Housing Project

Perhaps Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington would like Trading Spaces.
After all, the home-decorating show's most dramatic moments are the "clash of civilizations" writ small -- battles between the chintzy tchotchkes and blandly pleasant decor of most American homes and the highfalutin excess of the show's designers.

The Learning Channel's smash hit has a simple set-up: Two sets of neighbors completely redecorate one room in each other's houses with the help of a designer and a $1,000 budget. Forty-eight hours of hard work boils down to the crucial "reveal," when homeowners get to see their new rooms. Shrieks -- usually of pleasure, but occasionally of pain -- ensue.

That sense of thrilling uncertainty worked well in a recent special from Las Vegas, when the reveal was live for the first time. Letting those designers into your home is a big gamble: Will the room be hideous, leaving homeowners trembling in their violated cocoons? Will it be so beautiful that the rest of the house looks like a trash heap? And will the participants ever forgive their neighbors?

For all the punch of the reveal, much of the drama of the show lies in the casting. The stable of designers includes:

Genevieve Gorder, who often remodels a room based on colors, shapes and ideas found in one object.

Laurie Hickson-Smith, a redhead who continually runs over budget and manages to put one ugly plaid pillow in nearly every room she works on.

Frank Bielec, who has a viciously Smurfy "country" style: lots of fussy shit, paintings of children, flowers and chickens everywhere. It's like someone pureed an Anne Geddes calendar and rose potpourri in a blender -- with the top off.

Edward Walker and Kia Steave-Dickerson, meanwhile, both have questionable taste in accessories: fake topiaries and giant gold pyramid fountains.

And then there's my favorite designer, Vern Yip, who loves sumptuous fabric and manages to fuse his sense of design with that of the homeowners.

Vern stands in sharp contrast to the imperious Doug Wilson, who's fond of terrifying families with his bold designs, and Hilda "Hildi" Santo-Thomas, who possesses an equally challenging sense of style "innovation."

For the live-reveal episode, Trading Spaces' producers wisely chose these last two designers for full dramatic effect. Hildi gained notoriety after she spray-painted a Seattle couple's sofas a violent pink. They got rained on and were ruined. She also insisted on putting hay all over the walls of another couple's living room. As for Doug, he has a sort of strong, modern sense of style -- dramatic walls, large furniture pieces. His proudest moment came after a prolonged tussle with his team over a fireplace, which the homeowner wanted to remain unpainted. "Hey, I have to live next door to her," said one team member, speaking of her neighbor. Doug threw a hissy fit ("I'm the designer here!") before capitulating -- to a degree. Instead of painting the fireplace, he built an edifice around it. During the reveal, the homeowner wife whimpered, "I have to leave the room now," stumbled out of the room with her microphone still on and howled at the top of her lungs.

As the bawling woman demonstrated, the families are often just as interesting as the cast -- and that's part of the beauty of the show. The households reflect a wonderfully diverse cross-section of U.S. clans: lesbian partners with children, interracial couples, old and young couples, boyfriends and girlfriends, fancy and unfancy people, mothers and daughters, male and female friends. And when they deal with the designers, the families' no-nonsense remarks, fierce negotiation on behalf of their homeowner friends ("She's gonna hate that mirrored wall and I'm not doing it!") and occasional sabotage of a designer's freaky plan let us know that good friends and neighbors never go out of style.

There's a nice voyeuristic thrill in watching Trading Spaces. We get to listen in on couples' internal dynamics, the affectionate spats and inside jokes. We also get to gawk at their houses. Many viewers probably sigh in recognition at the older houses' wood paneling, the stain-camouflaging shag rugs, the boxes vomiting toys and papers, the decrepit wallpaper and clunky bunk beds. These visions of ugly childhood homes are reassuring, somehow; as that R.E.M. song says, "everybody hurts." Not all of the newer homes feel this lived-in, however. Some of them have a disquieting blankness: lofted ceilings, giant spaces, tasteful McMansion layouts. But it doesn't matter to the designers -- they change all of it soon enough.

The Las Vegas homes exemplified both of these extremes. Doug was assigned to redo Stephen and Casyi's bedroom, which had a monstrous bed in the middle of the floor and little else. The bed was so large that they had two mismatched twin coverlets over it. Coolers served as storage space. "That's one-of-a-kind furniture," one of the homeowners noted with satisfaction. Hildi was charged with redesigning Jeff and Kim's dated living room, which featured a pink carpet and a segmented, earthworm-like brown sofa set.

This being Las Vegas, Jeff lobbed threats of installing stripper poles in Stephen and Casyi's bedroom -- risqué behavior not unheard-of to Doug, who once discovered a naughty picture of a homeowner in a leather get-up. (He blew up the picture to life-size and framed it over her mantel.)

In the special episode, the neighbor-designer bickering got off to an early start -- as soon as Doug unveiled his color scheme for Stephen and Casyi's bedroom: "blush" ceiling and brown plaster on the walls. "That is peach," said Jeff. "You have no say in color choices," responded Doug, before mocking Jeff's house. "You picked pink carpet, buddy." Jeff mounted another protest when Doug opened up a can of brown plaster and smeared a gob on the wall. "Baby poo," said Jeff, wrinkling his nose. "That is baby poop."

Doug's troubles continued as carpenter Amy Wynn Pastor then decided to add a few extra stylistic touches to the base of his round armoire. Doug huffed and asked, "Are you the designer on this show? Do you want me to go over and work your saw?"

As the Las Vegas show demonstrates, everybody has an agenda. From the paranoid perspectives of the bossier designers, everyone is out to wreck their beautiful visions -- the carpenters with their improvisational "improvements," perky control-freak and show host Paige Davis and her endless clock- and budget-watching, strong-willed team members who want to dumb down the design. Doug does a lot of sighing in his shows; he's the set-upon "artiste knows best" who has to deal with Middle America's flowered draperies and lopsided ceiling fans. For some stubborn team members, the designers are half-threat and half-promise, visitors from a strange land who come bearing suspicious gifts. At risk is the very fabric of community, permanently pissed-off neighbors and public embarrassment. At one point, Doug marched into the bedroom with a stripper pole, raising a hue and a cry from the thunderstruck Kim. "She's going to kill you," said Kim of her friend Casyi. "She's going to kill me if I don't fight." Doug installed the pole anyway.

Meanwhile, Hildi's team of Stephen and Casyi was determined to get rid of "the pink and the 80s," pointing at the hapless carpet and sofa set. Little did Stephen or Casyi know that Hildi was going to have them paint every surface a different color, install columns and reupholster all the furniture. They grumbled while painting the walls "ruby lips" red, putting down an orange floor and daubing a violet stain over a periwinkle blue ceiling.

Luckily for everyone, the gamble paid off. Stephen and Casyi loved their brown-walled bedroom. The stripper pole was still there -- but joined by three others to make a frame for the bed. Kim adored the eye-popping results in her living room, shrieking, "Look at the curtains! Look at the floor!"

Transforming oneself has always been a great American pastime; after all, many high-school goths eventually become chipper Ann Taylor fashionistas. Trading Spaces is just the same game, but expanded into a communal activity. As when all communities come together, sometimes there is Huntington's spectacular clash of civilizations -- like when Doug's highbrow vision ran up against that hunkering brick fireplace. Yet more often, there are less dramatic but more meaningful people-to-people negotiations, where team members play diplomat, designers tweak their own styles to the homemakers' needs and preferences and homeowners find themselves a little challenged -- and a little pleasantly surprised. Even Doug, Hildi and Frank have done tasteful, not-too-shocking work. For the sake of good drama, I'm glad they're mostly crazy. But for my sake, I hope they never show up at my house.

Noy Thrupkaew frequently writes about culture for The American Prospect. She recently took the "Which Trading Spaces Cast Member Are You" quiz
and was delighted to learn that her counterpart is Vern Yip.

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