Do You Have House as a Work Of Art Syndrome?

house as a work of art syndrome
A homeowner who mistook their living space for the Met in New York. Source

I’ll never forget one night I was out on the town for a business dinner with some financiers from Wall Street and learned about ‘house as a work of art syndrome’. They ordered two $150 cheesesteaks at a time I had never heard of a sandwich that cost more than $20.  The conversation meandered between the professional and the personal. I got to find out how much you pay in taxes on a $3 million bonus and how difficult it was to find a good private preschool in NYC. One of the young men at the table confessed to the group that he was moving in with his girlfriend, and they had been to a home decor boutique where she had picked out some curtains that cost thousands of dollars.  The other guys at the table said just wait, that curtains were only the beginning. He could look forward to spending a huge chunk of his paycheck on paintings, interior design, and fancy furniture. The decoration expenses of Wall Street traders are certainly beyond a typical American experience, however I am as incredulous at the average family’s view of home furnishing and decoration as you might be at these financiers. We as a nation have an affliction where we think of a house as a work of art, and this view must change if we ever hope to get out of financial misery.

How We Used to Live as a Family Unit

house as a work of art syndrome
Humans’ view of a ‘good home’ before hardwood floors became a thing. Source

Thousands of years ago, we lived in caves. The job of a home was to give us protection from the elements. We wanted it to keep us and our possessions dry and warm. Our home needed to provide a base from which to hunt and forage for food while raising vulnerable young children. Once we developed the ability to cultivate crops and livestock, we needed a new concept of a home, so we developed houses out of wood, mud, and whatever else happened to be laying around.

Wealth has drastically expanded since then. Eventually civilizations like the Romans developed rigid social structures with a clear upper class. The bigger and more beautiful your villa, the higher your peers held you in esteem. Later on, nobles in Europe built castles both to defend their realms and to serve as a differentiating asset from the lowly, landless peasants.

After the industrial revolution was in full swing and the middle class had been firmly established, excess wealth was all over the place. A family could afford to go on vacation, spend a ridiculous amount of money on a wedding, and even buy a model T to drive around town. A large part of the surplus money available to American families started going into making them look “beautiful.”

House as a Work of Art Syndrome Begins to Take Hold

house as a work of art syndrome
Once freed from life as agrarian farmers, we started building impractical houses like this Victorian mansion Source

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, we can really see houses start to become less practical and more decorative, even among regular middle class people. The more flourishes you had in the design the better. The Victorian period was renowned for its beautiful architecture, but think about how we define beauty. Middle class workers finally had excess wages to not live in wage slavery to their employers, and they spent it on fancy housing, among other things.

Walk around your city’s historical district and look at the buildings made in the late 1800s. If you have any still standing from the early 1800s or even late 1700s, you will notice that the buildings go from very simple and practical to very intricate and more expensive. Architectural history shows us how our country grew in wealth and decided to spend it decorating our homes.

Suburb developments in the ’50s focused on mass producing houses that appealed to aesthetic tastes. Despite the counterculture movement of the ’60s and ’70s, the American McMansion headlined the American dream well into the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. Rather than be happy with a very simple and inexpensive dwelling, the push for bigger and better houses for every family contributed to the greatest financial disaster since the Great Depression in 2008.

The Pinterest Industrial Complex

house as a work of art syndrome
I typed in ‘pinterest living room decoration’ and found this. It screams “I have too much money and time on my hands.” Source

Since the invention of Pinterest and Instagram, ridiculous spending on home decoration and furnishing has absolutely exploded. No longer can you go to Ikea and come home with a regular piece of furniture at a reasonable price. Heaven help you if you go to Goodwill and buy a coffee table for $10. You need to go to Anthropologie and buy one of their fake aged $500 coffee tables or else your home isn’t vintage. I once saw an old soda fountain machine to be used solely for home decor that they were trying to sell for $20,000. You could have a car, or you could have a useless piece of ‘pretty’ wood, your choice.

Foolish spending on home beautification is gender neutral. While women stereotypically care about pretty floors and nice cabinets, men are even worse when it comes to electronic bells and whistles like home entertainment systems, garage door openers, man caves, and wet bars. Men might also be more prone to wanting an exceptionally large sized house.

A Home is a Place to Live, Not an Art Museum

‘House as a work of art syndrome’ is easy to develop because it is embedded in our minds by popular culture. Whenever a friend posts gorgeous pictures of his or her kitchen or mentions that they are buying art for their bedroom, you feel social pressure to make your own home better. When we lived in caves, it was about survival. When we worked in factories, it was about saving enough to not work seven days a week. Now that we earn middle class incomes we want to appear successful to our peers and engage in a beautification war.

I’m not saying that there is no place for taste in home decoration. A little bit of consumerism in moderation is fine. After all, I would probably even admit I enjoy living in a pretty space instead of an ugly one. However, even middle class families spending on this home decor category is out of control. We spend hundreds of dollars on a recliner just because. Somehow we have decided that a frivolous purchase like $1,000 curtains is justifiable. Dark hardwood floors are now a must have and worth paying an extra $500 a month in rent.

If you love a painting or photo, go to Fedex Kinko’s and get a high quality print and frame it. If you like old looking furniture, check out Goodwill or your local thrift store for a unique piece. If you want new curtains, look at Amazon for some neat designs and stick to a budget when you buy them.

I believe that by stripping down your home to the bare essentials and a few nice to haves, you can gain freedom in life that few ever taste. You can travel the world, quit your job for a while, try starting a new business, or even spend more time with kids or friends. You have to jump off the consumerism treadmill and fight back against the Pinterest industrial complex. Think about minimalism and what downsizing into a smaller apartment might look like. Most Americans have ‘house as a work of art syndrome.’ I love art, but I prefer to go support my local art museum and see the master works on the cheap while I free up my money to make me happier elsewhere.

What design or decor spending do you think is justifiable? Should you put aside a certain amount of money to make your spouse happy? Are pretty curtains worth the high cost? Comment below!

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