At the start of each episode of Home of the Year, a great question is posed – “what makes a house a home?”. But as season seven draws to a close, this program has yet to provide any answers.
Home of the Year has a simple premise. Each week, three experts – this season two architects and an interior designer – visit three homes. In total, twenty-one homes have been “competing to be crowned home of the year”. The judges are “design-legends” and “award-winning”, and it is they, not the homes, nor the homeowners, who are clearly the stars of the show.
The trio are cast as characters, adopting reality-show tropes. There is the villain who says what they think; the unpredictable one who speaks from eccentric experience; the balanced one who sees both sides, keeping the peace. As disagreements unfold on screen and on social media, the audience is drawn into the drama.
To accumulate possessions and objects is often criticised. But as anthropologist Daniel Miller has shown, the life of a home is nourished by the physical objects of family and memory that act as a kind of supporting cast in our everyday domestic dramas.
We hold onto things from our ancestors, we put a gift from our mothers on the mantel, a picture of no value to you might mean the world to me. As Miller has shown over decades of slow, careful study and observation, objects help people form and sustain social relationships inside and outside the home.
However, on Home of the Year, objects and pictures and chairs and things are only useful as props to support whether – or often not – the judges view them as “making sense” or “fitting in” to some grand design plan, according to their expert opinions. It is not enough to have things that matter to us lying around, for the judges, homeowners should be “collectors” and “curators” too.
From house to house, some kind of home life is presented on screen, but it hardly reflects the life lived by the audience watching, especially a year into lockdown. These homes are tidy, organised, impeccably presented. There is no mess, no room full of things to sort out, no dog eaten chair, no table working as a place to eat, to do conference calls, to do homework. No IKEA flatpack, waiting.
As the judges discuss and debate or decry the homes, the audience, watching from home, agrees, disagrees, tweets, laughs, is appalled, feels jealous, home after home, week after week.
Then, in the end, votes are cast. The judges have the ability to mark the homes – homes being perhaps the most socially, emotionally and historically complex of social settings – out of 10. They do so while standing, in parallel at individual white lecterns, like members of Government at a press conference, this staging surely intended to convey the gravity of their expert home-assessments.
As Deborah Philips has noted, one aim of these tv shows is to transform television “experts”, into “tastemakers”. In each home the homeowner cautiously but proudly places a red disc on their favourite spot for the judges to discover.
The dramatic tv device here is that potentially their favourite part of their home which was revealed only to the audience, will later be rejected, without them being present. With whom will we side? With the owner who lives each day in a home they appear to have built with their bare hands, or the expert judges doing their rounds?
Because no matter how good the homeowner’s taste, it is statistically likely, with so few spaces left in the final, that their taste may be deemed to be not good enough.
And this is the point of it all.
The perfect homes portrayed are surely chosen because they look good on television, not because they will help us understand what makes a “house a home”. The homes appear to be drawn from a specific economic class, a group who have the ways and means to buy or build their perfect homes and the confidence to put them on television. For much of the audience these houses must be far out of reach, their own homes – which may be even rented lest we forget – must feel somehow less by comparison.
Far from being passive entertainment, or a how-to-do-it program about making better homes, Mc Elroy argues that home-based lifestyle television shows become occasions for viewers to gain an understanding of what might be their shared national domestic identity. These tv shows thrive in societies where home-ownership, above all forms of other domestic tenure, is the most valued and celebrated housing ideology.
So, does this show reflect Ireland?
It is likely the makers of Home of the Year would not claim the program to be representative. Perhaps it is simply meant to be entertaining, a way to escape.
But in 2021 a market-led ideology of home ownership continues to dominate politics and is limiting the home-making possibilities for hundreds of thousands of citizens. There is no escaping that.
Home based television shows claim to entertain, educate or to make design accessible, yet to survive they must exploit the commercial potential of house and home. Night after night the audience is encouraged to look around and do more, buy more, renovate more, as if this alone makes a house a home. Homeof the Year goes one step further in that every vote cast by the judges undermines and strips the homeowners of their individual, home histories and design agency, all in the name of good taste.
What makes a house a home? You, and you alone, are the best judge of that.