Home dec­o­rat­ing be­comes mat­ter of in­stinct

Many Cana­di­ans start by im­i­tat­ing, but over time de­velop their own style

Montreal Gazette - - Home Front - MISTY HAR­RIS

From our colour-blocked book­cases to care­fully cho­sen cof­fee-ta­ble books, it’s easy to as­sume Cana­di­ans’ style is about as authen­tic as the knock-off Barcelona chairs staged within.

But a Montreal re­searcher finds that even as “our homes are clichés,” we’re not phonies so much as peo­ple who fake it ’til we make it. That is, our decor choices may be­gin with im­i­ta­tion, but those de­ci­sions even­tu­ally be­come in­stinc­tive – much like how we know not to pair socks with san­dals (well, most of us, any­way).

This bears out in a new Jour­nal of Con­sumer Re­search study that sug­gests taste gets so in­grained, home dec­o­rat­ing is ac­tu­ally less a pub­lic per­for­mance than a gen­uine means of per­sonal ful­fil­ment.

“Some crit­ics can be cyn­i­cal, like we’re just dec­o­rat­ing for oth­ers. But we do it for our­selves, too,” says study au­thor Zeynep Arsel, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity in Montreal.

“Of course i’m happy when one of my friends sees some­thing in my home and says, ‘That’s cool!’ But 85 per cent of the time, I’m the one ap­pre­ci­at­ing that cool thing.”

Arsel’s study, co-writ­ten by Jonathan Bean of Par­sons the New School of De­sign, draws on 15 hours of in­ter­views and anal­y­sis of more than seven years of posts and com­ments on Apart­ment Ther­apy, a lead­ing de­sign web­site. It ex­plains tastemak­ing as a three-phase loop: prob­lem­iza­tion, in­stru­men­tal­iza­tion and rit­u­al­iza­tion.

“It all starts with ac­knowl­edg­ing that things could be bet­ter,” Arsel says. “Be­fore vis­it­ing these web­sites, I never thought that hav­ing vis­i­ble elec­tron­ics ca­bles was a big deal. But it turns out it’s a big aes­thetic no-no, and I’m now very anal about it.”

In­stru­men­tal­iza­tion refers to ra­tio­nal­iz­ing a de­sign choice or pur­chase. And rit­u­al­iza­tion is the process through which im­i­ta­tion gives way to em­bod­i­ment.

“We start by look­ing at these dec­o­rat­ing sites and em­u­lat­ing what we see. But through re­peated ex­po­sure, we de­velop a nat­u­ral affin­ity for re­lat­ing to ob­jects, mix and match­ing them, pick­ing the ‘right’ props and us­ing them the ‘right’ way,” says Arsel.

“When we buy a cof­fee ta­ble, we not only know where to put it, but also which an­tique vase to put on it, and in which cor­ner that an­tique vase must be placed. These de­ci­sions be­come nor­mal to us af­ter a while.”

An­drew Pot­ter, Cana­dian au­thor of The Au­then­tic­ity Hoax, says the rit­u­al­iza­tion process helps ex­plain why so many peo­ple don’t look at their style judg­ments ob­jec­tively.

“When it comes to other peo­ple, we have no prob­lem see­ing their taste as a func­tion of their class – ‘low­brow,’ ‘bour­geois,’ ‘nou­veau riche’ and so on. But when it comes to their own judg­ments, al­most ev­ery­one thinks that they sim­ply ‘like what they like,’” says Pot­ter.

“It’s sim­i­lar to the phe- nomenon where no one thinks they talk funny; other peo­ple have ac­cents, while I sim­ply pro­nounce words nat­u­rally.”

Nancy Marcus, the Van­cou­ver blog­ger be­hind Marcus De­sign, con­fesses that Pin­ter­est and decor blogs have been very in­flu­en­tial on her style choices, as her back­ground is ac­tu­ally in bio­chem­istry.

“They’ve greatly af­fected my taste,” says Marcus, whose per­fectly cu­rated blog be­lies her in­ex­pe­ri­ence with de­sign. “But it’s a very fine line. There are even a few de­sign­ers I know who’ve said, ‘I can’t do a chevron rug be­cause it’s too ‘bloggy.’ So it can go the op­po­site way as well.”

In­te­rior de­signer Julie Oka­mura says on­line decor sites are in­deed en­dow­ing peo­ple with bet­ter taste and know-how. But she adds that it’s also mak­ing them un­re­al­is­tic.

“Ev­ery­body thinks they’re a de­signer or a dec­o­ra­tor now,” says Oka­mura, prin­ci­pal at Cal­gary-based Pop De­sign Group.


Home-mak­ers of­ten get dec­o­rat­ing ideas from friends, mag­a­zines and other out­side sources, but over time they tend to de­velop a style de­signed to please them and make them com­fort­able, and not to im­press vis­i­tors.

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