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.)