The scene is a large frame house with white pillars and a lavish wraparound porch. In the living room the paint job is perfect -- peach with white woodwork. As the camera pans the room, it takes in the glistening wood floors, the oversized coffee table and accessories, the ample sofa and matching chairs with Art Deco lines. There is a golden glow to this house, an aura of prosperity, of money spent to make a statement, of owners who care about every decorative detail, from the deep red lacquered dining room table to the perfectly upholstered little chair in the hallway to the up-to-the-minute color scheme.
The house belongs to a dual-career couple in their mid-thirties with money enough to decorate from top to toe, to paint and polish, to restore and redecorate, to have it all. And they have.
But the locale isn't Chevy Chase or Westchester or Beverly Hills. This is the set of "The Big Chill."
And just what are a couple of one-time '60s activists doing with a perfect pastel palette, color-coordinated phones, and up-lights on their sconces?
The answer to that question tracks over issues of sociology, economics and taste from the '60s through the '80s. Witness a conversation between two of the characters in "The Big Chill," old friends who have gathered together for a funeral for one of their own:
"Remember that year when were were all going to get together to buy that property near Saginaw. What ever happened to that?"
"We didn't have any money," answers the homeowner. "That's when property was a crime," recalls the first. WELL, it isn't anymore. And redoing that property -- from simple repainting to elaborate redecorating to serious remodeling -- is an obsession of the '80s.
Things are in. Home funishings shops have proliferated all over the country. The young couple who used to spend a Saturday afternoon gallery-hopping in New York's SoHo district a decade ago is now as likely to continue down to SoHo's burgeoning rows of shops stocked with Art Deco or '50s furniture. In a doctor's waiting room, copies of Esquire or National Geographic now compete with glossy shelter magazines -- Metropolitan Home, House Beautiful, Architectural Digest and the like -- that reflect the current national interest in our homes.
The editors of these magazines are longtime observers of American life styles. JoAnn Barwick, the influential editor of House Beautiful and virtual guru of the home scene, points to the stresses of contemporary work life and the increased number of women in the work place as factors in increased attention to the home. "As the big world out there is colder, and hassles outside the home increase, the rewards of home -- the psychological rewards -- become a lot more important," she says. "I think that's what the home gives you. We are expressing ourselves more personally, and the more personal that expression becomes, the more satisfying. As we are more absent from our homes -- particularly as women go out to work -- when they get home, the appreciation level, and therefore the desire to make it just right, is stronger than ever."
Barwick has observed another phenomenon accompanying the surge of women into the work place that she feels has encouraged more personal expression at home: "People feel more confident about not following the rules," she says. "Particularly women. Because they have achieved so many goals outside the home, they no longer feel that their own home has to please anybody else -- not their neighbor or their mother-in-law. They can be more confident about impressing their own personal taste."
William Bondlow, the publisher of Conde Nast's House & Garden, agrees. Bondlow points to the extensive reshat was done before the magazine went upscale in 1983. Says Bondlow, "We kept hearing about dual-income families, women in the work place, and the baby boomers, and we felt that there was an enormous change taking place in life style and how people lived. We wanted to take a look to see if it was speculation or if it was really happening. Statistically we found that very often both people were working, surging out of the house in the morning, earning money, and looking forward to getting home. Their response wasn't a question of deaccentuating their home environment -- they wanted to get back to it quickly. It was theirs, and under their control, and became a more important statement to make about themselves."
The editors of Metropolitan Home, which started out as Apartment Life, an offbeat, almost alternative home furnishings magazine for the Woodstock generation, also recognized the change in American society and consciously decided to redirect their magazine to the entire baby boom generation. Defining that urban-oriented group somewhat loosely, from about age 25 to 50, they speak to the portion of society that takes a two-income family for granted and that celebrates style for style's sake. "The Woodstock people are the oldest of the baby boomers," says the magazine's editor, Dorothy Kalins. "When they began to see equity as a major factor in their lives, they set the stage for what was to come. The kids who followed them didn't go through the antimaterialism of the '60s because they had to fight harder for jobs. They didn't mess around with the romance of not having things."
But there is a different kind of romance in the air these days. Gone (or at least going) are the stark, modernist interiors of a decade ago. Joan Kron, who helped popularized that look as the coauthor of High-Tech, observes that "it was a minimal time -- black-and-white, high-tech, and a lot of people couldn't relate to that." Recently Kron addressed questions of the psychology behind home decoration in her new book, Home-Psych. She thinks that the current surge of interest in home decors -- although certainly related to the economy -- may also be connected to the more traditional decors that are popular today. "Trends in high design are more decorative, ornamental, more colorful, and people are more comfortable with that," she says. "People in the mainstream are suddenly getting more inspired when they turn to the magazines and see traditional things -- the decorating inspiration they are looking to appeals to them more. They have been given permission that the stuff they love is okay."
Whatever the reasons, there is a fury of redoing and remodeling and redecorating at large in the land. When I first came to Washington nine years ago, having been out of the country for a while, I was happy to hear from a childhood friend I had lost contact with. As we talked on the phone, she enthusiastically anticipated our meeting by saying, "I can't wait to see your husband. And your children. And your house."
"My house," I gasped, picturing its 40-year-old kitchen with linoleum to match, its slapdash paint job, its very unfinished basement. "You don't want to see my house."
Besides, that wasn't the way I saw myself. My values had been shaped in the '60s. "Things" and houses weren't supposed to matter.
Well, times change, and so did I.
And now I know what she means.