Sep 162003

Trading Spaces, as recent visitors from distant galaxies may not be aware, is the biggest hit show on cable television. Two homeowners, given a decorator, a carpenter’s services, and $1,000 budget, have two days to redo a room in each other’s house. I watch it for the same reason everyone does, because I find before and after pictures impossible to resist. It is also a fine piece of moral instruction.

Along with the glories of the division of labor comes, perhaps necessarily, the worship of the specialist. The deference accorded physicians, scientists, and experts of all sorts never ceases to astonish me. Of all specialists the artist gets the best deal: physicians lose face if their patients die, scientists if they produce bogus results, and artists never, so long as they can continue to intimidate their clients, which, aesthetic criteria being notoriously ineffable, is a relatively simple matter. Nice work if you can get it, and unsurprisingly sub- and sub-sub-artists, like interior decorators, have begun to muscle in on the racket.

As a rule, the worse the artist, the more insistently he drapes himself in artistic trappings. So it is on Trading Spaces. The decorators are “designers.” Talk of “themes” abounds and inevitably precurses disaster. Novels have themes. Does your bedroom? Would you prefer it if it did?

Four of the show’s eight “designers,” as I suppose we must call them, are so out-and-out incompetent that their pretensions are neither here nor there. Kia is helpless in any style. She blows her budget on pointless and overelaborate creations that, fortunately for her clients, tend to fall apart, making them easy to remove. One might feel sorry for her were it not for her complete lack of self-knowledge. Confronted with the evidence of her latest trainwreck, she warbles “no problem,” often before she has been apprised of what the problem is. The hostess hates her, and liking people is her job. Watching a Kia episode is like rubbernecking; you can’t look, and you can’t look away.

Edward and Frank have been put in the wayback machine with the dials set to 1982 and 1992, respectively. No matter what the question, Edward’s answer is a high-gloss, “sophisticated” finish, while Frank puts his trust in hand painting. When all you have is a hammer then everything must look like a nail. Still, I could imagine either of them doing adequate work for a client whose sensibility dovetailed precisely with their own, whereas it is impossible to picture Kia performing competently for anyone, anywhere. The less said of giggly, jiggly Genevieve, the Princess of Distress, the better. Genevieve is to acid washes what Claus von Bülow is to insulin. Distressed baseboards. Distressed furniture. Distressed clients.

These four flail about entertainingly enough, but the meat of the show is the conflict between Good, represented by Vern and Laurie, and Evil, represented by Hildi and Doug. Vern especially, and Laurie to a lesser degree, listen to their clients, decide what the room needs, plan it in detail, and execute. They produce consistently pleasing results. Vern, an architect, appears to be the only one with any technical training, and it shows. The other decorators’ drawings for the carpenters, next to Vern’s, look like Nigel Tufnel’s efforts at scenery design.

At the other end of the spectrum are Hildi and Doug, who design the worst rooms on the show, Kia’s excepted. These two are the theme queens. No room is complete without one, preferably having nothing whatever to do with the interests of the client. Doug designed a “Brazilian” bedroom on one episode because he had just returned from a trip to Brazil. Hildi painted a room baby-blue with random white stripes in another because she liked the Tiffany box. Neither client had any connection to Brazil or Tiffany’s.

At first I believed they were just incompetent. Gradually it dawned on me that they are, in fact, actively hostile to their clients’ interests, lest they interfere with their own precious right to express themselves in other people’s houses. For some viewers the tip-off might have been when Hildi papered the kitchen of a teetotaling couple with wine labels, or when Doug framed an enormous drawing of a foot in the bedroom of a couple who had expressed a particular distaste for feet, saying, “They wouldn’t dare take it down.” (They did.)

For me it was Hildi’s hay and Hildi’s records. Hildi decorated the walls with hay in one episode and old records in another for no reason in particular. The homeowners had shown no interest in farming or music — not as if farmers would want hay in their living room, or musicians random records glued to the wall. These go beyond podiatric art, which you can easily get rid of. These are acts of wanton destruction that require stripping and repainting the whole room to repair. Doug, for his part, reliably paints his client’s furniture, provided they insist that it not be painted. To Doug also belongs the unique distinction of making a homeowner cry on camera.

In last week’s episode one couple specified that they hated pink and mauve, inspiring Hildi to paint their living room — surprise — pink! “Coral,” she insisted, as if to say it made it so.

For the most part the homeowners offer only token resistance to these catastrophes; the designers are artists, artists are experts, and experts know best. So any of you Trading Spaces guinea pigs, if you’re reading this, a few words of advice. Stop rolling over. If you think something will turn out hideous, it probably will. Remember that if you refuse to do the gruntwork it won’t get done. Hildi needs you to glue that hay on the wall. Demand Vern, settle for Laurie, and if you end up with Hildi, Doug, or, God forbid, Kia, hire an attorney to release you from the contract. It’ll be less work than redoing the room and possibly no more expensive.

(Update: Michael Krantz points out in the comments that the biggest hit on cable isn’t Trading Spaces, it’s Spongebob Squarepants. I should have said, the biggest hit on cable that is watched in my house. This blog regrets the error.)

(Further: James Joyner comments. Scott Chaffin comments.)

  15 Responses to “Trading Spaces and the Apotheosis of the Expert”

  1. I saw one episode that was straight from the Twilight Zone. For reasons that I can’t remember, Kia and Doug had rooms where all they really managed to do was put on new paint. I’ve never seen homeowners on that show any happier. At the beginning of every show, everyone says they want "color"; maybe that is all they want after all.

    On a related note, I saw a "While You Were Out" episode where the designers redecorated a room with a submarine theme because the husband was a navy officer on a submarine. So here we have a guy who is gone from home for months at a time, stuck underwater in a submarine, and now he gets to be reminded of it when he comes home!

  2. Nice essay, Aaron. One correction, though — Trading Spaces is NOT the "biggest hit on cable television." It probably isn’t even close, but regardless, there is only one cable TV show that has any right to even be considered for #1, and that is the Nickelodeon cartoon "Spongebob Squarepants." I see the cable ratings every week, and every week, ‘Spongebob’ episodes comprise roughly half the highest-rated shows for the entire previous week. I’ve never seen anything like that kind of ratings dominance.

    Just FYI.

  3. The correction is gratefully accepted and acknowledged in an update.

  4. But Aaron, Spongebob is the much better show. I think you would appreciate the character of Squidward very much.

  5. I think you missed the larger trend, which has been developing slowly over the past 5 years or so, and is now culminating in more "expert" shows covering more aspects of personal life, from clothing to closet space. I view these shows as a trend toward conservatism, and the individual seeking approval from society. In previous decades, we were told "anything goes." After plenty of this indoctrination, we discovered nobody actually knew what to do with themselves. Clothing and interior decor became bland, self-styling became confused. But now people are willing to ask what society thinks they should do. Should they wear the blue eyeliner with the pink sweater? Should they put the sofa along the wall, or before the fireplace? Is is acceptable to have the groom’s family to dinner before the wedding? The shows of the previous decade were the Springers and the Oprahs, reveling in social dysfunction. The shows of this decade seek social harmony.

  6. I can’t see "expert" shows as evidence of conservatism — does something as trivial as the right sweater really contribute to social harmony? I think they’re evidence of a helplessness that’s the first step toward abdication of responsibility.

    Because we can’t seem to do anything without assistance, we’ve lost the whole idea of the private realm — the realm over which we have control and, therefore, for which we bear responsibility. Before we do something as simple as cook dinner, we have to consult people with degrees in the field. Is cooking dinner — or picking a sweater — really that hard? Or so important that we have to spend valuable time boning up before we make the attempt? Or maybe we just need someone to blame when it doesn’t work out.

    The success of expert shows demonstrates that we’re eager to let someone else take over even the most basic, private, tasks. And that we watch way too much TV.

  7. Wait a second you mean you’re commenting here in defense of my position? Are you feeling OK?

  8. My sister and I are Trading Spaces buffs, and we’ve broken the show’s designers down into roughly the same Axis vs. Allies camps, although we think more highly of Frank and Genevieve than you do (he typically caters to what the homeowners have said is their style, and she is open to suggestions from the team she’s working with). The truly worst Hildi example, though, was the master bathroom she defaced by stapling (!) multicolored plastic flowers to the walls. It did not align with good taste OR the style of the homeowners. Sometimes I think she and Doug are the WWF villains of the show, going over the top with the intent of whipping the audience into a frenzy.

    The questionable and sometimes hideous results of their efforts are perhaps the real reason so many people watch Trading Spaces. Rather than idolizing the "experts," we get to mock them. Even the most aesthetically bereft of us can feel superior. (It’s a bonus when we can pick up useful, you-can-do-this-at-home ideas from Vern or Laurie.)

  9. The other thing I "love" about the designers is their amazing willingness to destroy the existing furnishings of the homeowner. Notably Doug’s sawing off the posts on a four-poster bed that he had been told was a wedding present or Hildi’s decision, to stay within her budget, to take two expensive leather coaches from the den–that she was told had just been reupholstered–up to the room she was working on and staple bedsheet slipcovers to them. I’ve have punches her.

  10. That would be "puncheD her."

    I actually liked Doug’s "prison of love" bedroom from last night’s episode up until his idiotic decision–that everyone but him immediately knew was idiotic–to put two TOILETS in the BEDROOM to use as pedestals for a bench seat. Indeed, he spent the rest of the episode denying they were toilets.

  11. I wonder how The Princess Of Distress gets too little mention in your critique; is it because her door swings between good and evil? Her work is almost always based on a Focus: a cup of coffee, a French champagne poster (both good episodes), and some other horrible ones, I admit. I take it The Princess gets bad billing at your home?

  12. Yes, my bedroom has a theme. The furniture is Shaker-influenced; the tchotchkes and rug are Southwestern; the pictures come from nineteenth-century newspapers. The theme is nineteenth-century America — which is to say that it’s me — and I like it because it is my theme.

  13. Your blog pretty much summed up my feelings about a show that I’d love dearly to quit watching but for some reason, can’t. I must add that the recent addition of "designers" Christi Proctor and Rick Rifle (no, I’m not kidding) haven’t done much to up the professionalism on the show. Christi seems like a decent sort who has declared that she’s more interested in the people than in the room, but so far I’ve seen nothing stellar from her. She’s still not as bad as Kia. Rick Rifle (no, I’m really not kidding) is a different proposition altogether. Like Kia, he’s another Hollywood set designer being foisted on innocent homeowners across the United States. His first effort was a dining room that turned out so horrific I find it difficult to even describe. Eleven shades of turquoise, hideous shiny fabric and gold leaf applied so poorly Vern must have hid his head in shame to be associated with such a show. The poor homeowners wisely described it as "Beetlejuice meets Alice in Wonderland" which says it better than I ever could. All this to say that every "designer" on Trading Spaces shapes up as a rank amateur when compared to the British counterparts to be found on the Mother Show – Changing Rooms. Anyone out there who wants to see a really enjoyable, albeit shorter, version of an entertaining premise should tune to BBC America and watch some real decorators at work.

  14. I saw the Turquoise Terror, which would have done Doug proud. It was especially remarkable because the guy actually had a beautiful room to work with, with light on three sides, nice floors, and an interesting shape, and proceeded to wreck it. I thought the homeowners were quite gracious, considering.

  15. I think that Genivive should get more credit for her work. She is a talented artist that truly cares about the home-owners and listens to her team’s ideas. Rock on Gen!

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