Hardwood in Heart Wood

April 2021

Just put a hashtag before ‘home’ and the dreams will rain down. Looking at how capitalist desire reigns and what this has to do with political apathy, in Harriet Foyster’s research project she also questions the seduction techniques used by the residential property and home interiors markets. Regardless of budget, what are you buying into?

The domestic interior is a huge preoccupation for many right now. Though home improvement has long been a popular pursuit, its appeal is firmly intensified as global lockdowns keep the majority indoors. Homeware markets strengthen with the hurried transformation of domestic space into home offices, nurseries, care rooms, and home gyms. Desks sell out online. Home automation proliferates as its products turn living rooms into ‘smart’ spaces and Alexa’s voice rings out down the hallway. Gardens are brought indoors with hydroponics. The home interior is taking centre stage in practical terms, but something more emotional has been happening, too.

It’s the age of #homeinspo, a hashtag currently attached to over 6.5 million Instagram posts. Along with #homedecor’s 85.5 million posts and even simply #home’s 165 million, feeds are filled with reams of couples posing in cosy blankets by faux-marble fireplaces, ‘his and hers’ pillows, roses strewn on excessively cushioned master beds, love-heart shaped mirrors and wicker baubles hanging on feature walls, all punctuated by photos of furniture sporting captions like “I’m in love.” In 2018, Netflix released Selling Sunset, its own contribution to an existing backlog of real estate reality television, where a team of model women sell luxury property and discuss their romantic relationships. Countless blogs are dedicated to gorging on the cutesy tiny-house movement and cosy, hygge-inspired decor. Even homeware giant IKEA’s advertising often merges homeware with intimacy, notably, its pregnancy-test-cum-crib-discount-coupon from 2018. More than problematically, PornHub even has a channel named PropertySex.

Sure, consumer desires are encouraged in the domestic realm, but when did homeware become so seductive? Why are we relating to interiors so romantically? And moreover, what does this have to do with political apathy?

Primarily concerned with the systematic instrumentalisation of desire, and how apathetic behaviour is propagated as a result, I began looking into ways that capitalism utilizes the domestic interior as a conduit, forcefully instilling itself and its values into emotional life, and how central this is to sustaining the logic of property. For me, this is an urgent political question: right when a multiplicity of crises require them the most, huge bodies of political voice and financial power are diverted away from notions of community or collective action and towards Eames chairs, candle holders, and plush headboards to find ‘the good life’. When we imagine the US’s gargantuan suburbia or swathes of Europe’s middle classes spending significant amounts of both money and energy inside their individualized, private residences, it becomes less of an off-the-wall idea.

To undertake this project I needed to take these suspicions; of a seductive, romantic connection with the residential interior; of desire monopolizing attention; of home decoration contributing to apathy, and somehow find ‘evidence’. I began to collate all manner of examples that demonstrated a connection between desire and the interior. I found a mortgage advertisement designed like a trailer for a romantic comedy. I saw a promotion for bedding with the tagline: “New Sheets? Happy Day After Valentine’s Day.” And on arpartmenttherapy.com I found headlines to click-bait promising “Ten Tips for The Sexiest Bedroom… Like Ever (And also for Finding Love).”

Drawing specifically from the public arenas of advertising, selling, and entertainment, I amassed material from lyrics, films, social media posts, novels, fashion, promotional material for interior decorating brands, mortgage advertisements, and real estate marketing campaigns. As well as high-end and financial output, I searched in self-published DIY blogs and budget homeware sales catalogues, as I believe this is not a strictly ‘luxury’ issue; it’s not just the observation that ‘sex sells’. It’s both an emotional and socio-economic phenomenon with a broad reach. As we saw in the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007-08, and as we see with payday loan companies and rent-to-own furniture and appliance retailers, low-income clients are frequently targeted. Whether the throw costs €20 or €2000, somebody, somewhere is going to tell you that you need it, and that it feels gorgeous.

Given our saturation with the kind of printed and digital visual material I was collecting, I wanted the research to be presented experientially; I wanted to draw attention to its affective content through feeling. Hardwood in Heart Wood became an installation with an audio track, sitting somewhere between a real estate show home and a fashion runway, both spaces of trend forecasting, selling, and wanting. I collaged vocabulary from the fragments I had collected – most of which employed wording that was incredibly close to the language of dating – into a script that became an expression of the ways that romantic tropes, sexual desire, narratives of unity, and guarantees of affirmation are frequently employed in descriptions of wall paint and three-piece suites, of splash-back tiles, and lighting. The audio moved through registers of romance, commitment, and the erotic, demonstrating that home improvement and its commodities are presented within the same framework as romantic attachment. Affirmation is promised with ownership, and with the ‘right’ interior, just as it is promised with romantic partnerships, we are: both supposedly offered security, comfort, and pleasure.

The widely published reference materials all demonstrated a deep and widespread conflation of individual fulfilment with property. Satisfaction, happiness, and gratification are so commonly promised with a well-presented home. This marriage of desire, property, and fulfilment rapidly reproduces neoliberal capitalism’s own conditions, as it primes subjects to live aligned with its logic of relentless improvement and consumption. No wonder, then, that the sentiment is so strong. No wonder that it seems appealing to spend Sundays painting over the feature wall with Sweet Desire or Heart Wood (names of Flexa interior wall paints)or to endlessly redesign the living room in the hopes of betterment. The processes of capital accumulation are naturalized behind already falsely naturalized love relations, and subjectivity is consistently moulded by market-driven forces disguised as reflections of natural, social desires. The fantasy of the loving home or the bachelor pad creates the illusion that our goals should remain indoors, dialled towards middle-class values and hyper-individualism. Instead of political action, then, a rose-tinted apathy is no surprise.

*Translation of Charles Baudelaire’s introduction (1852) to Edgar Allen Poe’s 1940 essay Philosophy of Furniture

Words by Harriet Foyster

Hardwood in Heart Wood, installation with audio track, detail, Sandberg Instituut, June 2019. Photo: Willem de Kam, courtesy: Sandberg Instituut.
Hardwood in Heart Wood, installation with audio track, detail, Sandberg Instituut, June 2019. Photo: Willem de Kam, courtesy: Sandberg Instituut.
Hardwood in Heart Wood, installation with audio track, detail, Sandberg Instituut, June 2019. Photo: Willem de Kam, courtesy: Sandberg Instituut.
Hardwood in Heart Wood, installation with audio track, detail, Sandberg Instituut, June 2019. Photo: Willem de Kam, courtesy: Sandberg Instituut.
Hardwood in Heart Wood, installation with audio track, detail, Sandberg Instituut, June 2019. Photo: Willem de Kam, courtesy: Sandberg Instituut.
This article appeared in DAM78. Order your personal copy.