Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Stylish maybe, but homely it's not

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Don't envy the people in huge homes with music video furnishings ... they're victims of the house-porn con.

Chintzy and ordinary, but homes for real people (above and above right) ... versus the sterile look typical of "house porn". Photo / NZ Herald
Chintzy and ordinary, but homes for real people (above and above right) ... versus the sterile look typical of "house porn". Photo / NZ Herald

My parents have the same lounge suite they bought in 1975. (Chintzy, ordinary, with an antimacassar over the back of one chair to protect it from Dad's Brylcreem). We lived in a house with one bathroom with a shower with dribbly water pressure and a kitchen with Formica benchtops. It was a small, plain, brick house with a nice garden full of roses. By today's standards it looked like a state house.

I am telling you this, not as an interior decor sob story, but because the way we think about houses has gone ridiculously wonky. Among the chattering classes our expectations about housing are grotesquely inflated. Our houses have got bigger and bigger and more ostentatious until it is considered unremarkable to have a house where you need a ride-on vacuum cleaner.

This is not normal. Since when was it considered a reasonable aim for most middle class people to have a house as glamorous and sterile as a five-star hotel? I want to start a slow housing movement.

Our manifesto would eschew designer toilets, statement light fittings and brushed aluminium German appliances. We would not dream of $500 cushions. Houses would just be ordinary and a place to live, rather than a temple to our self-actualisation or a reflection of our identity and worth as a person.

We would also ban the "staging" industry - the stylists who think it feasible for a family to live as though they were in a music video, in a white space with wafty gauzy curtains and 20 identical glass vases, each containing one gerbera. Instead, we would welcome clutter and books and toys and would not strive to make our houses look like they have been art-directed.

Oh, I can already hear you saying, "Steady on possum; if you don't like extravagant houses, just forget about 'em and leave it to the poseurs with polo necks and wacky glasses frames." But it's not that simple. This fetish for designer living has become pervasive and hard to opt out of.

The obligatory proviso here: I am talking about the aspirational middle class. I realise many people struggle to find somewhere to live without worrying about slate splashbacks in the kitchen. But I imagine besieged workers feel even more disenfranchised when they see real estate "house porn" giving them the impression everyone else has Eames chairs.

In the fashion world there's been a campaign for glossy magazines to have to declare when they have photoshopped pictures of young girls. We need something similar for house porn, which cons people with totally non-viable ideas about their dwellings.

Do many people feel secretly dissatisfied and inadequate because their house looks nothing like the glossy brochures? Who really has a grand piano? (I suspect the same grand piano is trotted around from house to house by stagers).

But I think house porn is alienating and destructive on a more profound level. Most people don't go to church these days, but it seems to be accepted that you are a more virtuous person if you live in a brutally decluttered house with a mountain of silk scatter cushions.

This gives most people the unhelpful notion they are deprived and failing because their houses are full of ordinary items they acquired higgledy-piggledy because they needed something, a table say, to put things on rather than as a statement of zen-like personal clarity.

I also wonder whether these huge houses - house narcissism - is getting in the way of making healthy bonds with each other and forming communities. Rattling around in your austere, shiny kitchen admiring your splashback is not conducive to connecting to others and nurturing empathy. Mainly because you are being sucked in. It's a con. Most people are not living wafty, idyllic lives in their designer dream homes with ecru paint and ensuites. Like all of us, they are just struggling to function and get by, day to day, with the messy, tricky business of living. Don't forget it.

- NZ Herald

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