The market-reflected gaze

Anne Helen Peterson nails it in this essay on the “market-reflected gaze” and how it makes us all feel bad about our homes:

Houses aren’t just money pits when it comes to everyday maintenance. Homeownership is always shadowed by the specter of resale value.

For every modification, necessary or cosmetic, the questions dance around you: Is this good for resale? Am I making it “too much” house for the neighborhood? What would a real estate agent say? How do I balance what I actually want with what ten thousand prospective buyers would actually want?

Even if you have no intention of selling in the near or even semi-near future, there’s persistent pressure to make your space amenable to a theoretical someone who isn’t you, the person who very much lives there right now.

I feel like I’ve seen so many homes lately that seem to have been designed to appease this “gaze”. It’s hard to put a finger on (and I am far from immune to the gaze myself), but there’s lots of muted tones and sterile decorations. Clean and orderly but cold and hotel-like. It’s a bit like a home that’s meant to look good on Zillow but that actually feels kind of bad to inhabit. These are homes designed to offend no one and consequently end up pleasing no one.

One person I’ve been following who’s been thinking about other ways of relating to the house that is one’s home is Simon Sarris. In his Designing a New Old Home series, he documents the process of designing and building his home and reflects on what goes into making a home actually feel good. Here he is on why certain materials feel the way they feel:

The obvious problem with some modern material choices is that if they are chosen for a clean look, they often don’t stay that way. New home materials tend to get worse over time: A soiled solid light-gray carpet looks worse than a faded vintage Persian rug, a chipped polyurethane floor looks worse than old, worn wood. Fake materials disintegrate, while natural materials gain patina and grow in elegance.

Old houses harbor much of their charms in the materials themselves, which seem to get better over time, because the wear that the materials take on makes them more beautiful. Raw brass and copper grow a patina. Marble gets scratched or etched. Oiled wood floors get re-oiled, darken with age and get dented. The finishes on these objects are alive. They do not decline so much as they move with time. Even raw plaster, as it is painted and broken and repaired over time, becomes more and more pretty.