As Americans dutifully sequester themselves, one popular distraction has been the window into other people’s rooms: the glimpses of the domestic habitats of colleagues, celebrities and newscasters that video meetings, Twitter PSAs and home broadcasts are affording us.
The blurry visuals and weird angles have been a tonic for the overwrought environments of Instagram.
But the real thrill is the décor peeping, the code switching signaled by the elegant millwork and beautifully bound classics behind the shoulder of your hoodie-wearing boss; the glossy leaves of a philodendron that derail an entire staff meeting; the animal hide in a new manager’s bedroom. A colleague’s baby. Anderson Cooper’s bookshelves (the gilded bindings, and was that a faux-malachite wall finish?). Every newscaster’s bookshelves. Dan Rather’s swoopy white laminate kitchen and accordion blinds. The bark wallpaper in Jimmy Fallon’s house. Who can concentrate on the endless news?
“Nice friggin’ kitchen!” Sara Sheehan, a producer and documentary filmmaker in Westchester County, New York, blurted out in the middle of a strategy meeting with a male colleague. “Before the call I thought, ‘Oh, young guy. Just starting out. Starter house.’ And then I saw the kitchen. The marble backsplash. The window treatments. I probably should have controlled my response. But your inner voice becomes your outer voice by accident and change of venue.”
It was the grommet curtains in William Brangham’s living room that set off Elaine Griffin, an interior designer in Brunswick, Georgia. It’s a beautiful room, and Griffin was not the first to get bogged down by its details and tune out the reporting delivered by the sober Brangham, a correspondent for PBS. On this night, he was interviewing a hospital chief executive about the shortage of medical supplies and the terrible challenges her workers were facing.
Griffin, briefly, allowed herself an escape. She was clocking the white sofa, and was that a John Robshaw pillow? Was the painting above actually fiber art? It seemed to have a texture to it.
She noted the fireplace and the bookshelves, more elegant than most. So why, Griffin wondered, “does he have the $19.99 panels from Bed Bath & Beyond? Grommet curtains are the drapery equivalent of a No. 1 with fries. He has a fireplace! Why did he cheap out on the curtains?”
With some vehemence, Griffin then delivered a stern tutorial on how to hang curtains: just below the ceiling and at least 4 inches on either side of the window trim, a lesson apparently not followed by Brangham. She then pivoted to the pair of bookshelves flanking the French doors behind Brangham’s head: “You know his ceilings are higher than 8 feet. He’s in a million-dollar townhouse in Georgetown. Like, why don’t they go floor to ceiling?”
When citizens were urged into self-isolation or quarantine 100 years ago, they had but books and letters to comfort them. Now, we peer through the tiny eyes of our smartphones and laptops, and the world peers back. We have all become voyeurs, and critical ones at that.
“We can’t help it,” Griffin said. “We are visual creatures. It’s in our DNA to observe and judge. Everyone from the intern to the guy in the C-suite is having meetings from home. People decorate their homes to please themselves, and now it’s open judging season for folks they would previously have never invited over.”
The other day on MSNBC, correspondent Kasie Hunt was analyzing the $2 trillion aid package, but Ondine Karady, a Manhattan, New York, interior and set designer for “Sex and the City,” among other shows, was fixated on the books over Hunt’s shoulder, which had been grouped by color: one shelf in red, one in blue. Really? Was she telegraphing political objectivity? And if she had taken the time to style those shelves, why hadn’t she done so on the shelves below?
“It’s not that hard to straighten your shelves up if you know you’re going to be on TV every night,” said Karady, who is particularly irritated by what she sees as rampant pundit clutter. “Even Biden’s bookshelves are messy.”
She was charmed, however, by the potted ferns in Walter Isaacson’s elegant New Orleans living room. “Is he watering them himself?” she wondered of Isaacson, a journalist turned historian and biographer.
As playwright Paul Rudnick scans the news, he too has been keeping an eye out for décor tips and “also hints of newscasters’ families, pets and sex dungeons,” he wrote in an email.
The remote couch
Some reveals are poignant: the decorative flourish as psychological tell. Manuel Sosa is a composer who teaches in the precollege program at Juilliard; like many professors, he has been holding his classes in Zoom, a truly confounding environment for a musician because instruments cannot be shared there.
His students are teenagers, and for the first time he is seeing them in their bedrooms, with all the accouterments of childhood — stuffed animals, drawings, robot parts and flower stencils on the walls.
“When they pick up an instrument at school,” Sosa said, “they are so powerful, so mature, and yet from the bedroom you see the child is still there. It is where they rest and sleep, and they are more playful. Even their faces look different. It’s very tender. It’s a reminder to us that they are still kids and we have to safeguard that.”
Among those doing the safeguarding are therapists, of course — professionals who have been working from home since Freud, never good with boundaries, famously disregarded his own edict that the analyst be a tabula rasa, and exposed his patients to his wife’s cooking, his dogs and his collections of African art, among many other stimulating and personal objects. In that space, a sofa was never just a sofa but an occasion for free association, a cue to unconscious thoughts and deeper feelings.
But maybe not now.
Sue Kolod is a psychoanalyst with an office in Manhattan and a second home just north of the city, where she is conducting sessions remotely for the first time, in a light-filled room with a view of the woods. Kolod spoke of “the frame”: a tenet of analysis that dictates that the rules and the setting of the practice be consistent so the patient can turn his focus within.
Now that her frame has changed, her clients are curious.
“They are asking me questions about my room, how I am, where I am. This is a different game,” she said. “Before, I might say, ‘Now why do you ask that?’ I’ve been talking with some of my colleagues, and it just doesn’t seem like the right way to handle it. Like everyone, my patients want to know that I am safe. Some are expressing envy, because many of them are stuck in the city, and also relief that I am OK. But like seeing one’s boss at home for the first time, it’s just going to amplify whatever feelings you had before, and I am assuming that patients seeing me in this environment is also going to evoke more of the same. In analysis, it’s all grist for the mill.”
Even someone not in analysis can grasp that these peeks at other people’s private lives, albeit against the backdrop of a pandemic, evoke all sorts of emotions: admiration, sympathy, envy or perhaps just a mild wistfulness for a more innocent time.
Sherry Turkle, a professor of social science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author, most recently, of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” was at home recently in Boston pondering the optics of Anderson Cooper’s library, Seth Meyers’ landing and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s vibrant striped curtains, and the photos — were those his parents? — on the composer’s piano.
“This is a moment for people to be in authentic places, and we need that kind of authenticity,” Turkle said. “People are reaching in. They are not polishing their avatars.”
Even Cooper’s plush library, with its “Venetian tones,” as she described it, and shelves of rare books, moved her.
“I don’t think I would have cared if I didn’t care about him,” she said. “For me he has been a truth teller. Some kind of screen is down because he’s showing you where he lives. He’s saying, ‘Yeah, I make many millions a year. It’s not a hovel. Everything you thought was right. I do have beautiful taste, and I love beautiful things. This is what nurtures me.’ ”