Friday, March 27, 2009

I Hate White

It was just under a year ago when my frustrations pushed me to the edge and I decided to vent by writing down a list of stuff that I hate. It was therapeutic. I don’t know why but putting down those items on the blog made me feel a lot better. I am not sure if it is the economy, my job, or seeing a neighbor removing their old windows and putting in new vinyl beauties this morning but I feel compelled to visit this subject once more.
I hate white. Yep, you read that correctly. I hate white. I am a white guy and contrary to how the statement might sound, this isn’t an exercise in self-loathing. To clarify: I hate the color white in houses. I hate it on walls. I hate it on trim. I hate it on ceilings. Part of my loathing stems from a desire to have some color in the Tiny Bungalow as the poor house seems to have been “white-washed” just prior to its sale but I think my distaste of white has always been there. It seems cheap and denotes a general lack of creativity. It is un-natural and I have come to associate the color with a kind of sickness. I think this final correlation probably comes from seeing the movie Manhunter, where whiteness and the architecture of Richard Meier are prominently featured, one too many times. On a more personal level, after stripping what seems like miles of woodwork and painting-over acres of walls and ceilings covered with it, I have grown to loathe white paint.
White paint is only part of my problem. With the exception of porcelain tile, I also hate most things that are white and get put in homes: white landscape rocks, PVC piping, cheap-ass plastic outlet and light switches, and vinyl windows, to name a few of them. I just don’t get what people like about white. I’ve tried to wrap my brain around it a bit and have come to a couple conclusions. Here they are.

The Pottery Barning of America

So what is the connection between Pottery Barn, Room and Board, or Crate & Barrel and the decision to paint base and crown molding and window and door trim white? Well, I am willing to bet that even if you don’t have furniture from these places that you still get the Pottery Barn catalog. Who doesn’t, right? I am sure that the PO of my house got it. They must have. Have you ever looked closely at one of those catalogs closely? Look beyond the furniture that most people can’t afford, beyond the nice rugs, beyond the useless weather vane or bowling ball sitting in the middle of the coffee table as an accent piece. Look beyond the over-sized stenciled stars or cut-out letters on the walls and bookcases and you will see something. White trim is everywhere! It doesn’t matter what style the room is or where the house that this room sits in is supposed to be, it is always trimmed in white. The walls are usually painted a nice green, blue, or brown and right next to it is stark white trim. Every room looks like fucking Connecticut.
For some of us, being exposed month in and month out to this propaganda doesn’t have any affect at all but for an entire segment of the population it sticks. They become used to it and eventually covet it. I don’t think there is an overwhelming desire by folks to be a Connecticut WASP but who knows? Regardless of what colors they paint the walls, they long for the white trim. A nice clean outline of white to frame those beautiful fields of color. God, it makes me sick to even type those words. This circumstance is even more distressing when people’s desire for the “white outline” compels them to paint over perfectly good natural wood. It is an overt decision that favors blandness over character. In a lot of modern homes, with their shitty MDF trim, I guess you are forced to paint it. I plead though: why not at least go for a cream or a pale grey or tan? Paint it anything but please don’t make it all look so jarring by outlining it in white.

Maybe it’s Le Corbusier

You say you don’t know what a Le Corbusier is? Well, “it” is a “he”. And “he” is an architect who I would guess, beyond Frank Lloyd Wright, is the most famous one in the world. Regardless of if you know this guy or not, I believe that he is the first culprit in the “whiting” of things. In 1923, he publishes this book entitled “Vers un Architecture”. Catchy, huh? I wouldn’t call it best seller material but it got architects and artists pumped. In it, he extols the virtues of Greek architecture. He also goes on and on about cars, ocean liners, airplanes and all sorts of other crap that can inform a new architecture but it’s the temple idea that is relevant to this conversation.
To the detriment of architects for the next 60 or so years, he points to the formal values of sun-bleached, un-painted, Greek temples as an inspiration for “new” architecture and begins churning out homes where white is the most prominent feature. The result is an unmistakable association: modern = white. It seemed to begin a trend. In order for people to show that they are “with it”, “modern”, or “hip”, what do they do? In an attempt at achieving instant culture and sophistication, they make their space as stark and bland as possible and paint everything white!

It is sad because there are many good aspects of modern design that get lost when white are the overriding characteristic. People seem to forget that the inspirations for this, that small group of buildings on the Acropolis, are all made of limestone. In the blaring sun and in over-exposed photos, the stone may look white but there is character in the material. This can also be said for other stone, wood, and metals. I think that the white-painters of today seem to forget that notion.

Blame the Immigrants

It is such a common practice for American’s to blame immigrants for our latest woes. So much so that it really should be considered our national pastime. What most of us quickly forget is that an overwhelming majority of us are immigrants. The humor of it all isn’t lost on this Italian-German-English-French-American mutt but I still can’t help but partly blame immigrants for the whiting of our homes. I think that there’s something to the immigrant experience that gives us an affinity for white. What was the first impression of America for many of our ancestors? Ellis Island, of course. Have you ever been to this place? My observation is that there has to be more square footage of white tile and white glazed block in those buildings than there is the color white on all of Richard Meier’s buildings put together. The place is shiny and bright. It looks clean and that was the purpose. It was a logical choice to keep sanitary all those rooms filled with immigrants that have just come off of one, two, three weeks of travel in cramped quarters.
It must have been a heck of a sight. So this is America! This is opportunity! This is freedom! I know, it’s a lot of “weight” to put on a color but those kinds of associations must be the only thing powerful enough to make people slather it all over their “American Dream”. In some areas of the home, this makes complete sense. White kitchens and baths are practical and in some ways a necessity but there has to be a limit. This shouldn't give you good reason to cover your trim, walls, and ceilings in the color. My suggestion: if cleanliness is so important to you, buy some white gloves and be sure to put them away when guests come over.

I am probably in the minority with this particular dislike but I am sure that there are at least a few white things that bother everyone because they seem just "wrong". Hopefully this will get you thinking a little and consider appreciating some color and character. Either way, I feel a little bit better now. I think this should keep me satisfied for quite some time before I feel compelled to write about caulk.


Dave D'Amore said...

There are several points in your rant that I would like to touch on. I think your rage is more with the generic, consumptive, hegemonic sterilization of character. America is the big melting pot, it thrives on the reduction of difference by assimilation. Your ancestry speaks to that. Much of this attitude is perpetuated by facility maintenance engineers, real estate professionals and corporate marketers. Sameness sells because the majority of society lacks the will for critical judgment in matters of our built environment, America's taste is generally in its ass. Basically, most people are visually illiterate and must rely on widely recognizable clues that communicate taste and status. There is real fear out there for anything remotely daring and distinctive. White also hides a lot of crappy craftsmanship. The Pottery Barns along with many HGTV "designers" and "stylists" of the world fill that critical knowledge void. They reduce complex design decisions to simplified, disposable one liner solutions. The white epidemic has brethern in such things as, "light colors make a room feel bigger". Platitudes that limit thought and provoke consumption while making one believe they have true knowledge. The flip side to this argument is that all of this has elevated the value of design for many people that might otherwise never give it consideration. Some may never learn about Corbu or Meier, but they may come to understand that white can add visual contrast, or help a small, poorly lit space maximize its available light. So is it really so bad? Is white really that evil? Don't blame the bat when the batter doesn't know how to swing.

Anonymous said...

I also dislike white in a house but around the 1900 white in the kitchen and bath denoted cleanliness. White kitchens and bathrooms may it easy to see the dirt and mess.

Nadja and Sean said...

Amen. It should be a cardinal sin to paint perfectly lovely woodwork white. Why, God, why?

Anonymous said...

I live in an old house with dark stained woodwork in the living room and dining room and white painted woodwork everywhere else. And you know what? I so prefer the painted white one. I do. I wish someone HAD painted the living room woodwork. I grew up with natural/stained wood all around me, and still, I prefer painted wood work. Maybe it's potterybarn, maybe it's because I am an immigrant, who knows...
For me, painted white woodwork is just fine.

That said though, good luck with your quest for less white in your home!


StuccoHouse said...

Lol...the "Pottery Barning" of America. I love it. You hit the nail on the head. I'd only add the "This Old Housing" of America (i.e. treat down everything old and rebuild it with new material to *look* old.

Tiny Oak Park Bungalow said...

"This Old Housing of America" - I love it. I really should have had an entry for TV shows on my list of "hates" but I figure I could take cheap shots at those guys forever so it was a waste.

Dave, you should know me well enough by know to know that I don't make distinctions between "high" and "low" architecture. C'mon, besides the fact that he has better abs, is there anything THAT different about Zaha Hadid and Ty Pennington?

Frankly, I worry much more about what the average Joe gets at Home Depot and slaps on the front of his house then what Zaha is up to. Chances are, I live across the street from or next to Joe so have to see with his bad judgements daily. Also, there are many more Joe's then there are Zahas.

Another note: anyone that feels that white makes a room feel bigger is fooling themselves. White just makes your room feel like a bathroom or if you're lucky, Lecter's cell.

threeacres said...

Bravo! I dislike white trim and there should be law against painting beautiful hardwood. And I can't help but laugh when I see expensive elaborately designed houses with 8" of white MDF crown molding. My father owned his own custom milwork shop for 11 years where he restored the trim of churches and historic buildings among other things. I grew up in a house where everything had a custom 3 stain blend. Someday when we have all of our walls moved he said he'd make our trim and I can't wait!

Oh and we're in the process of painting our all white walls to offset the white carpet. Yes, white carpet throughout! What a pain to keep clean!

Tiny Oak Park Bungalow said...

The MDF kills me too - particularly on multi-million dollar homes. I've seen it again and again but I will never understand that one. I've had the great fortune that my personal clients love wood and have used it for all of their trim. Not sure what I'd do if I had one that felt otherwise.

DeAnne said...

oh Captain Architect, it has been far too long since I have been privy to one of your rants. thank you.

~design girl

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

Funny, I think that the immigrants around here are the ones who paint their houses turquoise and shocking pink. I'll take that over beige any day of the week!

And so on...

Sharon @ Laurelhurst Craftsman said...

I don't know how I missed this post--but I so agree with you. I am constantly ranting at my computer when I run across another blog where some young kid went through and ruined yet another stained wood interior. It makes me ill every time I see it. If you want white wood, buy a house that has already been ruined!!! Save the stained wood interiors for those that can appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

I'm way late to this party but ended up via a search of "hate white molding," after am unsuccessful one of "why white molding." I have an instinctual hate when seeing this, a revulsion. On the contrary, seeing wood well-stained, well- aged (or, heck, poorly-aged, but AGED) and well-kept, makes me feel comfortable, relaxed, "at home," in some way -- even if I am not at all close to home.

My view is: IT IS WOOD; its appearance should reflect that. If it's MDF or plastic, do what you can to make it less terrifyingly awful; the world is your (shoddy) oyster in this. But if it's wood let it be/feel wood. Real craftsmen and skilled workers cut, sawed, prepped, shaped, planned, cut, prepped again, laid, installed, and finished that wood (and all other steps I omitted). I am awed and inspired by the color of dawn in early summer and the freakish clear radiance of sunset in the fall; I would never ask an oak tree to replicate that. I would be yet less likely to demand of portions of a dead oak that it replicate the familiar hue of my beloved Colgate toothpaste.

I would no more wish a couple coats of white on old wood than I would a career in accountancy on Nijinsky. And since I don't get Pottery Barn catalogs or look at mainstream "home decorating" blogs, I was at a loss as to what I might attribute this soul-destroying trend. Thanks for the rant, and the insight regarding the latter!

Sharonkay said...

hi from Sharon: I really liked this post about hating white trim. I know this is an old article, but I happen to google "stained wood trim" and came across your blog. I live in a small condo in Columbus, Ohio that was built in 1972. The previous owner was a WW2 veteran and loved stained wood. I have an abundance of stained wood trim in my condo and plan to leave it that way.
I think that it is crazy to paint very nice wood trim white. I heard that white trim is very hard to keep clean. It peels and becomes a dirty yellow over time. I do like white on some things, especially vintage shabby chic style furniture. I see a lot of houses here in Columbus that have stained wood doors with white trim, which looks awful. Anyway, good luck with your house.

Gentle Spirit said...

White isn't cozy, or warm. It feels sterile. A little touch here and there can freshen things up, but all white, especially all white bathrooms and kitchens, look sterile and institutional. Who wants to wake up to such a depressing site? And don't even get me started on the all white and gray trend! :D