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4 October 1999

An ideal home, but could you really live in it?

A swanky garage, lots of bathrooms, a study: show homes today reveal our new preoccupations while pr

By Tony Chapman

Stressed out by work and family life? Come and see Exquisite Homes’ new site development, where our detached, executive show homes are waiting for you and your family to see just how much better life can be.

Maybe we should all go and view a big new show home, for the fantasies we hold dear about domestic bliss all too often tarnish our experience of the realities of marriage and family life. But show-home tourists may not see this distinction – indeed, they may not want to. That is why the show home is such an effective marketing tool – it raises people’s expectations of comfort, utility, safety and privacy but, most important of all, it promises happiness.

This notion of selling a happy home is not new, but it is now presented in a radically different way from, say, the 1930s or 1950s. There has been a shift from the notion that “collective” family life leads to happiness, to one which asserts that “individual self-fulfilment” for all members of the family is vital within the communion of the family.

The floor plan of the 1990s house reflects this. Designers have abandoned the 1970s model of a sprawling, walk-through, L-shaped living/dining/kitchen area. Instead, the available space dedicates smaller rooms to imaginary people and activities. Take the utility room, for example. While the kitchen is still shown to be a definitively gendered space, the utility is used to separate women from those tasks they don’t want to think about – like doing the laundry. In show homes, these spaces are often depicted as “tradesman” or “servant” entrances, with wicker baskets full of dried flowers, logs or fruit skins, with huge provisions jars, witches’ brooms, green wellies and sometimes plaster casts of game birds hanging from hooks.

Kitchens have become more public spaces, with big pine tables groaning with baskets of fruit and bread (made from plastic, wax or plaster) providing romantic evocations of farmhouse conviviality. It has become an artefact of value in itself, instead of producing value in the form of wholesome food – we British are the most enthusiastic consumers of ready-made “cook-chill” foods in Europe. And to show that the kitchen is a place where pleasure is consumed rather than produced, the white goods are concealed behind matching cupboard fascia – suggesting that women can get on with their lives.

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While the kitchen is a big selling-point for women, the study has been reintroduced to appeal to men. This may have something to do with the increasing numbers of men working from home. But it is more likely that the study is used to raise men’s expectation of renewed status in the family. It promises them the possibility of splendid isolation; like Elizabeth Bennett’s father, in Pride and Prejudice, ruling benignly over his family from the relatively safe enclave of his room, where he could enjoy a good book. Designers use the study to exhibit specifically masculine symbols such as framed architectural drawings, old-looking leather-topped desks with a green banker’s lamp and, perhaps, a heavy, wooden captain’s chair.

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The study is decorated in a restrained style, adopting gilded striped wallpapers and, to give the impression of scholarship and cultural distinction, the positioning of a classical bust, a violin with old sheet music and a few old books. Interestingly, when a site has more than one show home, the larger house is often decorated throughout in this masculine style in the hope that it will trigger an urge in the patriarch to reach for his cheque-book.

Smaller houses, invariably, adopt more feminine decorative devices such as soft furnishings, pastel colours and DVM. DVM (dead vegetable matter) is endemic in show homes. The most I have counted in one house is 86 displays, including dried flowers, jars of lentils and coloured pasta, citrus fruit skins, pot-pourri, autumn leaves, dyed fungi and – most ridiculous of all – the use of spirals of dried bark on porcelain plates.

Upstairs, the floor plans of new show homes have also been altered to incorporate the obligatory proliferation of bathrooms. It is not unusual for four- or five-bedroom houses to have three upstairs bathrooms including the “family bathroom”, with en suites off the guest bedroom and the so-called “master bedroom”. But why have so many? The most obvious reason is that it is a status symbol, like the double garage for the 1970s “two-car family”. Designers carefully sidestep the issue of who is going to clean all those lavatories by sealing them with a sanitised sash.

At a deeper level, the doubling or trebling of bathrooms illustrates how the body has taken centre-stage in the late-modern psyche. The bathroom has become a place of self-indulgence and body celebration. Furthermore, the separation of the parents’ bathroom from the children’s shows how bodily taboo within the family is increasing. It also shows how potential buyers are promised the kinds of sexual opportunity in the marital bedroom that were once only available in hotels.

Allusion to sexual gratification is sometimes exaggerated. In one house I looked at, on the door handle of the double en-suite shower, a pink hand towel had been tied into an elaborate knot from which a single silk rose protruded. At the bottom of the bed sat a small chest, upon which an engraved silver tray was set out with two fluted glasses and a bottle of Cinzano Bianco. As is quite common in modern show homes, an entire wall of wardrobe was mirror-glazed and the bed was a four-poster with drapes and canopies. As if it were possible for viewers to have missed the point, the designer added the finishing touch of a slinky, claret, satin night-dress draped across the bed.

On the bedside table, there lay a small box. But it was a perfume carton, not a packet of condoms – for the master bedroom is also a symbol of fertility. Consequently, when women’s garments are on display, they are usually white. And never, ever, are men’s clothes left hanging around – for this would remind women that men continually mess the place up.

Show homes invariably provide evidence of the existence of children, usually a boy and a girl, but they are confined to their fancifully tidy bedrooms or the “family room”, where they are shown to enjoy appropriate forms of entertainment.

Infants’ rooms are typically furnished with Victorian-style painted wooden furniture and toys. There are few signs of small children elsewhere in the house – with the possible exception of the kitchen, set out for a birthday party. Room designers show that resident teenagers have “healthy” outside interests such as riding or fishing, but avoid displaying televisions or computers, which might expose them to adult vices.

As in old aristocratic houses, where the horses got better lodgings than the children and the servants, the show home pampers its high-performance cars. Integral garages have gone out of fashion in larger houses and, if they are attached to the house at all, it is via the utility room. Detached garages are often ornamented with a fancy mansard roof, or perhaps a clock tower or a dovecote. Cars need to be cared for, because, on greenfield sites, there is rarely a school, doctor’s surgery, a corner shop or a pub. No matter how quaint the site looks with its village green, old-style water pump and maybe even the odd duck, Disneyland has its disadvantages.

Like a cook-chill meal, package holiday or an off-the-peg suit, the show home offers its buyer a complete product: they need do no more than move in and live a happy life. But are viewers really that gullible? They are not easily fooled, presumably, by crude marketing tricks such as the use of queen-size beds masquerading as king-size. Surely they notice that colour schemes are used to make rooms look expansive, that doors are taken off to make rooms look bigger and that furniture is specially designed to make rooms look larger?

Who could not be aware of the aroma of perfumed oils, the glow of specially placed lights and the full-blast central heating?

It is too simple to blame building firms for generating the ideal-home fantasy. They can hardly be expected to pepper the doormat of a show home with gas, electric and telephone bills, or leave a load of dirty pots piled up in the kitchen sink and laundry all over the radiators. However ingenious companies may be in designing show homes that masquerade as real homes, we must be careful not to overstate their influence – they shape our needs and wants in response only to wider social change, which in turn affects people’s hopes and dreams.

In an aspirational culture that increasingly demands people display affluence and well-being through conspicuous consumption, show-home viewers would prefer not to be reminded of the realities of day-to-day life. They do not want to see medicines on view in the bathroom, nappies soaking in the utility room or a Zimmer frame in the hall.

Buying into the dream of the ideal home is expensive in personal and economic terms – and yet it is an expense that is hard to resist. This leads many people to overstretch themselves financially; the debt can become too great to manage and they can lose their homes as a consequence. Even if couples can afford to keep up the payments, the sheer effort of juggling paid employment, home care and the financial and personal costs of arranging care for children can cast a heavy burden on householders.

Perhaps things will change? Certainly, it is clear that the structure of households in Britain is changing dramatically. Most worrying of all, perhaps, is the high level of marital breakdown – more than one in three marriages. This is not to suggest a crude causal relationship between domestic consumption and marital breakdown. But it may be that the barrage of positive images of life-long contentment and happiness which the ideal home presents to us produces a profound sense of disappointment when we confront real home life.

The house-building industry has not ignored the impact of changed household structures in Britain. Government projections to 2016 suggest that, though the number of “conventional” families will reduce in absolute terms, there will still be a large market for family homes in Britain. If these projections are right, we’ll need more than ten million homes for single people or single-parent households by 2016 – that is nearly half the total number of households. Builders are now erecting or converting properties, especially in large cities, that are aimed at the burgeoning market for flats for the (mostly unmarried) under-35s; for divorcees who need to scale down their properties as their family home is broken up; or for older people who seek smaller and perhaps supervised private accommodation.

As ever, big business seems to be one step ahead of politicians and sociologists in picking up on changing social attitudes – while also capitalising upon these insights.

The writer is co-editor with Jenny Hockey of “Ideal Homes?” (Routledge)