g  e  n  u  i  n  e  i  d  e  a  s
  home   art and
writings biography   food   inventions search
/rant: why hgtv is bad for design

I.D. September/October 2005

By Greg Blonder

HGTV, the Home and Garden doityourself.interiordesign.renovate.redecorate.lifestyle cable empire is a perfect mirror for the American psyche. Enthusiastic and naïve, presumptuous and individualistic, the channel panders to the conceit that good design is simply a result of good ol' American spunk. Like the mailroom boy of film mythology who leaps from pushing envelopes to trading stocks in a single day-anyone can redecorate their condo with a little advice and a few gallons of paint. But, as the only "formal" education most viewers will ever receive in design, it's as dangerous as learning about love from a sex-ed class.

And not even very good sex- one show blurs numbingly into another, until you wake up in a tired bedroom next to a perky host planning a "South Sea Island" theme makeover. Night after night, it's the same menu of stainless steel and instant gratification.

HGTV teaches clients to want designs faster, cheaper, and more elaborate than practical reality-or mere humans-can or should deliver. Experience comes just after it's needed most, which is why the lessons of history are best discovered in the classroom rather than on the battlefield. And why it's best to learn about home renovation before taking sledge to drywall. But what lessons are being taught on HGTV?

Apparently, good design isn't all that difficult. Quick and easy projects conform neatly into half hour slots, forty eight times a day, seven days a week. But the perennial struggle to harmonize cost, mission, and aesthetics are rarely shown. Budget over-runs are seldom mentioned, and when they are, clients gleefully absorb the expense. At least when the camera's on. Perhaps hypnotizing clients under the glare of a camera should be taught to every first year design student.

HGTV design has become a spectator sport complete with artificial rules and arbitrary time constraints. We all know the pain of last minute deadlines and late night charettes, but what message is HGTV sending the public by asking a graduating student on Designer Finals to redo a bedroom in 48 hours? That speed, surprise, and sloppy construction are the ultimate goals? That all jobs can be accomplished equally well for $2000?

In fact, almost no HGTV program touches on that most important of all design skills: constructive criticism. One episode of Designer's Challenge asks three landscape architects to resuscitate a scruffy backyard. Five minutes later (in TV time), three foam core plans appear, the clients are pummeled with samples and suggestions, and after a brief message from our sponsor, the homeowners gush "each design was beautiful and it was soo hard to decide. But we chose Frederick because he really understood our needs". Which means the viewer learned exactly nothing at all- not why one design was superior; not how to check references; not how to compare cost to benefits. It's eye-candy for the senses, rather than an education for the mind.

Similarly, Design on a Dime creates a room divider from wall art assembled out of place mats and chain, much to the admiration of the homeowner in a set-piece of requisite "oohs and ahhs." It doesn't take an artist to create art, and it doesn't take an architect to lay out an apartment. Why should anyone pay hard cash for an original sculpture, or hire a qualified architect, when Home Depot is down the street, and a builder can stretch a roof over a floor plan? There is nothing wrong with craft masquerading as art, except when it trains the public to confuse hamburger with steak. And McMansions with Mies van der Rohe. Must design always be a slave to entertainment?

On other networks, ER dramatically portrays the bone numbing tensions of an emergency room doctor-no longer will Dr. Kildare benignly play god. Patients have learned more about the practice of medicine, the value of second opinions, and new surgical procedures from ER than they ever did in freshman biology. CSI has glamorized microscopes and DNA to the extent that forensic science is the hottest career of the decade, and innocent prisoners are being freed from jail. But good design? On HGTV, it's still mired in the feel good 50s, with fake controversies, easy answers, and small morality plays. Somehow, the potential of design to improve society got plastered under yet one more tumbled limestone backsplash.

Teaching the public, and teaching ourselves, is often best served through entertainment. But how can we learn effortlessly without simultaneously creating false intuitions and false expectations? The design community is partly responsible for this murky state of affairs. We speak in an arcane, formal language alienating the profession from the public. And we spend too little time reaching out to the community-when is the last time you sat at Home Depot offering a free "ask the designer" tutorial?

When you do, just be ready to lay out a bathroom in zero to sixty seconds.


Greg Blonder designs what he can, when he can, at talusfurniture.com



Contact Greg Blonder by email here - Modified Genuine Ideas, LLC.