Liberating Our Homes From the Real Estate–Industrial Complex

Liberating Our Homes From the Real Estate–Industrial Complex

Liberating Our Homes From the Real Estate–Industrial Complex

Having a personal aesthetic at home has become financially detrimental.

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For the last six years, I have been running the architecture blog McMansion Hell, which highlights the most ridiculous examples of bloated, nouveau riche residential architecture in the United States. When I began the blog in 2016, the Internet was rife with prime examples of genuinely weird specimens. However, in the last couple of years, particularly since the onset of the pandemic, it has become more and more difficult to find unique houses—houses with interiors that exhibit the true whimsy of people for whom money is no issue. In their place are empty, vast rooms painted gray, wood floors replaced by what’s already being recognized in social media circles as a new “landlord special” flooring type: beige-gray (greige) laminate. When there is furniture in these rooms, the furniture itself is white, gray, or greige. The rugs are white or extremely muted colors. Occasionally, you’ll see some pastels or other earth tones thrown in—or the obligatory HGTV “pop of color” in the form of a cushion or poster—but the trend is overwhelmingly gray. Some rooms are so colorless one wonders if the photograph itself is in grayscale.

Back in the day, there used to be more distinction between the aesthetics of the ruling class and those of everyone else. But much like how tech billionaires walk around wearing Patagonia vests and khakis instead of Hugo Boss suits, the modern manse isn’t so different from the midrange new construction offerings from mass builders like Ryan or Pulte Homes. In this architecture critic’s view, this is a shame, as aesthetic eccentricity is one of the only things that make wealthy people even remotely interesting. Of course, anyone who’s been house- or apartment-hunting recently knows that the greige problem extends far beyond the petite bourgeoisie. (Working-class listings still tend to have a great deal more variance; it costs significant time and money to purge one’s house of unique possessions and paint every wall the same color.) The problem is so extensive that if you were to take a prototypical McMansion Hell sample from Zillow’s results, i.e., any suburban county, sorted by price from high to low, you’d likely find that more than 60 percent of first-page results have been greigeified. The same could be said about any other form of lucrative real estate: condos in major cities, recently flipped apartments, and, of course, new construction. The greigification is so pervasive that it’s even become a meme. The question is: Why?

Greige is stubbornly difficult to historicize. A recent Guardian article on the color cites everything from the minimalist aesthetics of the tech industry, Goethe’s derision of bright colors in his 1810 Theory of Color, IKEA’s popularization of Scandinavian modernism, and Kim Kardashian as potential influences. The same article claims that popular shades of greige have topped paint color charts for at least 12 years. This places them at the beginning of the recovery from the 2008 recession, a time when gilded, pseudo-European interiors painted in earth tones like olive and beige were associated with mid-aughts excess. 2010 was also a time when the so-called “urban renaissance” picked up steam in cities around the world. Modernism made a comeback. Mad Men was on TV, followed, in 2013, by Fixer Upper, the Waco, Tex.–based hit reno show that ushered in the era of “farmhouse modernism,” clean, sparse, often gray interiors mixed with folksy rustic accents.

But I would posit that something more important than pop cultural fervor also began to take place: the reorganization of the real estate industry away from traditional vectors—television shows and magazines—toward the Internet. The industry’s platformification through outlets like Zillow and Redfin very quickly shifted home viewing away from in-person visitation toward online browsing. Prior to these listing aggregators, looking at real estate online required trawling through multiple listing services or visiting a realtor’s website directly. Both methods were clunky to use and not easily searchable or filtered. Start-ups like Zillow, which began by crawling these other websites and reposting listings to a central source, offered powerful tools for search and comparison. Mass aggregation of listings allowed potential buyers to compare properties from different brokers and firms side by side, granting them access to more listings than ever before. Realtors, in turn, made use of more detailed data about what exactly sells—among not only their own listings but also those of their competitors. If, for example, more neutrally styled houses were selling better among similar listings in the same area, it follows that realtors faced increased pressure to encourage sellers to neutralize their own houses.

This logic was already in place during the heyday of the aughts, when HGTV programmed show after show about how making simple changes like painting interiors and changing finishes added significant value to the selling price of a house. (Designed to Sell is an emblematic example.) It’s a realtor adage that a neutral interior with unobtrusive furniture allows buyers to imagine their own life in a space, whereas a highly customized, eccentric interior is a deterrent—after all, people have different tastes. All of this is a broader symptom of the increasing commodification of the very notion of a dwelling: The home is no longer seen as a space of personal expression or comfort, or as the backdrop of everyday life, but primarily as an investment and as an asset—meaning that enforcing one’s aesthetics is a financially detrimental decision. Those with the capital to become homeowners (already a diminishing segment of the public) conceive of their houses as being for selling before they even live a day in them. That financialization logically reached its apex in the 2000s-era transformation of houses into junk credit default swaps—literal, intangible illiquid capital—with devastating consequences. The often predatory practice of house and apartment flipping continues in the same vein, attended, in turn, by its own litany of pop culture enablers (Flip or Flop, Fixer Upper, etc.).

The shift away from in-person showings to online browsing only accelerated during the pandemic, along with another emerging phenomenon: virtual staging, the use of 3-D modeling to stage a house instead of stagers bringing in actual furniture. Virtual staging originated around 2008; however, advancements in modeling technology have only recently made it viable and popular. As a practice it creates uncanny-valley listings that hover on the border between the real and the contrived—more and more so as the technology improves—but also saves sellers thousands of dollars in staging fees. Necessary to the success of virtual staging is a certain type of real estate photography: high-res, over-lit, and HDR-heavy. HDR, or high dynamic range, combines multiple photos taken at different lighting settings into a composite image, creating pictures where different lighting sources are blended together—for example, the pendant lights over a kitchen island glow warmly at the same time as sunlight from the window forms a baseline layer of uniform light, thus creating a spacious-seeming room with few shadows. HDR is a photographic artifice distinct from how we see light and shadow in real life. These settings, plus other developments in post-production techniques—walls can be straightened despite the use of wide-angle lenses, colors enhanced, items removed—all serve to create abnormally uniform, smooth images. Sometimes these post-processing effects are so effective, it is almost impossible to distinguish virtually staged houses, usually sussed out by abnormal shadows or too-smooth fabric surfaces, from traditionally staged ones.

If you look at real estate photography blogs from the mid-2000s, more emphasis is placed on the composition of the photo, the positioning of the photographer in the room, the use of flash and physical reflectors to achieve desired changes in light, and little tricks like shelving away too-bold furniture that dominates a space above post-production techniques. This is partially because those techniques were still clunky at the time; think 2012 Instagram filters versus what’s possible now thanks to artificial intelligence and overall sheer computing power. Of course, there has always been a hint of exaggeration to real estate photography—and all photography, which is itself a creative simulacra of real life.

A unique twist central to the why of greigification is that the neutral gray colors are integral to this new post-digital kind of unreality. The more uniform the color, the easier it is to apply postproduction features without them looking contrived, and the easier it is to drop in virtual furniture, as the even, diffuse light enhanced by gray as a color helps soften the edges of the virtual furniture, blending them into “reality.” The light in these photos does not appear to come from any specific direction, so the weird shadows “cast” by 3-D furniture don’t seem too out of place. It is entirely possible thanks to the significant expenses saved by eliminating physical staging that greige might not be done with us, even though we seem to be done with it.

It makes sense that we’re experiencing greige fatigue because, well, it’s been 10 years or more of the stuff. Trends have a shelf life, and this one is no exception. A more interesting question is: What comes after greige? HGTV itself has gotten more bold in its latest offerings, the monotone interiors shifting more toward an eclectic mix of bohemian chic and mid-century modern, albeit still with white backsplashes, marble countertops, and gray floors. Elle Décor has had a soft spot for maximalism since I was last a subscriber in the mid 2010s. Even Marie Kondo has moved past minimalism.

However, if we really want to move past interior conformity, we have to think about housing and home in a radically different way. The house has a use value and an exchange value, and as long as capitalism has governed our world, the exchange value has reigned supreme, affecting everything from housing scarcity to aesthetic homogeneity in the pursuit of profit. The reality is, most of us don’t live in perfectly staged houses. We live in kinda shitty walk-up apartments stuffed to the gills with our own personalities. Those never make it on HGTV. If we as a society liberate our homes from the real estate–industrial complex, if we start viewing them not as investment assets but as canvases for creativity and self-expression—regardless of what others think about, say, lime green walls—then greige is definitely done for. When housing itself is seen as a human right, when it is freed from the tendrils of capital, then, and only then, will our walls and floors and kitchen countertops be free. And even then, you can still paint them greige if you really want to.

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