A Home Away From Home

moving into the home show

by by Aaron Cutler & Alex Eichler

One of your correspondents' fathers is a homebuilder. For years the youth has been regaled with tales of construction in rural areas and marveled at the thought of his father's Amish workers wielding power tools, something they're allowed to do outside their communities. For years his father has clapped him on the shoulder and, half-jokingly, asked how the liberal environmentalist feels about his education being financed with the blood of screaming trees. For years your correspondent has accepted his circumstances. He has rarely asked his father more about the business--partly from apathy, partly from shame.
But curiosity's the demon of even mediocre minds, and when your correspondent saw an ad in the ProJo for the Rhode Island Builders Association Home Show at the Convention Center, he simply had to go. There would be stands for all kinds of home appliance and building companies, many gone green. He could learn about his father's life on his own terms.

Of course he took a friend. Your correspondents paid $20 total to enter a magical world where bathtubs competed and Bob the Builder waved hello. The afternoon promised a home away from home. This, your correspondents learned, was the point.

Let's see inside
Your correspondents are not fanciful men, but even so there was something deeply weird about the Home Show, weird in a way that passed through the brain's topsoil to irrigate the lower levels of awareness. The only interaction to be had was with aggressively cheery company reps, or with men in big foam costumes, or with the angry white-haired gentleman ladling loose produce items into a demo blender. It was a place, in short, that made you want to leave almost immediately, despite all the free food; the kind of place where you don't spend any more time than you have to. The Home Show had more in common with a home than anyone would probably like to think about.

Strangest was the way the convention floor resembled a residential strip of well-appointed houses that had all gotten their DNA tangled up, Goldblum-style, so that grandfather clocks rubbed elbows with stoves, and patios wandered over into stately three-walled bedrooms by Squat 'n' Teak, Ltd. (No toilets, though, for some reason.) Under and behind all this: the shockingly bland convention space itself, a giant raftered ventricle of a room, ceilings black and distant, walls as dirty-white and desolate as anything in a freshman dormitory. The carpet was green, in what might have been a nod to the nominal environmental theme of the proceedings. Every booth and station, pretty much, was interested in conveying the idea that its concomitant home-furnishings business could set you up in a life of comfort and elegance. So here's what you had: a cavalcade of fairly upscale domestic accessories that had been turned out and plucked from their context and scattered like magnetic poetry tiles.

It's difficult to get a reading on how "homey" a particular faucet might make a room feel when all you have to go on is its silent, arid presence on a display case in front of a video loop of the Red Sox shutting out the Rockies. Like a familiar plaza after an explosion, all the accoutrements at the Home Show took on a subtly alien cast. What good is a nightstand, or what even is a nightstand, if it's not actually in a house? Your correspondents reeled as perfectly pedestrian forms were served up in this place, this place of all places, where no one would ever think of spending a night. The ridiculous, always there, became impossible to ignore. Looking into a luminous, semi-complete kitchen, you wanted to blink, several times. These are the spaces we live in? This is what I'm going back to tonight? Does my house actually look like this? It didn't help that the people setting up these displays didn't always seem to have kept their minds on the task at hand. Witness a hot-tub display whose ancillary props included seashells, champagne, margarita glasses and a family of rubber duckies bobbing on the water. What was going on here?

Maybe two out of every three companies and services had some visible mention of the environment at their space, though here we're counting stuff like the word ORGANIC floating unattached near the product name. Your correspondents spoke to one personable young man about making a house more energy-efficient; the big selling point that emerged was not how much oil would be conserved, or by how many days the well-being of the planet would be prolonged, but how much your correspondents would save in heating costs if they stopped up all the superfluous cavities in the walls of their notional home. It should surprise no one that Home Show hustlers would appeal more to payers of bills than huggers of trees, but the environmental factor shouldn't be discounted: it seems symptomatic of an inclination toward comfort and reassurance that could occasionally be felt somewhere behind the Show's implacable impersonality. Observe: special orthopedic (or something) mattresses to help you sleep better at night. Observe: "Keys to Fun," a piano-lessons program offered to adults 50+, whose display included an enlarged front page of The Daily Gazette, headline "Older Adults Learn to Play Keyboards," deck "Seniors enjoy social interaction." Observe: A comically elaborate line of specialty dog treats, rendered with extraordinary care to resemble food that humans might eat: french fries in a paper pocket, Oreo-size pizzas, bacon cheeseburgers with mimetically sesame-seeded buns, cannoli more elegant than some your correspondents have been served in people restaurants. Clearly these treats weren't being sold to meet the needs of dogs, who eat feces and vomit. They were being sold so that some person, somewhere, might feel better.

There's no place like here
The stands' collective emphasis on tailoring to the consumer appeared throughout the day. At one point your correspondents stopped by the stand for Tranquil Log Homes, itself a life-sized cabin with wooden bears carved into the walls. We asked the spokesman whether Tranquil did much business; he told us that business was booming. His company succeeded, he said, by catering to buyers--one could have bears, yes, but one could also have falcons or monkeys. Squealing little girls with bright yellow balloons ran out of the cabin. As your correspondents wandered through elaborate plastic gardens, we kept Mr. Tranquil's sales pitch in mind. Nearly 300,000 people attended the Home Show over the weekend, but the successful companies pitched to you and to your family.

Your correspondents noticed another popular talking point while chatting with the CEO of Cedrus Saunas. He encouraged us to step inside the warm sauna and smell the cedar. After telling us how much cheaper and more comfortable his product was than all the other saunas we might buy, he added this kicker: "And every part of it is made with American products." He paused. "Well, except for the JVC radio."

America, America: The theme appeared and reappeared, from deluxe American-made window installations to flagpoles adorned with golden eagles. Your correspondents wondered why patriotism mattered until we realized it was part of a larger picture. The Home Show stressed America like it stressed pagers and Verizon TVs. By the time that Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins appeared to welcome convention-goers, your correspondents had keyed into a fundamental part of the Home Show's appeal. In 2008, the definition of "American" is looser than ever, but it was nice to see that the accumulation of expensive kitsch still qualified as evidence of good citizenship. Many items on display at the Home Show were too expensive for most consumers to buy--Tranquil, for example, pitched its log cabins at upwards of $16,000--but the goal of someday buying them was what mattered. From log cabins to high rises, the social climb expressed through making an ideal home is fundamental to the American Dream. If you can build it yourself (with a little help), all the better.

Vacation time
On our way out of the Home Show your correspondents filled out raffle entries. The prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to Ireland. The irony could not escape us, nor could the site of the Westin next to the Convention Center. The Home Show kiosks, whether for Artistic Concrete or for Fresh Heavy Cream Fudge, served the same purpose as the thought of a foreign country or a fancy hotel--general amusement, perhaps bittersweet. The Home Show promised people their ideal houses and, in so doing, it promised them an escape.

The next day your incipient correspondent called his father, who was not at a construction site but on a weekend vacation. He asked him about the purpose of home shows. "It's a form of entertainment," his father said. "Maybe 25 percent of people are going with definite ideas in mind. The other 75 percent are going just for the heck of it."

Home construction and design in America have been hit hard by the recession, but people always need houses. They're not just shacks to live in--think long and hard about your childhood home and see how much you associate with it. Yet while Proustian meditation appealed to your correspondents, so did the merchandise. We are years away from buying homes, personally, but the Home Show spoke to us nonetheless. Home improvement is self-improvement; it's a way to unite common capitalists. It can even unite fathers and sons.

This particular father, upon hearing about the show, asked his son excitedly whether he'd changed his mind about going into the business. Your correspondent thought about it. He remembered deluxe saunas and then gingerly changed the subject.

AARON CUTLER B'08 and ALEX EICHLER B'08 are standing with their backs angled slightly toward each other, facing you, with their arms folded, wearing suits and black wingtips, and there's an explosion in the background.