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Let the Sunshine In

The tyranny of whiteness in interior design

This past December, just when we thought we couldn’t bear to spend another minute wandering aimlessly around our snowed-in apartments or languishing on our couches, croupy and despondent, in the throes of our second or third rounds of Covid, Netflix took mercy on us all and released season four of Dream Home Makeover. The premise of the show is simple: if you are very, very lucky and have at least $30,000 to spend redecorating your living room, a terrifying Brigham Young University alumna named Shea McGee will come into your home and replace your furniture with expensive sofas and tasteful accent chairs in various shades of white fabric and pale wood. She will design room mock-ups in an expansive white office. She will don a hard hat and frown at builders and contractors. And then, lest you doubt her ability to have it all, she will leave work to engage in wholesome family activities with her three small daughters. Through all of this, she will be trailed after by her trusty, mediocre husband, Syd, who will appear to be extremely confused by everything she does yet inexplicably turn out to be the CEO of her company. (Never, it must be noted, has a real person more precisely resembled Ron Stoppable of the early-aughts Kim Possible franchise. And never has a female reality TV star more visibly wanted to strangle her husband.)

When it comes to renovations, Shea has a surefire formula for every room, which is: white white white white white. She is the queen of the white wall, the off-white couch, the ivory throw. Color, when it does appear, is limited to muted accent pieces; black, at the very most, might grace the spine of a coffee table book, or the legs of a spindly lamp. In one episode in season two, a woman comes to Shea with a very specific request. She wants a Hawaiian-themed bedroom, and on a recent family trip to Hawaii, she found something that she hopes might serve as inspiration. The woman, eyes twinkling, pulls out a pair of garish pillowcases featuring blue and green Christmas palms with bunches of bright red berries. Shea looks about as pleased as if the woman had unzipped her pants and surprised her with a hairy set of genitals. She does over the room in whites and tans and muted blues, creating a space that looks like just about everything else she has designed for the show and nothing like Hawaii. She has given the woman and her husband what they didn’t even know they wanted: the two of them are over the moon.

What she is telling us is that there is a single correct answer to what a home should be.

Dream Home Makeover is also about the McGee’s family life, and Shea and Syd have plenty going on at home. They have parties to prepare for, waffles to make, sockets to babyproof, and they can barely hear one another from the many wings of their cavernous house. Their voices echo, especially in the great room, which has spotless white everything and thirty-foot ceilings. The house, designed by the two of them on the basis of current real estate trends (exterior: blindingly and gloriously white), is located in a sparsely built cul-de-sac in the middle of the Utah desert, where a handful of houses and a small fleet of bulldozers are their only real companions in an otherwise uninhabited landscape. The area is really up-and-coming, Shea says to various acquaintances with increasing desperation. It looks like the lone settlement on Mars. When Shea and Syd retreat to the basement to dish on their lives in that staple of reality TV, the confessional, Shea stares fixedly into the camera the whole time. Eventually—inevitably—Syd makes a bad pun. In lieu of a smile, Shea bares her teeth murderously.

Little has changed in season four. Shea and Syd do have a new baby girl, and every so often Shea laughs at Syd’s jokes in a way that makes the baby seem biologically possible. But Shea still goes to town on every project with the same grim commitment to the white wall. What she is telling us is that there is a single correct answer to what a home should be, a schema you can follow to make yourself blissful and delighted, and that if you are good enough and rich enough, you can live out your days bathed in a sea of white that affirms your cleanliness and purity forever—or as long as you have the money to maintain it.

Meanwhile, on YouTube, the interior design gurus are not okay. Today, they say, I haven’t done this before, but TODAY I am going to give you a tour of my BATHROOM! The bathroom in question is bound to be entirely white, save perhaps a wooden shelf supporting a trio of expensive skincare products, or a bunch of eucalyptus hanging from their shower head. Their bedrooms, which they film every couple of months on the basis of having rearranged their furniture, look much the same, though there the white finds its counterpoint in an array of houseplants and, perhaps, a pastel Matisse knockoff hung above a dresser. These carefully designed rooms are then clumsily imitated by an army of general lifestyle influencers, who go so far in eschewing color that at times they eschew decoration altogether, as if a wall hanging constituted clutter or made it harder to demonstrate the level of cleanliness they have achieved.

Michelle Choi, for one, is serious about being clean. In a video for her series “living alone diaries,” she demonstrates her techniques for “recovering from burnout in your twenties,” which start off with her deep-cleaning her white apartment for two good edited minutes. Her kitchen is white, her dining area is white, and her living room is white, with a white rug, an enormous off-white couch, a coffee table of the palest wood, and pristine white walls with hardly any decor in sight. She Swiffers, vacuums, and wet mops with the vigor of a person on speed. Then she retreats to the bathroom and puts on multiple layers of foundation. To deal with a troubled interior, the video suggests, a person must assiduously attend to all of their surfaces, and Choi’s 1.8 million subscribers go wild with approval in the comments.

In a 2020 essay entitled “Chronic Whiteness,” architecture historian Mark Wigley follows the relationship between the white interior wall and cleanliness all the way back to the Neolithic era, when it became standard practice to coat the interiors of buildings in white lime plaster in order to “[disinfect] while also drawing all the surfaces of the newly quadrilateral system of floor, wall, and ceiling together into a continuous sealed skin.” Wigley then traces the figure of the health-promoting white wall from the ancient Greeks to the Italian Renaissance to the turn of the twentieth century, when it came to be synonymous with modern architecture and modernity in general. Le Corbusier was one of many interwar architects central in forging this association; in The Decorative Art of Today, published in 1925, he fantasizes about a “Law of Ripolin” that would mandate every room be completely coated with Ripolin whitewash. By this point, the white wall had already begun to creep from the interiors of sanatoria and hospitals—and from the walls of slums where it was forcibly imposed upon poor families as a mitigation measure during nineteenth-century epidemics—into the design of hotels and apartment buildings. White is hygienic, was the message, and hygiene is God; to participate in the modern world is to bow at His altar constantly.

To deal with a troubled interior, the video suggests, a person must assiduously attend to all of their surfaces.

Today, purging their bodies and environments of microbes, toxins, and other threats to purity is the lifestyle influencer’s favorite pastime. The same people—@michellechoii, @wearilive, @HitomiMochizuki222, @annaneubert, @fernandaraamirez, @lavendaire—who show off their white apartments to their adoring fans as indices of their tranquil lives regularly release videos devoted to “clean” vegan recipes, or hold forth about the importance of workout routines as exercises in detoxification. Gwyneth Paltrow, America’s favorite—and perhaps only—purity mogul, has built an empire selling middle- and upper-class women detox routines and green juice; she has a white living room, white kitchen, and a white entry hall in her Montecito mansion. Goop, the newsletter-turned-website-turned-essentially-cult that Paltrow founded in 2008, would have you believe that the world is a poisonous cesspool, and that constant culinary hypervigilance—as well as dropping hundreds of dollars on the brand’s home goods and personal hygiene products—is the only way to save yourself and your family from unspeakable fates.

But of course, attempts to remain pure or avoid contracting disease can do their own forms of physical damage: hot yoga, popular among the lifestyle YouTuber set (“hot yoga has been so incredibly good for my soul” Michelle Choi attests via overlaid text in her burnout video, skin red and face dripping with perspiration) for the incorrect but commonly held notion that it will help you sweat out all your toxins, carries an elevated risk of dehydration and heat stroke. (In fact, there is no definitive exercise routine or diet capable of ridding your body of toxins, meaning that all of the fasting, sweating, and restricting that these individuals do in the name of purity is, at least physically, likely to have only neutral or negative effects.) Meanwhile, regularly coming into contact with harsh cleaning agents can damage the lungs, and white paint itself, the enemy of grime, has often contained lead since antiquity. Due to its warmth and opacity, lead white has long been regarded as the most desirable of all white paints; until the nineteenth century, artists used it with such frequency that they regularly contracted something called “painter’s colic,” a chronic form of lead poisoning that led to extreme abdominal pain and “obstinate constipation,” according to Merriam Webster.

Perhaps our most toxic attachment to white appears in the use of white lead in cosmetics. From Greek antiquity onward, upper-class women from England to Japan would coat their faces with white powder produced from corroded lead, which adhered neatly to their skin and gave it an exceedingly pale sheen. But the more lead they used, the more rapidly their skin grew grey and wrinkled, which drove them to use even more to cover up the progress of their illness. One cannot help but think of the skin lightening industry today, which is worth billions of dollars globally and sees women around the world coating their skin with potentially poisonous levels of mercury and hydroquinone in pursuit of whiteness.

This, of course, is the elephant in the room. How can we talk about whiteness (household interior-wise) without talking about whiteness (racialized, insatiable, rooted in the master’s fear of slave revolts!)? Dream Home Makeover’s Shea McGee is the Platonic ideal of a white woman. She is blonde-haired and blue-eyed, a suburban mother of three, the driver of a white SUV, and a purported member of one of the whitest of all American religions: Mormonism, where Black people were barred from the priesthood until 1978 and where, according to a 1959 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, adherents commonly believed well into the twentieth century that with “righteous living,” Black people could expect to turn “white and delightsome,” as a little gift. White Mormons have long been at the forefront of selling aesthetically pleasing lifestyles on the internet; Mormon women led the pack when it came to the establishment of the mommy blogosphere in the early 2000s and remain quietly behind a good deal of lifestyle content that circulates online. Case in point: Kinfolk magazine, whose founders met at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, and which is now such an important source of drool-worthy images of minimalist interiors that the phrase “Kinfolk style” has come to refer to the precise aesthetic that Shea McGee provides to all her clients.

The YouTubers, on the other hand, are (probably) not Mormon, and they are a racially diverse bunch. But their attachment to the white wall cannot be neatly extracted from a history of associating racial whiteness with a predilection for colorlessness, and both of these things with purity. Europeans and their settler descendants have long treated a penchant for bright colors, whether in one’s clothing, house color, or interior decor, as a factor that distinguishes “the primitive” from “the civilized.” In his 1810 treatise Theory of Colours, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe writes:

Lastly, it is also worthy of remark, that savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colors; that animals are excited to rage by certain colors; that people of refinement avoid vivid colors in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them altogether from their presence.

As examples of colors that appeal to “savage nations,” he mentions minium and vermilion, or what he calls “yellow-red,” explaining that “the active side is here in its highest energy, and it is not to be wondered at that impetuous, robust, uneducated men, should be especially pleased with this color.” In other words, to be from what he later calls “lively nations” is to find oneself attracted to vivid, “[high] energy” colors like vermilion and to reveal oneself as poor, non-white, or otherwise unrefined; to be drawn to a lack of color, on the other hand, is to show that one is “sedate” and refined. Thus, long-standing associations of white interiors and exteriors with white people do not just result from racist assumptions about non-white people being dirty; these associations also result from racist assumptions about non-white people being wild and excitable.

That said, we need not take up Goethe’s racist assumptions to recognize that tranquility is an important aspect of the white wall’s enduring appeal. When the world feels like a massive Charybdian whirlpool, what could be more soothing than simply exiting it and stepping into a void? In 2018, a wellness center opened up in my rapidly gentrifying childhood neighborhood of Boston. The centerpiece of Cloud 9 Float & Wellness is its sensory deprivation tank, which they advertise on their website with a video that features a slideshow of colorful human figures radiating light and a voiceover from Joe Rogan explaining that when you float regularly, “you get better at actually letting go, really letting go, letting go from letting go, letting go from the feeling of letting go . . . and then you become . . . gone! You disappear.”

Becoming gone, disappearing, is perhaps the only possible response to the phantasmagoric, engulfing sweep of the media, architecture, and machines that characterize everyday life under late capitalism. Walter Benjamin was already making this argument a century ago, in writings throughout the interwar period: that the modern individual is forced, in anthropologist Joseph Masco’s formulation, “to take psychological refuge from the new dangers of an increasingly industrialized world by cutting themselves off from sensory experience, by anesthetizing themselves in everyday life.” It is precisely the overwhelming sensory nature of the contemporary world that causes the body to shut down, that causes the modern subject to retreat; it is no small wonder that, thus numbed, a person would seek out an outer environment that matched their inner state, and that this might bring them a measure of peace.

And Benjamin’s friend Theodor Adorno might add that once we leave work, the ways we entertain and soothe ourselves are chiefly designed to help us continue working. One uses meditation apps or a sensory deprivation tank on the weekend so that come Monday morning, one has the energy to fight one’s way through the tourist crowd in Times Square on the way to one’s high-power law firm in Midtown Manhattan. Then, at the end of the day, one recovers by collapsing on one’s white couch in one’s white living room and eating takeout off of one’s white coffee table while binging a Netflix series that features people living blissful lives in their own white apartments.

Whiteness masquerades as a natural category but persists only because of the constant effort put into its preservation.

Make no mistake: it takes so much work to maintain the void. For Wigley, the whiteness of architecture is constructed through “endless rewhitenings” that are supposed to always represent a “return to zero,” the neutral, natural state supposedly underlying the colossal mess that is life. But “it paradoxically takes such a huge labor to construct this sense of zero.” Neutrality, then, is not a substrate but a laboriously produced surface laid over the chaos. Michelle Choi deals with her burnout by cleaning until she literally collapses on the floor. Shea McGee is selling not just her design skills but her perfect, light-filled life; her tension with her husband only serves to highlight the intense effort she must be putting into appearing neutral. And the smooth, watchable episodes of her show and her counterparts’ YouTube videos belie the dozens of hours that someone has to spend bent over a computer, squinting at editing software, in order to get them to their viewers.

The influencer’s job is to create a sense of zero: to present pristine apartments; flawless makeup; engaging, seemingly offhand monologues that are supposed to merely document an extant lifestyle rather than to actually, frantically construct it. In this way, the white interior, and the video products that harness it, are the apotheosis of Marx’s fetish objects: they so thoroughly hide the labor contained within them that they purport to be that which is prior to labor, a state of pure emptiness. This, of course, is also the modus operandi of racial whiteness. Black studies scholars like Gerald Horne have documented the way that plantation owners first created the category of whiteness and its attendant hierarchies in the mid-to-late seventeenth century as a way of quashing natural solidarity between enslaved Afro-descendant laborers and indentured Euro-descendant laborers in the Caribbean; dividing and conquering was the surest way of preventing successful slave revolts. In the intervening centuries, the continued power of whiteness relied on the maintenance of the social structures that upheld it: in other words, whiteness masquerades as a natural category but persists only because of the constant effort put into its preservation.

So is the fantasy of the white interior totally unsalvageable? Not to my mind. Purity may not actually be attainable, or anything but deeply fraught, but the white interior also contains an ultimately utopian promise: the promise of a world free of distress that might one day, ideally, be available to all. I, for one, won’t pretend that I don’t dream of waking up one day in an apartment with cavernous ceilings, bathed in light, surrounded by pristinely white walls, free from grime and the pressing demands of the future. But I also dream of a world where this experience is not limited to me, and where it does not require another’s exploitation. I dream, in short, of collective bliss.