Aspirational social media, shelter magazines and home improvement TV shows don’t just inspire people to redesign, renovate and redecorate their homes, they can fundamentally change how people view those homes, according to some fascinating new research.
And the change is big: Rather than think of their homes as unique personal spaces where they can express their individuality and create rooms that best fit their lifestyles, people increasingly see their home as part of a marketplace that judges and (they hope) rewards them for their good taste.
“Traditionally, the home is regarded as a place of singularization that is to be aligned with the homeowner’s unique identity. This traditional meaning has come to be confronted with a contradictory understanding of the home as a marketplace asset. Homeowners come to experience a market-reflected gaze that shuns singularization while driving homeowners to exhibit expertise in aligning their homes with marketplace standards,” write Annetta Grant and Jay M. Handelman in “Dysplacement and the Professionalization of the Home” published in the Journal of Consumer Research in February.
It’s the difference between home as highly personal space and home as mass-market commodity.
In addition to their academic literature review, the researchers watched hours of home improvement programs, read more than 50 issues of shelter magazines, visited a home improvement expo and conducted extensive interviews with nearly 20 homeowners.
The “dysplacement” in the article’s title comes from the idea that the “deep old sense of place” (or “implacement”) that’s bound up in our concept of “home” is clashing with a new definition of home that’s driven by the media and market forces. And that’s disorienting to people.
(Study co-author Handelman, who teaches at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, seems to have won the argument with Grant, an assistant professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, over whether to use the Canadian or American spelling of dysplacement/displacement.)
Frequent renovations, ubiquitous features
Viewing a home as a marketplace asset means more frequent renovations and redecorating. It also means investing in upgrades that people believe will boost the home’s resale value, even if they don’t plan to sell their house anytime soon.
According to the researchers, industrial-grade appliances and large kitchen islands with bar stools (even in homes where no one cooks or entertains much), open floor plans, neutral color schemes (so much gray!) and spalike bathrooms are not just design trends, they are all part of the “professionalism” of the home.
“A common theme we found in media portrayals of the home is the incorporation of standards one might expect to find in hotels, spas and restaurants,” the researchers say. “… Recommendations encourage standardization by way of avoiding ‘colorful’ and ‘bold accents.’ The neutral decor is both personal to no one and suited to everyone.”
The researchers note that even smart home technology that controls everything from room temperature to lighting can contribute to the idea that people need to create some sort of standard, “appropriate” home ambiance.
Especially significant, according to the researchers, is that the focus on home design in both traditional and social media has accelerated renovation and redecorating cycles so much that “consumers find themselves modifying their otherwise well-functioning homes” and moving frequently, spending more and more money on ever-larger homes.
Good for the industry, not as good for homeowners
Honestly, this shifting definition of home isn’t bad for interior designers, many of whom have reached celebrity status thanks to social media and the likes of HGTV. Even those out of the limelight are staying plenty busy. And these trends are certainly not bad for home furnishings manufacturers and retailers, who are happy to provide consumers with the new furniture and accessories they need for their next design project.
But this change may not be great for people and how they feel in their homes, the research indicates. When thinking of their homes as marketplace commodities, people’s heads are filled with the imagined opinions of everyone from real estate agents, contractors and designers to potential homebuyers to friends and family.
If they’re more worried about what the researchers call the “market-reflected gaze” of other people, they’re less inclined to design their home in a way that they like best. And after they’ve made their design choices, they might fear that they’ve gotten it all wrong.
And no wonder people feel that way. “In a theme across these (home-focused TV) shows, a critical gaze is ever-present in people’s homes, casting shame for the poor choices made by homeowners. The constant judgment is a reminder to viewers that the judges could be their neighbors, friends or even family,” the researchers say.
Take Olivia, one of the homeowners interviewed by the researchers. She and her family recently moved into a new home and “quickly began to renovate” to make the space their own. That’s a traditional way of thinking about personalizing a home. But the researchers note that Olivia, despite saying she’s happy with the changes, is reluctant to invite the previous owners (who are part of her extended social circle) to see the house, perhaps fearing their judgment. “We are not in a rush to have them over quite yet,” Olivia told the researchers.
Or consider Heather, who bought artisanal tiles for the wall behind her stovetop. She tells the researchers she’s excited to have one-of-a-kind tiles that suit her style and personality, but then she says this: “But at the end of the day, I hope if we ever sell the house, nobody has a problem with it (the unique tiles).”
It’s all part of the tension many people feel about their homes today. They want personalized spaces, but they also feel pressure to create the “right” interiors.
“These disorienting dynamics serve to challenge consumers’ ability” to feel at home in their homes “potentially keeping consumers on the home renovation treadmill, whereby consumers are often thinking about renovations, if not actually engaging in them,” the researchers say.
Silencing the judgy voices
Whether they rent or own, a home is often a person’s biggest expense — and the place they spend the most time. I think that, overall, home-focused media is helpful to people. Do-it-yourself TikToks inspire people to tackle quick projects on their own. Real estate-themed TV programs let viewers live vicariously through others and may give them useful tips for updating their own spaces.
But if the “professionalism” of homes and the “market-reflected gaze” leave people feeling conflicted and unsure about their interior design choices, that’s not good. Home should be the place where people feel comfortable and most like their true selves.
I think designers and the broader industry can take lessons from this research to empower people to feel confident as they personalize their spaces. Ideally, people will spend more time creating homes they’ll love and less time worrying about making their space look like everyone else’s. How many gray walls and industrial appliances does the world really need?