Presented in part at the BIID Conference 2015. 18 June 2015
Debate: The Pop Culture Effect: Did Changing Rooms change our profession?
What makes good interior design is of course wildly subjective, as taste is so intensely personal, but if the homeowner is at the heart of the process, then a happy interior solution is, I believe, always achievable; the challenge, of course, is getting to that point.
As such, there is a fundamental conflict at the heart of most interior design shows on TV: the gulf between entertainment and information/education. While certainly no-one wants to sit down of an evening to an hour of dry “instruction”, undue emphasis on over-blown action to reaction rather undermines the capacity to create great interiors. Why? Because without cameras rolling, advising a client on their home is an exercise in gentle persuasion; leading a homeowner from their initial ideas, along the path of potential solutions, to something that resembles, but hopefully exceeds, the vision of what their home could be. Arguably it involves the delicate dismissal of some ‘concepts’ and at times the diplomatic eviction of ‘unacceptable’ pieces of furniture. It’s a process that uses all of one’s skills of negotiation, and it can often feel a little like being a family counsellor as you attempt to navigate between differing desires and expectations. Making homes is hard, sometimes painfully slow, and often very emotional but above all else, success hinges on excellent communication.
Cut to TV land and it’s all about tomorrow’s water cooler conversation: the owner’s shock at the big reveal; the can-you-believe-they-did-that moment; and the segue from stressed designer to frustrated builder. The narrative hinges on the jump from “I don’t care what they do as long as they don’t paint it pink” to the shot of the decorator gleefully opening a pot of pink paint while banging on about it being their favourite colour. Empathy goes out of the window, as does seemingly, the desire to actually be of service to the homeowner.
But, on many of these makeover shows, the “entertainment” revolves around the fact that the “designers” never actually meet their clients! Instead, in order to keep the action zipping along snap judgments, soundbite friendly three-point plans and hasty conclusions rule. It’s about the designers barking instructions, “This won’t work, and this must go”, faces crumbling and then eavesdropping on the handyman bitching about the workload before cutting back to the presenter idly musing that they’re pretty sure the owners won’t be keen on idea x or y, not that it occurs to them to pass this on to the designers. Cue music, times up, and another scheme has been cobbled together well enough for the before and after sweep shot with the owners standing to one side looking stunned, or should that be shocked. Fade to a trail for next week’s episode.
But does it always have to be this way?
Let’s go back a step, I fervently believe that good design and great interior design can change your life. I can’t guarantee that it’ll make you richer, thinner, prettier or find you the perfect mate, but it can make you happier.
But does this make good television?
Well actually I think it could. The opportunity, surely, rests in positive story telling. After all, at the end of the day, I think everyone wants a home that they love, and that is personal to them, and admittedly, that’s not always easy. But therein I believe lies a highly televisual journey from that vision (or fantasy) to reality. But can’t this be done without (or with minimum) tears and tantrums? Could it not be more about working with people to achieve their dreams? (After all it works for Grand Designs, but more on that later.) Why not portray the ups and downs of real home-making? Document the frustrations, the changing of minds and the bits that inevitably go wrong. Let’s look at the common mistakes people make and the traps easily fallen into. But, most importantly, couldn’t we help people to avoid potential aesthetic disaster without being hectoring, supercilious or patronising?!
Channel 4’s Grand Designs works (first aired in 1999 and now into its 14th series) because it’s inspirational and engaging; presenter Kevin McCloud is authentic, informed and genuinely passionate about the projects and people involved. As viewers we want to know their story but more than anything, we want to know how it ends; was it all worth the trouble? McCloud’s role is not one of interference or judgement rather he voices the concerns and asks the questions that we at home are wondering, he fills in the gaps, adds in a bit of tech and historical detail for colour and then crucially, joins us in our genuine joy when it does all work out. And the spin-offs (Grand Designs Revisited etc) have been fabulously successful precisely because seeing him re-visit those homes 2 to 10 years on to see if the owners are still living their dream… well, we want to know this too.
BBCs Changing Rooms by contrast was never about the owners. This was classic car crash TV: a DIY game show with friends swapping houses and “designers” attempting makeovers in record time. We watched in horror as homes were MDF-ed and staple-gunned into cheap pastiches of dodgy “looks”. And we all knew it’d fall down the minute the director shouted it’s a wrap. Nevertheless, it ran for 17 series from 1996 to 2004. It was compelling, but only because there was something horribly voyeuristic about seeing other people’s homes get ruined. We watched, but felt kind of guilty about it because instead of uplift and inspiration at the end, you switched off thinking, thank God that’s not my home.
More recently BBC2’s The Great Interior Design Challenge rather reprised this format with reviews dubbing it “Changing Rooms upcycled for The Great British Bake Off generation”. Here wannabe decorators are given upto 3 days and about £1000 each to overhaul rooms in someone else’s home all for the chance to get through to a final showdown and be crowned Britain’s Best Amateur Decorator. Here client does meet decorator, briefly, but the decorators have never worked professionally, and it shows. The twist was that each week the contestants were let loose on a different architectural style of home, so slotted in between the makeovers were genuinely interesting historical snippets about the style in question presented by enthusiast and respected architecture critic, Tom Dyckhoff. I have to say I followed the majority of the first series, mostly I’m afraid because I rather relished the showtime twitter storm that ensues when your timeline is largely composed of fellow design nuts cheerfully spewing opinionated rantings about each scheme, let alone the collective ire when the “wrong” one wins!
To conclude, the question posed at the BIID Conference was “Did Changing Rooms change our Profession?” My answer? No. Because Changing Rooms had absolutely nothing to do with the profession of Interior Design. In fact it validated the fact that Interior Design is a profession: one that requires skill, expertise, experience and talent. For me, curating a little piece of the world for someone, creating their home, is a privilege, and it should not be treated lightly. It was no surprise to me then that the majority of the homes shows eventually gave way to cookery programming or a spate of scary super nanny type shows. The winds of TV trends blow as they will. But call me naiive or unduly optimistic, but I think evolution is on the way, and there’s hope for interiors on TV yet. Watch this space.