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The Ghost and Ms. Machine

May 29, 2010

The Iconic Louis Ghost Chair by Philippe Starck for Kartell

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.

Aaron Foster, host of HGTV's defunct show FreeStyle

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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2010 8:15 am

    Nice double play on the title!

    You’ve helped me understand what I think has always made me uneasy about “reality” TV… it’s not that it’s staged, I can live with that — most forms of entertainment involve some degree of illusion. Rather than delivering content that entertains the target audience, they demean and exploit it.

    Oh and those ghost chairs are fabulous.

  2. May 30, 2010 11:43 am

    My SO’s mom is addicted to home improvement shows (something I can’t judge her on, because I’m addicted to VH1 shows. *hangs head in shame*). In fact, the only channels she knows the numbers to are HGTV, TLC, and MTV (she stumbled across a “16 and Pregnant” marathon and got sucked in, in large part because her oldest granddaughter just turned 18 and just had a baby). We’ll watch the shows with her, and she always says “We could do that!” to which her son and I reply “No, we couldn’t.”

    “But it only cost them–”
    “No. It didn’t. And we don’t have that kinda stuff around. Shhhhh. Live out your Barbie dreamhouse fantasy in your head, please.”

    That said, we are thinking about redecorating our house. We have paint chips and everything! And we do have stuff in storage that can be used (like the super-mod orange chair I found that totally doesn’t go in a Victorian house but is totally going to go in it!) And I have to say, some of the ideas on those home improvement shows are pretty fabulous. But at the same time, they make me feel…tacky. And provincial. And like I’m a bad person for not liking it when they get rid of a really awesome Byzantine backsplash in a kitchen and replace the appliances with new, stainless steel shiny things and give them granite countertops. I like the funky, mismatched stuff! Hell, my kitchen cabinets are going to be white with chalkboard paint on the doors. With black and red appliances. Suck on that, Candice Olson!

    Ok, I think I’m done.

  3. May 30, 2010 12:29 pm

    You done read my mine. Have you seen my wonky place. It would make Candice and Joan Steffans cry!

  4. May 31, 2010 3:22 am

    I like looking at the ghost chairs, but I don’t know if I’d want them in my home. They remind me a bit too much of Magneto’s prison from the first two X-Men movies.

  5. Octavia permalink
    May 31, 2010 3:41 am

    I both love and despise design shows. They make me angsty about wanting my house to be this perfectly decorated show piece, but then I realise that a) I don’t like their usual styles all that much, b) my cats would destroy all the nick-nacks they seem to love using, and c) I’m hella messy. I am, it’s a fact, it’s unlikely to change if it hasn’t yet. Often I think “Waaah, why can’t I just move the room around and magically have a completely new look”. Then I remember, as you say, that the producers of these shows flat out lie with regards to spending money.

    Apartment Therapy I’m not a big fan of. I’ve found the site to be fairly unwelcoming, classist, and samey-samey. I mean, I hate mid-century modern furniture – and it’s just not a design Thing in my country so I suppose I also just don’t get the appeal – so basically that’s me done for Apartment Therapy. I find the usually overly perfect, magazine look contributors strive for to be somewhat off-putting. I don’t wanna see someone’s undies on the floor, but part of the reason I love looking at house pictures is to satisfy my curiosity about whoever lives there. I want to see some signs of life, people actually living in the home.

    Philippe Starck I love. His table lamps are beautiful, and I covet them.

  6. May 31, 2010 1:11 pm

    The signal to noise ratio on most DIY home improvement shows is pretty craptastic. Maybe 2% of the content has any real usefulness to this kid. The rest is either expensive/unrealistic, or it’s just flat out ugly (to me anyway). I’d rather just surf the net or go to Home Depot for advice if I decide to D.I. Myself. Shockingly, art school also taught me basic building techniques that I still use to this day. I learned to make chairs in sculpture class. Learned basic frame building techniques from making silk screen frames/set ups and building my own canvases… and so on. Plus I used to build sets for plays in High School. It’s amazing what some basics can lead to.

    Home Design is a lot like tattoos. Very personal, and very subjective. Hell, I wouldn’t decorate like Martha Stewart, but I find a lot of what she teaches to be far, far more useful that what I find on a lot of decorating sites. I’ve used so many Martha tips and tricks. I love me some Martha.

  7. May 31, 2010 4:54 pm

    Apartment Therapy I’m not a big fan of. I’ve found the site to be fairly unwelcoming, classist, and samey-samey. I mean, I hate mid-century modern furniture – and it’s just not a design Thing in my country so I suppose I also just don’t get the appeal – so basically that’s me done for Apartment Therapy.

    Seriously. It’s incredibly classist. Basically, if you’re not able to spend 4k on a couch they you deserve crap! That is a real turn off. Plus it’s a trap. These shows and sites demand that you spend the most money on items which will become fatuous once they go “out of style” – within 2 – 3 years when trends go sour. I also don’t like the entirety of MCM design, but I do like some elements. That said, I’m paying my respects in savings. I don’t need a 300 dollar chair. I do love the ghost chair. LOVE LOVE LOVE and once Target or someone makes a reproduction under 20 – which is the most a plastic chair should cost, if we’re talking about the cost of the chair and not the value of the designer; that’s different – I’ll be all over it. I appreciate exceptional design and don’t mind having wealthier folks early adopt and more importantly, there is nothing wrong with folks wanting to furnish their homes in their own style at a price point they can afford. Ikea is not an necessary evil the way AT frames it. It’s another competitor on the market.

    Octavia, where are you located? you do need the white stools. We should figure out how to make it happen. They are flat packed and the are really light. I bet shipping wouldn’t be ridiculous. We definitely could get those costs under 100 bucks 🙂

  8. Octavia permalink
    June 1, 2010 12:36 am

    … there is nothing wrong with folks wanting to furnish their homes in their own style at a price point they can afford. Ikea is not an necessary evil the way AT frames it. It’s another competitor on the market.

    Yeah exactly, the ‘get the original or you clearly have NO TASTE and also ARE POOR (shameful!)’ attitude really gets me. It’s just a furniture store? People have different amounts of money to spend on their homes? I don’t get the Ikea hate, it pretty much prevents me from taking that site seriously because even when I come across stuff I LOVE on AT, I know the comments are probably going to be the same old elitist crap (for example, not even necessarily good criticism on more low-end items, just “Oh that looks cheap / rickety” etc).

    Would definitely get a ghost chair, or four, if the price was right. Don’t care how trendy they are, I still love them. Husband would just have to put up and shut up.
    [As an aside, I LOVE AND COVET the Sketch Furniture by Front (, he hates it. I’ve told him if we ever get rich I’m buying some. Probably wouldn’t use it, more keep it as art. This leads into the question of what I’m okay buying knock-offs of, and are my rules for this just based on somewhat arbitrary distinctions between how rich and famous designers are rather than an idea of artistic respect, and therefore how comparatively ‘bad’ it is when they’re plagarised? Like, I probably wouldn’t buy knock-off Sketch Furniture, but I would buy knock-off Starck. Hmm.]

    I’m in Auckland, NZ, and unfortunately shipping anything down here is hella expensive. Though, I’m leaving for Brisbane and Melbourne on Saturday for a few days so I’m going to try to visit an Ikea there and see if anything is light and flat enough to be able to be stuffed in my big suitcase (or if I can pop into a post office and send some back). Wish me luck!
    Ikea was going to open a branch in Wellington, but they were denied resource consent due to concerns over increased traffic pollution. This reasoning is a bit too environmentally conscientious even for NZ local government, so I think the real reason would have been angry local furniture companies.

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