Online promo for House Hunters, HGTV, 2006.
People who own homes understand the true meaning of the phrase "money pit." Expenses are constant, upkeep unstoppable, and the most vexing decisions are often dominated by things you never see: heating and ventilation systems, for instance, or worse plumbing. Demand of any kind invariably exceeds supply, and even the smallest project can (and does) seem catastrophically impenetrable. As for design decisions, well, good luck: with thousands of paint chips and floor samples vying for your attention, where do you even start?
This is why we have Home and Garden Television: it's porn for homeowners.
Other than Martha Stewart and the occasional episode of This Old House, HGTV's got you covered, with 24x7 programming on everything from do-it-yourself landscape solutions to closet consultations with organization experts (who are not nearly as absurd as the people who willingly subject themselves, and their closets, to on-air scrutiny.) But closets are just the tip of a massive media iceberg: the network lists more than 60 program offerings on its website, from the purely mercenary Buy Me! and I Want That! (think informercials with Pottery-Barn inventory and smooth jazz interstitials) to the decorator-driven Design on a Dime and Designed to Sell, to the fixer-upper shows like Weekend Warriors and Curb Appeal which, is, as far as I can tell, the poster child for the HGTV brand.
Curb Appeal is a show that features a house in need of a facelift, a house that wants to "look better from the curb." (To impress the neighbors? The implicit suggestion here is that appearances are all that matters.) Armed with a posse of architects, landscape designers and consultants of various kinds, the façade of the house is completely transformed in twenty-seven minutes or less, playing to HGTV's seemingly inexhaustible recipe for success: one part decoration (make it pretty) to one part acceleration (do it fast). For anyone who has ever suffered the protracted, but inevitable misery of home renovation, there is nothing like watching a house completely transformed in twenty-seven minutes. Mind you, any internal flaws are ignored and budget is rather an abstract concept. Design choices are made swiftly and tend to involve a lot of window boxes and trellises, the kind of beautification technique that is perhaps not likely to appeal to the typical modernist. For that, we have World's Most Extreme Homes, a program that favors rehabbed industrial and institutional spaces train stations and car dealerships, for instance reinvented as domestic pied-a-terres.
It is true that, as reality programming goes, home renovation is pretty dull: where's the denouement in watching someone spread sheetrock, roll sod or retrofit a bird feeder? Dramatic logic notwithstanding, many of us harbor a certain raw fascination with the idea of going into other peoples' homes. (It's a prurient interest that might explain, in part, the stunning success of reality programming.) And indeed, the appeal to voyeurism is a fundamental aspect of such shows as House Hunters, in which we follow a particular person's search for the holy real-estate grail. What follows is an excrutiating amount of back story: Why are they moving? What can they afford? And how do they feel about wall-to-wall carpeting? Following a realtor's due-diligence three potential dwelling-places and an endless tour of bedrooms and basements and backyard barbecue pits a decision is eventually reached. (Curiously, however, considerable air time is given to the loo. If there were an Emmy Award given for greatest number of people squeezed into a powder room with a camera, House Hunters would, I think, be the hands-down winner.)
Though it is clearly unintentional, to watch this show is to experience the television equivalent of a John Cheever short story: House Hunters offers up a slice of American life that future cultural historians would do well to note, complete with crown mouldings, brick patios and his-and-hers sinks. It's not so much the houses as the comments about the houses, as the prospective buyers engage in a running commentary on carpeting and ceiling fans, unwittingly revealing a great deal about themselves in the process. Each episode concludes with a succesful sale and a post-move-in epilogue, wherein we see the happy homeowners slicing tomatoes in their new kitchen, playing frisbee in their new yard, and smiling as they open up their home to the ever-present cameras. It's always sunny here, in this mysterious screen space like stock photography magically sprung to televised life. The people on House Hunters always have large-screen televisions. They never have books.
It's not at all surprising that a television network would leverage design as a stretegic tool in the marketing of home improvement, skewed towards the lure of reality TV and mapped onto do-it-yourself consumer culture. But on this particular network, the notion of "design" as a function of utility or a matter of taste is trumped by its more immediate, market-driven role: it's a way of expressing who you are through what you own. At the end of the day, design's representation on HGTV, however robust it may be, is the domain of accessories and trinkets: design within reach of, say, Home Depot. Here, while design may succeed in elevating its presence in the mainstream media, it does so at the expense of the last hundred years of cultural evolution: appearances are everything, form trumps function, and modernism, be damned. It's like the twentieth century never happened. Less, in this context, is decidedly not more. It's just less.
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