‘Home’ feels too uncertain a notion to invest in these days – decoratively and emotionally – and sometimes decor becomes an afterthought
I’ve spent much of my adult life amid other people’s decor, housesitting or renting places furnished with the things they left behind. I have left things behind myself – Ikea nightstands and dollar store mirrors – and seen subsequent tenants happily scoop them up.
For the most part, my comfort with impermanence has outweighed the discomfort of sleeping on someone’s used couch. For better or worse, I think of myself as an explorer of domestic spaces, rather than a true inhabitant. And I’m not alone.
We’ve long looked to the stuff of a home for clues to personality and status, but today, the color of your walls or the brand of your coffee table is no longer a reliable measure of who you are.
The concept of decor as self-expression started taking off in the early 20th-century. Advertising sold us on finding ourselves through things, while child development psychology began to show up in home-decorating books. The combination convinced parents to let children pick out wallpaper, “enabling them to express their real selves”, and give teenagers private bedrooms where they could “become a personality”. By mid-century, Seventeen magazine called girls’ bedrooms “a record of what the woman was and is and will be” and the Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Book was urging readers to take an individualized approach to decor with the prompt, “[i]t’s your home, what kind do you want?”
But today, in a world where more of us move often, live in temporary accommodations, work from our bedrooms, or share space with adult housemates, the way we decorate is more often an afterthought than a carefully executed statement. For many of us, “home” feels too uncertain a notion to invest in, decoratively, emotionally, or otherwise.
Alison J Clarke, professor of design history at University Applied Arts Vienna and a trained social anthropologist with a specialty in material culture points to the success of Ikea as being emblematic of this shift. “The reason Ikea is so successful is that it’s the exact opposite of self-expression,” she said. “It’s self-expression within a limited repertoire.” Ikea also suggests temporariness, which suits what the home interior has become, according to Clarke – “a place of transience rather than permanence”.
She has a point. The US demand for rentals reached a 20-year high in 2014, according to Harvard’s 2015 State of the Nation’s Housing Report. And renters are far likelier to move frequently – 24.5% of renters moved between 2013 and 2014, compared with 11.5% of the total population, according to 2015 US Census statistics. Plus, more young adults are moving to cities and not getting married, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, which means less space for decor and less disposable income for buying any.