Home - no place like it

VERONICA SCHMIDT
Last updated 05:00 09/03/2014
Home decor
HOUSE PROUD: Are you a house-porn addict? Go on, be honest.

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I realised I had a problem when I almost spent $100 on an hourglass.

"What the hell do you need an hourglass for?" asked my husband. "It's on sale," I said. "There's a reason for that," he said. "Clocks have been invented."

"But it would look so nice on the mantelpiece," I said. "The glass is so nicely curved and there's some sort of shiny, silver finish on it."

And then I stopped and my mouth gaped open. I had heard - really heard - myself. A freaking hour glass! A "shiny, silver finish"? Who was this vapid magpie?

I had become a house-porn addict.

It's easy to do. The home improvement industry has dug its stripped-back, polished talons into almost everything.

Tired houses are turned into bastions of minimalist chic every night on television. Skylights brighten beach-side baches in design magazines arranged invitingly beside the supermarket checkout.

Sleek granite bench tops and exposed concrete floors lure us from architecture blog to interior website to Pinterest board, while quirky cushion covers and bloody hourglasses flirt with us from the homeware stores lining our malls.

The images that bombard us are of flawless properties, not so much as a dirty dish or scuffed skirting board in sight. They resemble real homes as much as the surgically-enhanced bodies and inventive contortions of porn films resemble real sex, but we buy into them all the same.

Last year, NZ House & Garden magazine's readership of more than half a million grew to 571,000, bucking the downward spiral gripping much of the print media, while the 2013 final of renovation reality show The Block delivered TV3 its highest primetime viewing figures since the channel launched in 1989.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand Retailers Association reports that over the past decade the number of homeware stores has grown by 35 percent, compared to only 9.3 for other categories. In 2012, home-related retailers had the largest increase in turnover than any other sector, bar motor vehicles.

And online, the social bookmarking website Pinterest saw its valuation leap from NZ$3 billion to $4.6 billion in just eight months last year. One of its key drivers?

Users sharing interior design pictures.

Had you asked me a month ago whether all of this was healthy, I would have looked at you blankly. But since almost blowing my family's budget on an hourglass, I have started to properly question my own - and this nation's - collective obsession.

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I started this reconnaissance by shoving my continuing search for a first home under the microscope.

I realised that every time I spend an evening trawling real estate websites, I am overcome by malaise.

In part it's due to the country's rising property prices and the difficulty of finding an affordable house near a school that would suit my daughter, but if I'm honest (and it is embarrassing to be so), it is also because every house within my reach looks nothing like I want it to.

Where are the original period features? Where is the indoor-outdoor flow? Why is there faded wallpaper where there should be low sheen paint in dusky blue?

Next, I skulked about my (rented) house examining my possessions. I wiped the dust from a mortar and pestle that has been used once but stands cockily on display by the stove. I stared at the decorative pillows that are thrown to the floor each night while we lie on the "real" ones. I explored the kitchen drawers and began to feel sick.

Sick and dumb.

It was the linen napkins and oversized wine glasses that did it - what did I think I was doing? Running a fine-dining restaurant?

The exercise gave me a shock. The contents of my home and head are those of a woman who cares about appearances, who follows trends, who is naïve enough to think she can buy a fantasy. I am not that woman.

Or, at least, I am not in any other facet of my life.

As I continued researching the explosion of house-porn, however, I took comfort in the fact that my own preoccupation was utterly benign compared to those of the design junkies I discovered on blogs and websites agonising over antique ceiling fans, the consistency of paint primer, and unsightly fire extinguishers ("I was staring at mine last night and
thinking how to hide that ugly thing!").

One obsessive, Kristi Linauer, who blogs at addicted2decorating.com, professes that when she bought her first home she "went overboard, painting the inside of my house in 21 different colours".

Her readers are similarly fanatic. One is so wedded to interior perfection that after Linauer posted a shot of her lounge, the reader berated her for having a small air conditioning unit in the room. Such practicalities quite ruined the aesthetic, she said.

On the same post, a long discussion developed about the best way to emulate the cord-free look that interior magazines achieve - using Photoshop.

One woman suggested looking into the possibility of battery run or solar lamps, while another advocated going into the crawl space under the house, drilling holes through the floor beneath the furniture and fitting electrical sockets there.

The thread sparked a light bulb moment for one reader who suddenly understood how much the media has influenced her desire for a perfect home. "Cords are my obsession, too! The cords in my house always nag at me, but I didn’t realise until just now that it's because they never show in those magazine photos."

Misha Kavka, an associate professor of media, film and television at Auckland University, understands the power of the perfect-looking home. A reality TV expert who has researched and written about home improvement shows, she believes property is in the New Zealand DNA.

"People came here for the land and that has never fallen away."

The media, she says, both feeds off the obsession and fuels it. "Media culture and consumer culture are quite
difficult to distinguish between. They give us things to want and they give us things to desire," she says.

(In fact, consumer and media culture are seldom as cosy as they are when it comes to home improvement
shows, with Mitre 10 sponsoring Dream Home and Bunnings Warehouse The Block.)

Rising house prices and the new loan-to-value ratio restrictions simply drive the property obsession, says
Kavka.

"The more we sound the alarm that people are being closed out of the property market, the more the people who are just on the edge of maybe being able to get in [to the market] are interested in getting in. And that further drives the property obsession and gives the TV shows a lot to work with."

But even if your finances rule out home ownership, you can still get caught up in the home improvement
trend.

"The distinction between property ownership and the home space improvement is very blurry," she
says.

"If you can't afford to buy a house or an apartment, then what you can afford to do is to have nicer pillows in your living room. You pick up these magazines or watch these TV shows and you get an idea of what you can do with a bit of paint or fabric. So the potential is that even people at the low end can join in."

But should we be joining in or are we chasing an unobtainable dream, locked into a cycle of perpetual desire and disappointment?

Auckland psychologist Sara Chatwin says it depends on the person. "You can get a bit desensitised to it and think it's unrealistic. For a lot of low-to-middle-class New Zealanders, it's not that obtainable. [But] you also have the other side, and that's the keeping-up-with-the-Jones's mentality. It can spur people on in the direction of wanting to upgrade whether or not their budget allows. The TV shows can also lull people into a false sense of thinking this bathroom could be done in a week, when actually it'll probably take a month."

Indeed, the CEO of the Certified Builders Association, Grant Florence, says that "builders in general look at those programmes and shudder".

The practices and time lines do not reflect reality, he says.

"The real stresses and strains and the decisions that have to be made by people aren't really shown in them."

He estimates that 80 percent of those who approach a builder have unrealistic expectations.

"Often when people start talking to builders about what they want it's more than what they can afford," he says.

"That's not necessarily just because of TV shows, but they probably play a part in it."

What happens when the fantasy and reality collide?

Chatwin says they don't have to. "If you like yourself and you're secure enough, you're going to look [at an image of a perfect home] and think, 'That's nice, but it's not that relevant to me.'"

But the psychologist admits that few of us are quite so self-assured. Some of us are predisposed to perfectionism, and the media is "potent", she says.

Indeed, the steady stream of supermodel images, so loved by much of the media, are widely acknowledged to have left large numbers of women dissatisfied with themselves and on a fruitless mission to measure up.

Could house porn affect people similarly?

"I think you've hit the theoretical jackpot there," says Chatwin. "There will be a percentage of people who feel incomplete because they have - what shall we call it? - super syndrome: super models, super houses."

I don't tell Chatwin about my display pillows or fruitless search for an aesthetically-pleasing first home.

I don't need to be officially diagnosed with house-porn addiction or the newly-coined "super syndrome" to know that it's time I eased off on the decor websites and switched off Grand Designs.

I think I'll avoid the shops for a while, too. At least until that sale on hourglasses has finished.

- Sunday Magazine

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