In an age of picture-ready and Instagrammable spaces, home tours — documentary photographs of a person’s private quarters — lie at the crux of the internet design world. The explosion of design platforms, along with HGTV and Pinterest, reveals a deep interest in curating picturesque homes that indicate sophisticated taste through their aesthetic. For the past several years, leading websites in design, such as Architectural Digest, New York Times Style Magazine, Apartment Therapy, and Design*Sponge, have published home tours that profile residences belonging to designers, art gallery owners, antique dealers, art critics, and other high-brow tastemakers. The largest of these sites, Architectural Digest, was founded as a print magazine nearly a century ago, in 1920. Today, it boasts more than 2 million followers on Instagram, where it shares teasers from articles and home tours featured on its website.
More recently, the growing trend of eclectic style, which involves the layering of varied pieces and textiles, has heightened the focus on these design professions, given their access to interesting pieces. But the subjects of these home tours are united in more than just their careers. They are overwhelmingly white. Their whiteness, coupled with the eclectic’s movement’s interest in mixing and matching different pieces — from “African” patterned fabrics to Indonesian ikat, Indian embroideries and Persian block-printed fabrics — results in racial boundaries where the nonwhite non-Western world serves as a mass bazaar for scouring beautiful things for white consumption.
I used to spot Isfahani ghalamkar in the photographs with a private exclamation of “Aha! That’s from my parents’ city!” But as I read more, it became clearer that the owners of the ghalamkar fashioned themselves as having a lush and exotic aesthetic, an identity that depended on casting nearly two continents as mysterious and overwhelmingly similar at the same time. Similarly, styles deemed as “Moroccan” or “Middle Eastern” rely on an amalgam of parts that often are unrelated to one another. In these cases, an Orientalist gaze allows these spaces to exist and even deems them as successful examples of design. For example, when Architectural Digest featured a mini tour with Carolina Irving to announce her debut textile collection for the Oscar de la Renta Home Collection in May 2017, AD described her apartment as an “Aladdin’s cave of Islamic tiles, Chinese porcelains, and Persian textiles,” listing the diverse elements of her home decor.
Drawing on the 1992 animated Disney feature and its more recent Broadway production of the fictional tale from 1,001 Nights, AD compares Irving’s Paris apartment to a mythical place — dangerous but brimming with juicy treasures. And that is the intended magic and downfall of the eclectic style: It is meant to transport the viewer (or visitor) to a disconnected, faraway land of magic lamps and hidden jewels. What about the reality of these places? Well, although Irving wants a house everywhere she goes, she tells AD, “I’m not going to live in Uzbekistan or Egypt, but I can fantasize, and that’s good enough for me.” (“Carolina Irving Shares What Inspired the Oscar de la Renta Home Collection,” Architectural Digest.)
These items quite literally serve Irving’s fantasies. While Uzbekistan and Egypt are separated by thousands of miles on two separate continents, Irving is able to name them both in the same breath, because in her mind, they are not that far apart. Instead of being distinct places with their own cultures and products, they morph together, whitewashed and sanitized to create an Aladdin’s cave, a place that doesn’t exist.
But Irving is not alone in her selectively imagined spaces. In another home tour, fashion designer Marie-Ann Oudejans packed her bags and moved to India on a whim. Citing the need for an adventure, she first moved to Delhi, but it was not the thrill she was looking for. She described Delhi, a major metropolis and home to more than 11 million people, as “too large and too loud.” So she then moved to Jaipur, in northern India, a better fit for her fantasy. “It’s a magical place. It’s as you imagine India to be.”
But I imagine India to be bustling place, especially since India has the second-largest population in the world. For Oudejans, however, a truer, more authentic portrait of India involves a picturesque life with monkeys, peacocks, and parrots, all of which happen to live in the garden of her country villa apartment. AD wrote of her transition, “Oudejans, the genius behind the award-winning mid-1990s fashion line Tocca, which featured dresses made of sari cloth, felt right at home.” Unlike Irving, who would not actually consider living in any of the countries she sources her inspiration and livelihood from, Oudejans took the plunge and moved around the world. Except she couldn’t just live anywhere — she had to find a place that fit a fantasy nourished by disembodied descriptions of the region. (“A Fashion Star-Turned-Interior Designer Lives in This Opulent Indian Apartment,” Architectural Digest.)
The commodification of entire countries permeates these home tours. The mishmash of these different designs operates at the very heart of eclectic design, which elects to bring in “Eastern” elements. Consider the home of Stephano Vitali, a Milan-based design dealer, who describes his bedroom as feeling “like a small Chinese theater,” thanks to the incorporation of a pagoda-like motif. (“Look Inside This Furniture Dealer’s Chic Milan Apartment,” Architectural Digest.) Or Veronica Webb, a former Vogue cover girl and international model whose remote Key West mansion incorporates arches and elaborate tile work. When describing her arrival to the style, Webb told AD, “‘I can do Moroccan,’ I said to myself, and I liked the idea of a paradise in isolation from everything.”
Her pursuit of “doing Moroccan” resulted in lavish mansion that AD suggests could be taken for a royal pavilion in Marrakech or Taroudant. AD’s tour notes that her home “reflects the spirit found in the intricacies of French Orientalist paintings of the later 19th century, with their diverse styles of Arab North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East — here mixed with touches of Muslim India.” Ah, yes, French Orientalist paintings, famously inspired by Napoleon’s invasion of Ottoman territories in the late-18th century and later spurred on by harem fantasies of languid odalisques. For all their intricacies, French Orientalist paintings are marked by the one-dimensionality of spaces and people they claim to portray. That is the aesthetic she achieves.
The mansion’s incorporation of architectural elements inspired from across two continents and multiple thousands of miles indicates what cultural motifs are interchangeable in the design world and how whiteness allows designers to mix and match these differing elements. While Webb’s home is lauded as a “Moorish oasis,” homes owned by Iranian immigrants in Beverly Hills, which similarly draw on different architectural designs, have been denounced as “ugly Persian houses.”
Neda Maghbouleh, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, has explored the racial targeting of Iranian-owned homes in Beverly Hills in her book, The Limits of Whiteness (Stanford University Press, 2017). Maghbouleh charts how these “Persian palaces” were mocked as “ugly” or a “freakshow,” with stronger statements such as “the architect should be hung by his testicles and dragged through the streets and stoned just like they do in the Middle East or wherever he’s from!!!”
But what elicited such strong language for a home? Their “impure” combinations of architectural motifs and overall style. As Maghbouleh describes, these homes incorporated Greek classical-style columns next to Italian-inspired gates. The white, non-Iranian residents of Beverly Hills clamored for some design oversight, and the city produced a design catalog that defined the appropriate architecture for the wealthy community, outlining requirements for consistent design elements and the rejection of “mixtures,” which Maghbouleh notes as “a discourse of racial antimiscegenation.”
And yet the leading publication on architectural innovation and interior design, Architectural Digest, embraces the same kinds of mixtures, as long as they make sense in an Orientalist fantasy, “exotic” references to the “Eastern world” that exist only in the European imagination. The height of these styles — “Moroccan,” “Middle Eastern,” and “eclectic”—all reflect a lack of racial literacy that depends on its fanciful recreations of the region for a white audience.
The result? A lack of cultural competency that reduces people of color to their objects, rejecting any meaningful interactions with people and their lived realities. It also privileges designers who cater to white fantasies, boxing in designers of color to the rules and regulations of the broader white community.
The advent of eclectic design and its penchant for a decorative mélange of items has only heightened this effect, seeping into individual relationships between white designers and their clients of color. Just last week, a friend, also of Middle Eastern ancestry, was describing her experience working with white interior designers. She had hired them with hopes of furnishing her 1964 home in line with its midcentury style. The interior designers visited, noted their Iranian and Afghan rugs, and came back with swatches of Indian tapestries and ikat pillowcases for her to choose from in an attempt to elevate the “Middle Eastern” touches of her home.
Despite multiple revisions, her designers continued to return with “ethnic” or “eclectic” options for her and her partner to choose from. “They just didn’t get it. We were incompatible, because these white designers thought people of color are all the same, and that we would want every possible element in our home. But we just wanted a midcentury home, and they couldn’t figure that out.” She sighed, “I didn’t want to live in their idea of a harem.” But maybe if she had, she could be praised for her own Aladdin’s cave in Architectural Digest.