Last night I dreamed of Mariah’s penthouse again. There are at least five moments of utter transcendent bliss in Mariah Carey’s MTV Cribs episode, possibly six.
At times of great bother, I inhale slowly and meditate on Mariah’s bathroom, where she sat in the jacuzzi in her towel and pointed out the armchairs she keeps beside it ‘for friends’.
This was 2002, and her Tribeca apartment contained a closet the size of a studio flat, Marilyn Monroe’s piano (which she calmly refused to reveal, along with her bedroom, sure, of course, no problem), a chaise longue in the kitchen, and the guest suite where she files her fan mail. Walking between rooms, an assistant helps her perform a costume change, ‘to keep momentum’.
Remembering the impromptu workout she did in her stilettos, well, it grounds me.
What is it about the experience of exploring a stranger’s home that remains so thrilling? As Cribs and Changing Rooms is set to return this year, it’s time to interrogate both our consuming domestic voyeurism and our bottomless appetite for judging other people’s taste, be they 18-year-old rappers who spent their album advance on a diamond toilet seat or, as in the case of Interior Design Masters (The Great British Bake Off meets Changing Rooms, but with less pastry or peril), amateur interior designers who don’t believe in curtains.
Some may call it a guilty pleasure, the idle aside about a stranger’s ‘seating solution’ or ornamental trophy kitchen, the gasp of delight as they press a button and a fire pit explodes to life, but I resent the term. I resent the term, especially in a time when pleasure must be eked out when and wherever possible.
If joy can be found in sneaking round the dressing room of a DJ-cum-model, whose stylist very much seems to have come into possession of a job lot of mirror tiles, then there we must go, while remaining on the sofa wrapped in a stolen hotel towelling robe and drinking a great vase of tea.
There must, however, be a moment of pause to work out where the pleasure is coming from. Is it pure and lovely, a joy found in simple things like seeing two toilets next to each other – ‘for couples’, or the thrill of witnessing a leather wall up close? Or, and be honest now, is the pleasure a guilty one because it comes from a sense of superiority?
Taste, a short word with a long memory, has always been a clear signifier of class. When Grayson Perry investigated the relationship between the two, his most memorable interviewee was a middle-class woman so terrified of getting it wrong – terrified, perhaps, of creating a home that looked like something one would see on Changing Rooms, or even Cribs – that she bought a show home, and changed not a thing.
She kept the furniture, the fittings and all the contents, including the crackers in the cupboards. Rather than, as usually happens, the house evolving to reflect the owner’s taste, the show home became the owner’s taste: there was safety in not choosing the sofa.
I see drips of this impulse in my own choices – I find myself hovering wantingly over a link to an artfully wobbly pot or architectural house plant because I want to purchase taste, to get it right. Us animals are all the same.
This pot, this plant, this Moroccan rug, is the middle-class version of one of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s glass bowls with pebbles in it or framed piece of jolly wallpaper – an attempt to establish our tribal fixings, our class aspirations through the placing of cultural objects, be they Diptyque candle or massive TV.
In this way, the sight of a Cribs house, splattered proudly with the very specific taste of somebody who found fame at 16 years old and therefore will remain in this pinkly teenage state, with this classless teenage taste, forever, is the very opposite of Grayson’s show-home safety. It is bold in its moneyed excess, its gold-toned games room, its back-lit display of once-worn trainers.
It is exhilarating in its excitement, its cartoon opulence. It is, and I do not use this word lightly, inspiring.
But beware, interior design shows are a slippery slope. You star there, enjoying some basket baller’s butcher’s block while inhaling a pack of Mini Rolls on the sofa, then you download a game app that allows you to rearrange apartments to create dream houses for fashionable mice, then somehow you’ve lost a weekend to a Netflix home-decoration series, the only thing to show for it a scrambled note on your phone that says ‘SCONCE?’.
After that come the real-estate listings – LA, Hove, Dublin, wherever you land on these empty nights zooming in on strangers’ reading nooks as your own home around you becomes increasingly unreal. Deciding which wall you’d knock through. What you’d do with that problem garage.
And then, of course, rock bottom – dressed up primly as a potential buyer, you find yourself walking with an appraising eye through the wet room of a well-known author’s Suffolk home making enquiries about planning permission, having slid too far inside the screen.
I am careful now, to switch off after a single episode. Two at a push. We’ll call it three and say no more about it.
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration May 2021
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