-class Englishman ejecting some wombat.

  7. have you examined the idea that the crime rate may be related to trends in the weather?


  8. "No, if anything I see it getting worse than two or three years ago."

    I refuse to believe that if its true, I think that we are talking about it means we're over the worst hump.


  9. Who's "we," kemo sabe? Two random guys on the internet? The average American isn't talking about it, coming to recognize how wasteful their lives have been for the past two decades. They're even more intent on tunneling away in their domestic nuclear unit.

    Just to pick one important barometer -- hovering physically over children. Now it's escalated to holding their hands. I've even seen parents pick up their kids and carry them off when they ventured "too far" from their parents, i.e. 10 feet away.

    I hadn't seen hand-holding or carrying before (except for infants, with those baby-sling thingies).

    Really, what's next? -- carrying them around in a pet taxi?

  10. I've noticed lots of people being friendlier in public, though it can vary day-to-day(I'm thinking more and more that the crime rate trends are effected by the weather). There have been other signs, like guys running in the park with their shirts off, and other stuff like that. I'll think harder about this later.

    I also don't think you give yourself enough credit, as your blog is certainly informing more people than you think.


  11. one thing i've noticed is someone getting a fishbowl in their living-room. that type of thing seems like it would be more common in rising-crime than falling-crime times.


  12. Sometime during the '90s, that began to change. I remember arriving for freshman year in the fall of '99 with a good load of junk from the Container Store etc. to make the dorm room more attractive and functional... when I could've cared less and wanted more to hang out and shoot the bull in other people's rooms or at the common eating spots outside the building.

    Seems kind of harsh on yourself.

    Maybe some of your motivation was more to invite people, who you were dimly aware were getting more averse to leaving their own rooms, into yours, so were striving to make it a nice place to hang?

    You touch on this a bit but maybe there's like a dual motivation - both people are less willing to leave their space, so there's more of an incentive for them to do it up nice, and also people are harder to draw into your space, so there's a motivation to amp up the creature comforts (which is probably less against the grain of the times than trying to draw them in by amping up your level of enthusiasm, openness and positive feeling).

    One of my images of the '50s (but sort of straddling that '50s - '60s) period is all that stuff where some avuncular and genial guy is like all "Say, Walt, why don't you come over to my place and the missus'll fix us up a couple of real nice steaks and we'll drink some single malt and smoke some cuban cigars?" in a way calculated to offer creature comforts.

    While my impression is that in the 1970s to 1980s, that stuff happened either more naturally and spontaneously, and as part of a large group, (rather than as an attempt to draw a few avoidant people in) or not at all.

    That might be more typical of the Midcentury where the national solidarity through World Wars and Fighting Communism and a relative lack of narcissism and superiority complex through lower inequality at least gave the Greatest and Silents some backup humanity and desire to connect.

  13. agnostic, off topic, but I was thinking about the rationalist / introversion / violence falling vs romantic / extraversion / violence rising period dichotomy you raise, and how it relates to preferences for stimulant and stabilising drugs vs depressant / psychoactive and de-stabilising drugs, and how this relates to caffeine and tea and coffee, specifically.

    Looking at history, the Rationalist Enlightenment was associated with meetings in coffee houses and the spread of coffee, the Victorian period with large increases in the consumption of tea (in England at least), and our age with the rise of Starbucks, coffee shops and "energy drinks". I.e. falling violence created Starbucks and Red Bull (by creating the opportunity for them to grow as brands). I don't know about the mid-century. Think there's anything to this?

  14. "Think there's anything to this?"

    Could be, although you sound like you know more about the history of tea and coffee culture. Coffee seems like it was a decent part of the drive-in and diner culture of the mid-century.

    Like, "How 'bout a nice hot cuppa joe?" -- when is that phrase from? David Lynch is obsessed with ordering coffee, that it makes me suspect it's a Fifties / early '60s thing.

    Definitely was not very big during the '60s, '70s, and '80s...

    I'm not too sure about the 1900 to early '30s period. Doesn't seem like it was a cultural phenomenon.

  15. "so were striving to make it a nice place to hang?"

    Perhaps, but not with stuff from the Container Store, Target, IKEA, etc. On our floor, three of us bought cheap couches at the Salvation Army, and it took four of us to carry them back -- probably an hour each. Though one time I think we managed to score a flat-bed dolly.

    And we raised the couches onto our generic dressers provided by the school. Real Seventies-looking upholstery too, LOL.

    Working as a team to head off on a mission, scope out the selection, and then lug those suckers back to the dorms, was more of a bonding experience than just plopping down on an "affordable luxury" bean bag from Target.

    "but maybe there's like a dual motivation"

    College kids' rooms these days feel more like they're designed to be cocoons for the owner than hang-out places for others.

  16. "While my impression is that in the 1970s to 1980s, that stuff happened either more naturally and spontaneously, and as part of a large group, (rather than as an attempt to draw a few avoidant people in) or not at all."

    Yeah, that does seem to start in the later half of the '50s. Part of the first shedding of the cocooning mindset.

    And yeah, it was more spontaneous and took part in larger groups in the '70s and '80s. My mother says 2 to 4 people was the norm.

    BTW, what happened to the regular poker game? It was popular with college kids as well as middle-aged working men too.

  17. 2 to 4 guests, I mean, so a half-dozen people.

  18. I don't get it. What is wrong with an interior designed house with conscious deliberation and perfect measurements? There are many different options for design. Modern and Modern Minimalist are not the only options and only have limited popularity. They just happen to be featured more in interior design magazines. I'm not sure why having an amazingly clean interior designed space automatically necessitates becoming a home body. Not sure where your drawing that line.

  19. Nothing wrong with it, just using it to show how the degree of thought that people give to the look of their homes reflects their cocooning vs. outgoing behavioral style.

    Too much of a design-y look at home can be bad, though, if it makes you complacent and not feel like leaving the house. Or appearing pretentious. Or heightening your level of self-consciousness and OCD -- does your home look the way you want it to? What are people going to think about it? And so on.

    A place that you have no control over, like a mall, you just visit and enjoy the experience -- someone else has given all the thought to the look and feel of it.


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