Jessica Helfand | Essays

The D Word

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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

Comments [15]

"The people on House Hunters always have large-screen televisions. They never have books."

That's poignant and hilarious too. I don't have much more of a comment because I don't really watch TV, except for the odd hockey game, and am thoroughly entertained by books. Funny.

I occasionally watch Home Depot here in the UK on a similar channel - I thought we'd invented the home makeover programme but it seems in the US it's taken far more seriously than giving neighbours £500 to 'rescue' people from their Edwardian styling nightmares.

When I catch a US home makeover programme my mouth seems to get wider and wider until I realise I'm no longer breathing. One house, which was going to fetch over a million dollars (which would make it cheap over here) had been built by someone who seemed to think that style could literally be pasted on to walls. 'Detailing' could be bought at a few cents a meter and glued into place to give an 'authentic' feel.

Of course, it all points to the real value of design and the concept of taste - recent research in Australia shows that when non-designers are asked to describe their ideas of taste it has nothing to do with what something looks like, it's whether it facilitates some sort of social interaction. Whether it be the ability of a room to host a party or fireside chat, or the usefulness of the features in giving escape from a lull in conversation ('ooh, look at that chandelier, isn't that something!') it's these things which are tasteful to one side, and tasteless to others (and therefore equally social as we use our sniggering to filter out those who don't share our own tastes).

Home makeover programmes seem to have sounded the death nell for the individual family room. I remember as a child in early 70s north of England, all the front rooms on our street were entirely different, and nothing matched. That's because they were lived in and used - again, purely social in function. Today we keep them in the style we're told to keep them in, just in case someone pops round from their own identical living space.

We're no longer bricoloeurs, collecting our own look from hand-me-downs and heirlooms, but out of the box decorators, choosing a look from a catalogue and referring to it either by catalogue number, face Swedish name or made up sentiment ('Midnight Blue', 'Morning Sunrise', 'Bloodshot Red'). Not unlike designers working from templates, grids and Pantone numbers, perhaps ;-)

Still, at least all this DIY keeps us busy on public holidays! If it weren't for this, we'd have to start talking to each other instead...
Jonathan Baldwin

As a former interior decorator (one of the worst design jobs to have), I applaud the popularity of home decorating shows and stations. For those of you that think working with design clients are bad, try working with the clients who want interior design advice from the local paint store. Somewhere, there is a decorator, breathing a sigh of relief that their most difficult clients are now "doing it themselves," and knowing that they will never have to view the end results.

However, I will say that the "DIY" era bleeds into Graphic Design as well. Unfortunately, we have to view those "projects."

HGTV is fascinating because of the vastly different lifestyles presented from show to show. For me, the most interesting contrast lies between the shows Mission: Organization and Small Space / Big Style. The organization show usually starts with people embarassingly presenting an entire room in their house which has been eaten over the years by their own clutter. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Small Space/Big Style shows people who live comfortably in 600 square foot houses where every square inch has a purpose.

I'm not sure what effect HGTV will have on the design vs. decorating debate. Occasionally, people on the shows say things like, "This will add a considerable amount of functionality to the space and will improve your quality of life." Unfortunately, you just as often hear things like "Wouldn't it be super-cute if we hot-glued ribbon to this lampshade?" Oh well.
Ryan Nee

One of the more memorable moments for me came during an episode of Curb Appeal in which the homeowners expressed concern about a "blank space" on the front of their house. The solution involved a trip to a lumberyard for scraps of wood which were layered in a heap and spray-painted black. Cut to a split screen: scrap-heap spray-paint assemblage on the left, Louise Nevelson sculpture on the right. Is this what we call educating the public? Or just stealing?
Jessica Helfand

It is amusing that shows like Trading Spaces give people like Frank the power to call paint bought at a local supermarket (probably tempra) on canvas true "art work" when it took them about 10 minutes maximum to create. This is why art/design will always be considered "easy" because these shows portray it all that way. I wish, as entertaining as these shows are, would actually give the true merit for the skills it takes to be involved with each profession. Great post, Jessica.

Porn for homeowners is one of the funniest lines I have read in a while. LMAO.

Pointing out the perennial sunniness and the
tomato-cutting domestic bliss to me points at perfect
surburban set construction for 70s sitcoms like the
"Brady Bunch" and the "Partridge Family." So what I
mean is that the reference to other TV constructions
of the past is the image/history context here - talk
about meaningless and empty. Yikes. Now I am
absolutely dying to find out where Donald Trump
factors into this whole discussion - his show whips
the word "design" around like a playtoy. What's more,
is that through editing and sequencing, design is
"done" in a matter of seconds, from concept to
construct - fleeced out to meet his buying demands.
Wow. Also, do you think the homes on "Wife-Swap" and
"Meet Your New Mom", or "Nanny Emergency" (or
whatever) are equally un-re-designed to put the viewer
in the position of feeling welcomed to judge other
people's cluttered livingrooms? Can the motivation to
design be implied through these kinds of images? On
those shows the sell is the undersell...hmmm...
Jessica G.

"The people on House Hunters always have large-screen televisions. They never have books."

How else can they watch themselves, er, watching themselves...?

My problem with home makeover shows is that they relentlessly focus on how "different" the home looks. The homeowner is awed by the change even if that change was achieved with vinyl siding and some stick-on wall-mounts. Design is not just about change. It should be about meaningful change.

A counter example is Bravo's excellent second season of Project Runway. This show provides a realistic and respectful look into the design process. The contestants are talented, they can sew and they can draw. Their skills are put to use meeting the demands of clients that range from a professional ice skater to a Barbie Doll. Contestants actually sketch their ideas (with pencils!) before going shopping. What's even more commendable (and shocking) is that the best design wins every week. A woman got eliminated last week because she showed consistently poor craftsmanship. I doubt if another aspiring designer will show up at FIT or Parsons thinking they don't need to know how to sew to be a great fashion designer.
dmitri siegel

What always fascinates me about shows like House Hunters are the people who can't see past the obvious. Someone will exclaim in horror, "Oh my god, look at those green walls! I hate that!" And they make a buying decision based on paint. I'm amazed that people are so stupid.
I love the voyeuristic appeal of these shows--to see how other people live. In most instances, I'm horrified, but that's what's so appealing.

I see Norm Abram sporting a woody all the time on 'This Old House'.


I think Greg Blonder aptly described HGTV in an article he wrote for the 2005 Sep/Oct issue of I.D. magazine titled Decorating For Dummies, p 30.

'Apparently, good design isn't all that difficult. Quick and easy projects conform neatly into half-hour slots, 48 times a day, 7 days a week. But the perennial struggle to harmonize cost, mission, and aesthetics is rarely shown. Budget overruns are seldom mentioned, and when they are, clients gleefully absorb the expense. At least during shooting. Perhaps hypnotizing clients under the glare of a camera should be taught to first-year design students.'


As an Interior Designer, the shows featured on HGTV come as both
a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, it has brought home renovation to the forefront of the
minds of the American culture, but also grossly misrepresents the process
and the job of the Interior Designer.Frequently, when told that I am an
Interior Designer, people respond with comments such as
"oh i love all those shows on HGTV"
The job of an Interior Designer is much greater than many recognize.
We are not merely "decorators" and indeed, we are very different from
"Decorators". It often takes 4 years of college to complete training,
and in many states one must take a test of competence throgh the NCIDQ
(National Council for Interior Design Qualification)in order to call oneself
an Interior Designer.
We work closely with Architects and contractors, take into account the
environmental systems of the house such as plumbing and HVAC,
we must also know and conform to many federal and local codes.
Our job is to ensure that the house functions for the client, physically
and esthetically, as well as to advocate for the clients needs and wants
to ensure the qulaily and integrity of finished result.

It is a shame that many of these shows dont accurately represent
roles of the designers and tradespoeple in this industry.
anne sherman

Echoing Anne Sherman's comment - yes, there is a great difference between interior decorators and commercial interior designers. As a graphic designer married to a recovering commercial designer, I've learned it occupies a thankless middle-child role between architecture and "decoration," it does require a good deal of schooling, and it's often a high-stress job.

HGTV has a Canadian affiliate that broadcasts a good deal of original programming; one such is Opening Soon, which actually does get into the budgeting process, the cost overruns, the client / designer / contractor / tradespeople battles, etc - pointing out that these things don't materialize in 48 hrs, they happen over a period of several weeks.

Another good one that does focus on structure is Holmes on Homes, which features a sort of uber-competent contractor who goes in to fix bad renovations or poor original construction - much more educational for potential homebuyers or renovators. Ultimately, the lesson is: quality work doesn't come cheap, or fast.

Now if there was only a show that dissected bad design....What Not To Web, maybe?

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