These Four Walls Are All I know

Selling Sunset, Gigi Hadid's design choices, and an excellent book about public housing

This year, I’ve spent more time inside my apartment than I’ve ever spent inside before. Or atleast, that’s what it feels like. I have developed a new fondness for all of its darling little crevices, from the stoop with its increasingly fleeting slivers of autumn sunlight to the kitchen bench, overrun with plants in a precarious attempt to keep them away from Persephone lest she gorge herself into an early grave on monstera leaves. At the same time, being in this apartment for what has at times felt like literally all the time has forced me to confront my own laziness around domesticity and interior decoration. A shocking and sobering revelation, indeed!

The actual apartment is way nicer than what we deserve – if a nice apartment is something one “deserves”, or not – and large by New York standards. What we have done with it is fine, but by no means aspirational. It’s the small inattentions to detail that betray us. We have far more shoes than space on the single shoe rack, and the excess pairs are strewn chaotically across the floor inside the front door, ready to trip you up unsuspectingly in the dark. And it is dark, because the lightbulb in the stairwell has been out for months. Our walls are mainly bare, bar a batik wall hanging from Sri Lanka held up half heartedly with blu-tack. It falls half the way down periodically to reveal the grubby little blue smudge that lurks beneath. Dramatically, Sam says this makes him sad when he looks at it. Maybe because he grew up in a house full of serious art, bolstered into the wall, unyielding.

I wonder if I struggle to create physical spaces that I enjoy being in because I’ve lived in rental properties for the vast majority of my life, bar a decade in a family home with an enormous mortgage that became an additional, menacing family member. While home ownership is “the Australian dream”, lots of people around the world rent their whole lives, presumably with just as deep a connection to space and place. Plus, it seems silly to only invest – with time and energy, not just money – in a space that you own. Or perhaps my resistance to wholeheartedly throwing myself into home improvement stems from my mom and stepdad’s sense of austerity. Yet, I am far more indulgent than either of them in every other aspect of life, spending what many would consider excessive amounts of money on food, travel and at times clothes, so it seems illogical to draw the line at a nice frame or pouf.

On some level, I do feel like there’s something embarrassing about caring too much about what your home looks like, although “too much” is obviously entirely arbitrary. Maybe it’s also that homes on interior design sites and magazines rarely look cool or interesting to me, or that there’s something gauche about home improvement as a flex given the rampant housing and homelessness crisis that surrounds us all. Although, ofcourse, the existence of the have-nots has never stopped society from celebrating luxury and in particular, luxury real estate. Think MTV Cribs, countless house flipping reality TV shows, and the most recent iteration of the genre, Netflix’s Selling Sunset. In the two episodes of the show that I’ve consumed, one agent sells the house where she is getting married on the morning of her wedding and is commended for going hard for the company, while another takes on a 75 million dollar listing from a cagey owner who insists the asking price is justified because “good things cost money”.

Writing in The New Yorker, Naomi Fry describes the show as “one part real-estate porn and one part office drama, portraying the mild conflicts and even milder friendships among the female employees of the Oppenheim Group, an agency run by the natty, impossible-to-tell-apart twins Jason and Brett Oppenheim… minor dramas are interspersed with corporate-brochure-like real-estate scenes in a series of Los Angeles luxury properties, which always have a pool and sometimes a screening room, a home gym, or a tennis court. Alongside frankly gorgeous aerial shots of the city, in the manner of the mid-two-thousands MTV reality show “The Hills” (with which “Selling Sunset” shares a creator), these home tours are a visual Xanax, sending the viewer into a state of soothing dissociation.”

If the aesthetics of luxury are an emotional salve, what response do the aesthetics of lack illicit? Journalist Lynsey Hanley, who grew up on a council estate outside of Birmingham and now lives in another estate in East London (or atleast did as of 2007, when she published her first book) has spent much of her life examining the relationship between class and the built environment. In Estates, which details the history of public housing in England through the lens of personal experience, she writes:

The phrase “council estate” is a sort of psycho-social bruise: everyone winces when they hear it. It makes us think of dead ends (in terms of lives as well as roads), stereotypes, the absence of escape routes. It makes us think of bad design, identical front doors, windswept grass verges, and the kind of misplaced optimism which, in Britain especially, gives the individualistically inclined an easy way to kick socio-democratic values.

Despite having achieved well beyond what was expected of her in life, Hanley continues to be haunted by a so-called “wall in the head”, a general disconnection from mainstream society and all its spoils that she attributes to coming of age in public housing. Hanley is not ashamed of her upbringing, but rather, frustrated by a society that so often stigmatizes people who cannot afford to own or rent their homes privately. 

Those who grew up in Mcmansions can also carry scars throughout their lives, just in very different ways. Take Gigi Hadid, who last year unveiled her New York City “dream home” to a symphony of cackling laughter.

Real Housewives of Beverly Hills fans will blame Gigi’s questionable sartorial decisions on her mom Yolanda, who in season four forced the housewives to paint hideous little murals as gifts for her daughter when she moved to New York to pursue modeling. See below.

Saw this on the Real Housewives & I love, love, love this idea!!! Working  on it for my kitchen!!! | Friend painting, Small canvas art, Canvas wall art

Kyle Chayka describes Gigi’s chaotic aesthetic as such:

The first shock is a row of transparent kitchen cabinets filled with a melange of dried “pasta art” seemingly tie-dyed in a rainbow of artificial colors—more aesthetic than appetizing. But the rest of the home is as hectic with color: an overstuffed, Steampunkish mustard-colored makeup chair on a mustard rug; a primitive wooden vessel on the kitchen counter filled, inexplicably, with billiard balls, which are neither food nor functional; bright, hallucinatorily patterned fabric, perhaps an influence of her Palestinian roots; the lime-green tailgate of a Chevrolet pickup truck mounted vertically on a wall; and a bathroom bedecked in a busy grid of pinned-up New Yorker covers. Many surfaces in the apartment are upholstered; everything is decorated.

While it’s easy to make fun of Gigi for her excess of money and lack of taste, maybe a “dream home” is not an objectively beautiful space, but one that reflects the idiosyncrasies and quirks of she who dwells within. Something to aspire to as I stare down the barrel of a winter with my poorly blu-tacked wall hanging.