The American Room - Behind the nation’s closed doors, with YouTube.
July 30, 2014 1:48 PM   Subscribe

It’s a standardized room. "Like Diet Coke or iPhones, American rooms are a kind of product, built as quickly and cheaply as possible to a standardized specification. " Article describing the standard American room as viewed through youtube videos.
posted by amitai (51 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

life happens against a backdrop of intersecting off-white walls


And for a lot of us, cube walls, too. Though I don't see a lot of Utu videos filmed within the confines of a cube maze as a regular feature.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 1:54 PM on July 30

That's one ginormous plate o' beans there.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:55 PM on July 30 [5 favorites]

there's a lot of really good observations, though; one thing I don't like about "beanplating" as a phrase is the implication that beanplating isn't a useful or smart thing to do.

Like, just the observation early on that the American Room shows how broke we are — we're stuck using superstandardized components for everything, because we can't afford anything else — even just that was worth the price of admission1. The essay gets better from there.

1: for values of "price of admission" equal to "time spent reading the article."
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:03 PM on July 30 [4 favorites]

The one thing I hate the most about apartment living is the white walls/white carpet, the gaudy trim used every where, and nothing is colored. Like, who the fuck picked these?
posted by hellojed at 2:09 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

....has he considered the possibility that people are renting apartments where the lease says they can't paint?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:11 PM on July 30

The house I'm renting currently has a 'no holes in the wall' clause in the lease and it makes me so sad I can't hang anything and all I can see is beige.
posted by Strass at 2:12 PM on July 30

Yes the essay mentions how many of these are likely rented apartments or dorms or otherwise other non-customizable places.
posted by The Whelk at 2:13 PM on July 30

Weird. The book quoted in the article states:
But once standard building materials, such as (in the United States) 2 × 4s, and 4 foot × 8 foot sheets of plasterboard were made available, the variation in the height of ceilings was sharply reduced

But, I used to deliver building supplies. I spent a whole year delivering sheetrock. There wasn't a jobsite anywhere that worked in 4x8 sheets. It was all 4x12s.

And 2x4x8 are almost never used. 92 5/8" 2x4 what you find. Ok, so those are details, right ? Except, almost all the places I delivered to - and again, this was 1995 - worked in 9 foot ceilings, with 104 5/8" studs. It was rare to deliver a unit of 92 inch studs.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:16 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

Toothpaste does a pretty good job filling small holes in apartment-beige paint.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:16 PM on July 30 [5 favorites]

There wasn't a jobsite anywhere that worked in 4x8 sheets. It was all 4x12s.

Yeah, but no-one's installing them vertically, they're doing two courses of staggered horizontal.

The house I'm renting currently has a 'no holes in the wall' clause in the lease and it makes me so sad I can't hang anything and all I can see is beige.

All my apartments have had this rule and I've just done it anyway every time. No huge holes, just little wire nails for pictures and stuff, but easily fixed with spackle and I've never been charged anything.
posted by LionIndex at 2:22 PM on July 30

Heads up, this gets a little more NSFW-ish in the middle than you might expect for a Medium article that starts out talking about lumber and drywall.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:25 PM on July 30 [3 favorites]

Such an unpromising topic, but the article blew me away. Now I'm feeling weird about my walls.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:25 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

I really don't get the fetish for painting walls different colors. Maybe it's looking at too many real estate ads where people painted things hideous colors.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:29 PM on July 30

I've definitely noticed this on some level. But I'm not wondering why the walls are white. I'm wondering where all the bookshelves are. Also, I feel like there's an element of poor lighting involved -- any default shade of white will look terrible with crappy lighting (or normal lighting that isn't designed for shooting video), which is usually the case in these videos.

Toothpaste does a pretty good job filling small holes in apartment-beige paint.

Actual spackle does an much better job, and is almost as cheap.

For bonus points, places like Lowes will color-match a paint sample for a few bucks so you can run a little mini foam-roller over the spackle, making it a nearly undetectable crime.
posted by pie ninja at 2:31 PM on July 30 [3 favorites]

Strass: The house I'm renting currently has a 'no holes in the wall' clause in the lease and it makes me so sad I can't hang anything and all I can see is beige.

Removable adhesive wall-hanging hooks work pretty well for anything that isn't heavy.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:33 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

If I look out at the room I'm in right now, it looks a lot like the Big Bang Theory shot in the article: windows, chairs, shelves and tables stacked with crap. (Sadly, my room is less tidy.) If I were to turn on my webcam and start broadcasting, you wouldn't see any of that. You'd be looking where I don't, at the bare white wall behind my back.
posted by eruonna at 2:45 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

There are lots of ways to make lease-protected, apartment-white walls not suck. You can, as others have suggested, hang things as you like and spackle the holes at move-out. You can also do things like covering an accent wall in fabric (itty thumb tack holes at the top and bottom would be easily hidden). You can even lean large paintings, or wood panels (covered in paint or fabric) against walls for pops of color.

Down with boring walls and sad spaces. Down with rooms that feel like the insides of Styrofoam containers. Down with ridiculous lease stipulations which have the effect of creating spaces seemingly designed and maintained to never feel like homes.

Up with spackle, 3M Command adhesive hooks, double-sided tape, large, unframed paintings, open shelving, fresh flowers, interesting knickknacks. Up with evidence of human lives lived by real live humans.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 2:49 PM on July 30 [8 favorites]

So we have actually started thinking about buying a house, and started looking at things on for research. Here is what I have learned; everyone appears to have the same taste. Highlights include:

1. A giant metal star in a circle, hung on a wall. (this is a Texas thing, I'm pretty sure. They are everywhere down here)
2. A collection of faux-folk (faulk?) or faux wrought-iron, crosses, hung on a wall together. Supposed to look like a "collection" but I am 99% sure you buy them in a kit.
3. Decals or painted "inspirational phrases"
4. Leather couches and recliners.
5. If they do paint the walls non-white, it is a dark and jarring color that fights whatever color wood their furniture is.
6. Ugly-ass curtains.
7. Bed frames that aim for a sort of massive-wood-and-iron look. Is it copying some sort of Southwestern/New Mexico aesthetic? I don't know, but apparently they sell them by the truckload at local furniture stores.
8. Girl rooms in princess themes.
9. Random borders of wallpaper on the tops of painted walls. Does this ever look good?

I share the article writers' ambivalence, though, about people like the couple who do Young House Love, because the work that goes into making your house look so bright and clean and pretty and uncluttered by the detrius of life seems staggering to me.

My own house is decorated in thrift-store weirdness, but then we're still renters. I might be motivated to upgrade my furniture if I knew it wasn't get schlepped onto a moving truck every 4 years.
posted by emjaybee at 2:51 PM on July 30 [3 favorites]

Heads up, this gets a little more NSFW-ish in the middle than you might expect for a Medium article that starts out talking about lumber and drywall.

Yeah, I scrolled past Diaper Dude right about the time my coworker came by to chat.
posted by emjaybee at 2:54 PM on July 30 [5 favorites]

Except, almost all the places I delivered to - and again, this was 1995 - worked in 9 foot ceilings, with 104 5/8" studs. It was rare to deliver a unit of 92 inch studs.

What you still won't have is any variation room to room, except maybe for a double height great room. Older techniques (slower, more expensive per square foot, and requiring more skilled labor) allowed for variable dimensions without having that drive costs up enormously. There are a lot of benefits to modern building techniques but the aesthetic uniformity is not one of them.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:55 PM on July 30

One thing I like about watching cat videos is seeing other peoples' spaces. Because the videos they post are usually spontaneous (omg kitten just did something cute!), you can see how people really live, what crap they have laying about, did they decorate, etc. (Plus omg kitten just did something cute!)
posted by sfkiddo at 3:05 PM on July 30 [8 favorites]

We have a lot of art on the walls, but if I'm going to skype with someone or make a video to send them, I always go to where there's a blank white wall behind me because I don't want someone watching to focus on my stuff. While I think the article has a lot of merit, I am not sure I agree with the methodology - I don't know whether it's fair to say that all those videos are representative of their home decor - especially when so many people are shooting from phones or laptops, which have the benefit of letting you choose your background.
posted by Mchelly at 3:06 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

As a side note, Paul Ford is almost singlehandedly rescuing Medium from mediocrity.
posted by jeremias at 3:11 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

I have a congenital architectural hang-up in that I was lucky enough to be born to parents with a combined love of lovely old things and a back-to-the-land impulse that had them move from Baltimore to Scaggsville, Maryland when I was two, and I grew up in a two hundred year-old log house with foot-thick walls, ceilings low enough that my mid-eighties whuffed-up mullet often brushed them as I flounced angrily around in my blustery teenhood, and a 1913 addition. The house, along with enough land for the quarter acre garden that fed us in the seventies, sold for the princely sum of twenty-thousand dollars, which scandalized my grandparents, even as they chipped in to help us get established there. We stripped all the painted trim and moldings, refinishing everything to varnished woodgrain, and knocked out the horsehair plaster in the family room to reveal the original log structure.

My friends, by and large, lived in mid-sixties ranch houses on the land that had long since been subdivided off the farm property that our log farmhouse had once commanded, or in newer, fancier builds in the horrid subdivision up the street that was ironically dubbed Cardinal Forest, despite its having destroyed all the actual cardinal habitat and driven billowing hordes of scarlet refugees into nearby Laurel, where I now live.

They had new furniture, beige everything, and giant television sets, horrid little clamshell kick moldings on their hollow-feeling walls, a swirled, peaky plaster nightmare overhead, occasionally spiced up with glitter, and wall-to-wall gold-colored semi-shag over every floor like a flood of deli mustard instead of our splintery pine tongue and groove. Most had swanky finished basements with built-in bars wrapped in paper-thin paneling and accented with hideous cheap British bar-back's bric-a-brac and recessed fishtanks lurid with neon tetras, but they all, to a one, were places I visited with reluctance and no need for my mother's back porch hollering of my name.

Their homes all stank of laundry detergent, air fresheners, and nylon, and I'd play aimlessly with my best friend's Stretch Armstrong while attempting to get him to remove his pants, and it was all as much a horror movie to me as Night Of The Living Dead—all that ticky-tacky mess.

My home, on the other hand, was smaller, and cluttered with family antiques and worthy objects my parents had brought in, with a twelve-inch black & white TV instead of the huge ivory-colored Mediterranean-style sets other families had, but the walls just felt…alive, like there was a buried heart beating out the slow decades just off-step from the modern world.

On my own, I've lived in ruinous converted basements, bland 1940s apartments that had been painted over and over until the electric outlets looked like pigs trying to push their way through the wall, and even in an abandoned industrial chicken house on a disused corner of an immense agricultural research center, but in each of the few times I ended up trapped in a beigeland oubliette, I'd never get comfortable, and never feel at home, and would end up with my skin crawling for flight to somewhere warm and solid, with a heartbeat.

I suspect I'm a snob, or some sort of superannuated prototype of what they now call hipsters, albeit without the resulting momentum of cool, and that my privilege shows in how I grew up, despite not coming of age with anywhere near the wealth my classmates and peers had, and so I've developed a facility for evasive answers when I've been along for the ride on househunting trips with friends and family.

I just have to tell myself, over and over, it's okay, you don't have to live here.

I landed in my current apartment in 1988, and it was the first whole apartment that I had all to myself. The previous tenant had lived here for twenty years, and moved into the next apartment over with all her terrifying hoardy nightmare crap, and I got her compact place of two smallish rooms, a tiny kitchen, and a small bathroom, which was all the exact color of beige semi-gloss from 1979 dyed a lush cancerous brown by a decade of Kools and clouds of acrid gingivitis fumes, with windows that matched. I washed the windows until they looked like glass again, washed down the walls, and painted the place a nice flat white, thinking of Le Corbusier's rule about rooms.

Overnight, the walls repainted themselves beige, the mustard gas film of a million cigarettes bringing Lady Macbeth's damn spot back into being.

I painted them again.

The beige returned.

I scrubbed everything, sanded out previous paint, invoked wicked solvents and unholy chemicals, and managed to get white.

White, though, is just beige that has yet to learn about loss and longing, so it only lasted a year before I painted my whole apartment orangey-pink. It's been orangey-pink ever since. For a time, I made a concerted effort to correct opinions of its orangey-pinkness by pointing out that it is, in fact, terra cotta, but it's been twenty-four years and it's orangey-pink as a piglet with a spray tan, so I just shrug and concede. Every room is the same orangey-pink, semi in the damp spaces, tying the place together into a unified environment that merged perfectly with the Eno that is almost always playing at the edge of perception.

I have been through college and careers, through several owners in the interim, keeping my rent down by being the on-site manager and building super and I managed to talk my ex into buying the place the last time it came up for sale, and I've decided twenty-four years was about the right amount of orangey-pink, so I'm daydreaming of new colors for the now me.

My contemporaries have all had lives and careers and marriages and have moved hither and yon, and I wonder, sometime, if I had their ability to set foot into some shitty, shitty beige standardized realtor's unit of habitation without feeling little off-balance and queasy, if maybe I'd be more inclined to be out in the world and social, but good lord—there are actually people out there that still have those fucking pillow-back sofas. The world is a beige and soulless place, and it reeks of Tide and dryer sheets and Glade.

I don't have to wonder, though, if the sentiment is returned, because I can recognize that little crinkled bridge of the nose that comes when someone who lives in modern suburbia comes visiting, finding my place as temporarily charming as an olde curiosity shoppe or a dime museum, but eventually finding it stifling with texture and the dusty accumulation of twenty-six years of my chasing after the heart of the world. I have friends of all political stripes, but the biggest divide is the beige versus the anti-beige. I don't know how people survive all that drywall and all that beige and the overwhelming defaultness of it all.

God help 'em if they also have decorative floral and/or American flag-themed wallpaper borders everywhere. God help 'em all.

I guess it takes all kinds.
posted by sonascope at 3:41 PM on July 30 [41 favorites]

This thread is very weird to me and confirms my sense of how much MetaFilter has changed over the years. It would seem that nobody but jeremias (who's been here even longer than me) knows who Paul Ford is or remembers Ftrain (the subject of a very early MeFi post by mathowie himself). The author isn't named in the post or in the tags. It's as if it was some random blog post by some random blogger. I dunno. Sic transit, I guess. But he used to be well known around these parts. (Does anybody here remember laughter Kottke?)
posted by languagehat at 3:49 PM on July 30 [11 favorites]

I know who he is. Mefi user 4021, the creator of this recipe for fried socks.
posted by thelonius at 3:52 PM on July 30 [4 favorites]

there are two kinds of people in america, those who live in units and those who don't.
posted by at 4:23 PM on July 30

> Overnight, the walls repainted themselves beige, the mustard gas film of a million cigarettes bringing
> Lady Macbeth's damn spot back into being.

posted by jfuller at 4:44 PM on July 30 [3 favorites]

I wish I could find a citation for this, but I can't. Nevertheless: I recall hearing, I believe from the instructor of a GIS class I took a few years back, that the piece of data that best predicts which political party an American will vote for is the age of the building they live in. The older the building, the lefter the voter. Although there are a bunch of other things that more or less clearly predict how someone will vote (race/ethnicity, gender, orientation, income level, urban/suburban/rural, churchgoer/non-churchgoer, renter/homeowner, etc.), and although several of those indicators themselves correlate with living in newer or older buildings, age of building lived in is nevertheless the most reliable indicator.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 5:21 PM on July 30 [8 favorites]

That photo of the Big Bang Theory living room makes me claustrophobic. I enjoy simple living spaces and not drowning in a sea of shitty knick-knacks.
posted by makonan at 5:34 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

Most sitcom living rooms are hideously over decorated. Roseanne's was the only realistic, tacky, cluttered one I ever saw.
posted by emjaybee at 5:55 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

Set decoration is like stage makeup, it has different goals than the real life equivalent and shouldn't be substituted for it.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:00 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

You guys, the Pintrest observation:

Look at that “Gallery Wall” image in the second column. That wall is organized in the very same way as Pinterest: Rectangles on an uneven grid tightly juxtaposed.

dang, I never even noticed that parallel.
posted by postcommunism at 6:52 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

You can't tip a Buick: sounds like a colinearity problem to me. What happens when they stick Tikhonov regularization on it?
posted by curuinor at 7:08 PM on July 30 [3 favorites]

I only clicked because it was Ford.

Still pretty amazed that after three years of people raving about David Shaprio/PRR, no one ever mentions Gary Benchley.

He's a little wide on the impact of CAD, and materials sizing in detail, but his broad point about how much that drives design decisions (but fails to note the impact of FHA regs/appraisals/HOAs from the other side) is still valid.
posted by 99_ at 7:44 PM on July 30

We own our own house but it's a bitch to hang anything on the walls because they're almost all just plaster right over brick so there's no studs to nail into and you need a high-powered drill and a masonry bit to make a hole in the wall.
posted by octothorpe at 7:56 PM on July 30

You could judge those rooms and say that America has a paucity of visual imagination, that we live in a kind of wasteland. Or you could draw another conclusion, and note that America might be a little more broke than it wants to show. The painfully expensive 2,000-square foot home is furnished with cheap big sofas and junk from Target. Maybe these video stars don’t hang pictures because they are renters. Maybe they know they are going to move soon, to another part of the state or country; suburbs are the temporary worker housing for America
Paul Ford is part of the NYC posse of early bloggers - including Leslie Harpold and they where part of a period when the internet was still a giant "what if....". Like what if you got emails from dead people.
posted by zenon at 8:32 PM on July 30

Note: that's a link to a piece by Fanning, perhaps I heard it from Ford. It's very short. And still amuses me. And Gary Benchley! That was serialized over at morning news.
posted by zenon at 10:12 PM on July 30

Every room in my house is painted a different non-beige color, every wall has art on it, and every ceiling is at a different height. I am lefter than left and the house is 124 years old. I don't post videos to YouTube.

I'm sure there's some connection among these facts.
posted by caryatid at 10:21 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

Caryatid, all of that could be said for my parents and their home, only theirs is 95 years old and my dad considers himself to be a card carrying conservative (though he's pretty moderate for Alabama). I don't think politics has anything to do with it.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:38 PM on July 30

You can't tip a Buick: sounds like a colinearity problem to me. What happens when they stick Tikhonov regularization on it?
posted by curuinor

... or we could just reverse the polarity of the main reflector dish and see what that does for us.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:44 PM on July 30

1. deflector dish
2. The deflector dish would totally be L1-penalized regression
3. I apparently have strong feelings about how Star Trek technobabble should map onto statistics technobabble
posted by en forme de poire at 12:29 AM on July 31 [2 favorites]

I'm wondering where all the bookshelves are.

I had occasion to be in the apartment upstairs from mine a few weeks ago, when my neighbor was having a loud party late at night. Everything looked wrong because his apartment was exactly the same as mine but with no bookshelves.
posted by madcaptenor at 5:20 AM on July 31 [3 favorites]

I'm wondering where all the bookshelves are.

In the words of one of our great American sages:

If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck 'em!

—John Waters

I once dated a librarian, and he had a neat old loft in Baltimore with cool artwork and a mountain bike hanging hiply on a hook and excellent furniture in a mix of thrift scores and MCM outside the usual boring standards and a giant wall of windows that looked out on the helicopter landing pad for Shock Trauma, but he didn't have a bookshelf and didn't keep books around, which just gave me the jittering red flag willies (to be fair, I am, at times, a human incarnation of a red flag and I was even harder to date then than I am now).

Still, the concept of a librarian for whom book ownership was not important was so confusing to me that I just never could make a firm connection.

But sheesh. I'm a lifelong member of the poors and I've got thousands of books, purchased from thrift stores and used book stores and yard sales and library sell-offs, because books.
posted by sonascope at 6:32 AM on July 31 [3 favorites]

Still, the concept of a librarian for whom book ownership was not important was so confusing to me that I just never could make a firm connection.

Perhaps he was a librarian who believed in book borrowing instead of ownership? I joke, but I've gotten rid of probably 60 or 70 percent of my books over the last two years and next time I move will get rid of another batch. I have access to two good library systems plus full academic access, so at this point the only books I need to keep in the house are books that are unobtainable otherwise, books that themselves are beautiful or are memorabilia (art books, or written by a family member), or something I'm planning to reread soon.

They make nice wall art, especially when people arrange them by color, but I've found it nicely freeing to slowly release them into the world.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:43 AM on July 31

I think that's probably parallel to the difference between owning records/CDs/mp3s versus getting all your music from streaming services. It's fine and futuristic and all, but I'd be loath to be stuck in dependence on the kindness of strangers and corporations, myself. I use my local and university libraries constantly, but if a book I borrow sticks with me enough for revisiting, I want it in my own library. I also like the idea of authors making at least a little money from the sale of their book instead of just selling it once and having it read a thousand times.

That thing of books arranged by color, though—ugh.
posted by sonascope at 6:58 AM on July 31 [2 favorites]

You rang?

(I agree it would be difficult to maintain long term in a retail environment.)
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 11:06 AM on July 31

Yeah I had no idea the blog author was a dude from here sorry everybody :( you can see from my profile I'm not exactly active. Just saw this blog and thought it's the kind of thing y'all would enjoy reading.
posted by amitai at 11:23 AM on July 31

You did fine. The topic of decor itself is interesting (if this current Askme and its responses are anything to go by).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:29 AM on July 31

It would seem that nobody but jeremias (who's been here even longer than me) knows who Paul Ford is or remembers Ftrain

Ford predicted in 2002 that Google would be deploying robots to catalog the real world.

“Hi! I'm from Google. I'm a Googlebot! I will not kill you.”
posted by straight at 11:53 AM on July 31

every ceiling is at a different height

My last house was 100something years old and the ceilings were at different heights in the same room.

I've got a new(ish) house now, and it is such a joy to deal with square walls that are also plumb. What used to be 3 hours of shimming and fiddling to get a bookshelf to stand on it's own and not look terribly non-euclidian is now unbox, assmble, and place. It's almost boring.

If this means I have to vote for Romney or something now... I dunno.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:55 PM on July 31

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