Inspired by Trading Spaces, our city girl ventures north to the oft-maligned suburb and sees a world of possibility and pleasure.
IT’S A LAZY WEEKEND MORNING, AND I’M watching Trading Spaces, the Learning Channel cult hit where reality television meets real estate. In each episode, two sets of neighbors, usually married couples, swap homes for two days. Following the dictates of an interior designer with a $1,000 budget and with the help of a carpenter, each pair makes over one room in the other’s house. The big moment is the "reveal," in which the homeowners return to their own rooms to see what’s been done in their absence. I’ve missed the beginning of this particular episode, so I don’t know its location. The wives are especially blonde and the rooms especially large. Just as my husband walks into the room, we see an exterior shot: a two-story brick house with a multi-gabled roof and a sharply peaked, two-story entrance arch. The brick is an indeterminate grayish-brownish-yellowish color. Acute angles abound.
"That looks like Plano," my husband says. It does because, as it turns out, it is.
We call these houses "ping-pong-ball houses" because their enormous volumes could contain so many air-filled balls. They are anti-ranch houses, thrusting upward as if squeezed by an architectural corset. "Does every house really need a huge, useless arch over the front door?" asks an engineer whose family moved to Plano three years ago.
Plano homes have distinctive façades, but ping-pong-ball houses are not unique to Texas. From the colonial shutters of central New Jersey to the red tile roofs of California’s Inland Empire, the country is full of large, boxy homes with vaulted ceilings. Erected by "high-production, high-velocity builders," these new developments sell thousands of homes a year—mansions for the middle class. What these houses lack in architectural harmony, they make up for in family space. In America’s vast new suburbs, land is cheap, development restrictions are few, and a single-earner family can readily afford a 2,000-square-foot house. "The growing edge cities of America are a world in which land is pretty close to free, and people just build like mad," says Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard University economist.
Whether clad in brick, stucco, or clapboard, however, today’s standard suburban houses almost never appear on TV. To producers in New York and Los Angeles, where one-bedroom apartments and two-bedroom bungalows sell for several times the price of a Texas ping-pong-ball house, a place like Plano is as exotic as a Survivor locale.
Trading Spaces is different. Nearly every home on the show is a large, relatively new box of innocuously off-white rooms, many of them with ceilings that vault up at odd angles. Here, as nowhere else on television, suburban families can see people like them in houses like theirs.
Between 3 million and 6 million viewers watch each episode, making Trading Spaces one of cable’s biggest draws. Now in its third season, the show runs every weekday afternoon and several times on weekends. I first tuned in as research for a book I was writing on the increasing importance of aesthetics in economic and cultural life. But, like millions of other Americans, I quickly became addicted.
And, like other social commentators, I wondered about the show’s appeal.
Most social analysts see one thing in all questions of style: jockeying for status. To a snooty urbanite like Washington Post wag Hank Stuever, Trading Spaces "is about human insecurity." It critiques the "recognizably untrendy, commonly well-off universe" of "post-country country, upper-middle-class style" situated in the "Geography of Nowhere." That’s Plano he’s talking about.
As a confirmed urbanite who nonetheless lives in a new, mass-produced home—a CityHomes townhouse—I think Stuever is completely wrong. Trading Spaces isn’t about insecurity. It isn’t about status. It’s about possibilities, about the excitement and anxiety of transforming an impersonally generic space into a source of personal pleasure and meaning.
The far northern fringe of Plano, so recently developed that the streets don’t appear on my map, is the perfect setting for a show about aesthetic possibilities. Here, enormous craft stores literally sell blank canvases, along with every other sort of do-it-yourself aesthetic tool, from pillow forms to a half dozen models of glue guns. Flat and open, with a vast sky and little natural foliage, the setting itself awaits the play of human artifice. City girl that I am, I find Plano fascinating.
After all, many character-filled city streets began as generic, mass-produced housing. "The public, tickled to get so many things so cheaply, accepted them without question," lamented a writer in 1927, "and thus we had a depressing period when, in New York City, brownstone houses were built literally by the mile."
Besides, today’s suburbs aren’t bereft of city pleasures. Thanks to the spread of chains like Starbucks and Borders, the suburban frontier has amenities once limited to metropolitan centers. When I moved to LA in the mid-’80s, Roy Yamaguchi was a celebrity chef, and California Pizza Kitchen offered cutting-edge local cuisine. Now Roy’s is just off the Tollway, and CPK is Plano mall food.
Tract developments have changed as well. Those monotonous Plano neighborhoods include lots of sidewalks, parks, and bike trails. Families can walk to the swimming pool. In the newest neighborhoods, garages are tucked behind the houses in approved New Urbanist style.
Of course, Plano is still terribly generic, lacking the character of more established places. "I grew up in an older neighborhood in the Midwest, where each house was built individually over a longer period of time, and I miss the variety," says my engineer friend.
Generic spaces are safe. They offend no one, which is why mass-market homes are so similar. But generic spaces are boring and impersonal. Their value is entirely negative. They invite improvement. Whenever a Trading Spaces designer asks, "What should we do with this room?" homeowners inevitably reply, "Paint it. Give it some color." Make it special.
By treating new suburban homes as aesthetic starting points instead of blight—blank canvases rather than graffiti—Trading Spaces unself-consciously validates sprawl. Rather than ideologically condemning tract homes, it reveals their possibilities and pleasures. No wonder the show is a Heartland hit. On the program’s British progenitor, the BBC’s Changing Rooms, designers confront tiny rooms built for bygone ways of life, with intrusive radiators and no bedroom closets. On Trading Spaces, by contrast, there are few such limitations, only beige blankness waiting to be filled with imagination.
The drama of Trading Spaces comes from our love-hate relationship with expertise. On the one hand, the show offers an appealing fantasy: people who know what they’re doing will turn a room in your home into a special place. You’ll get the uniqueness of do-it-yourself customization minus the amateurish rough edges. Don’t worry that you know nothing about hanging lamps, making slipcovers, operating power tools, or balancing forms and colors. Professionals will be there to help.
The hitch is that aesthetic experts always have their own ideas, whether about haircuts or draperies. A designer’s idea of "making special" might be your idea of "making ugly," "making weird," or just "making not like me." Delegating aesthetic choices is risky, doubly so on Trading Spaces, because the designers aren’t really working for the homeowners. They’re creating entertainment, and they get to do whatever they want.
In an infamous episode, an artsy-craftsy couple has great fun decorating a country-style den for their friends—only to return home to a chocolate-brown, sleekly contemporary living room. Their beloved brick fireplace has been covered with white wood façade. The new room is beautiful—and completely inappropriate. The woman runs off camera and sobs inconsolably. "It’s just not us," says her husband.
Plano sparked a similar culture clash, with different results. In the May 2002 episode my husband and I caught on a replay, homeowner Angie Doyen famously rebels at the designer’s plan to dye her friend’s bedroom carpet orange. As the designer tries to persuade her to allow at least a test spot, Doyen says "no" more than a determined 2-year-old. She draws her hand across her neck like a knife: "Fffft. No way." Just think what orange carpet will do to the resale value!
"Didn’t they just move in?" the designer asks.
"It’s Plano, Texas," Doyen says, by way of explanation. The carpet stays beige.
By setting most shows in generic, suburban houses, Trading Spaces plays with a double tension: between resale safety and expressive style, and between expert and amateur. To make a house truly a home, more than a temporary stopping place, we must stamp our identity on it—resale value be damned.
But we may still hate orange carpets or chocolate-brown walls. Designers don’t necessarily know best. The right style is the one that says, "I like that," and, "I’m like that," that infuses our environment with our identities. Even when it scares us with the perils of trusting experts, Trading Spaces encourages us to play with possibilities, to imagine our own homes dressed to please. Let the new owners repaint. Besides, we just might stay awhile.
Contributing editor Virginia Postrel is an economics columnist for the New York Times. Her new book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Culture, Commerce, and Consciousness, will be published in September by HarperCollins.