Holy Domesticity: Voyeurism and the Search for Normal

 I have always looked in other people’s windows. I think most people raised in abusive or unorthodox circumstances like looking in. We are very curious about this thing called “normal.” I write in my memoir,

It was a long drive now to Scottsdale, from the apartment and across Cactus Road to our only friends, the Ishaqs. During the evenings when we drove there or back, passing the houses that faced the road, I watched for those houses whose curtains were not closed, the blessed fearlessness of uncovered windows, projecting vivid icons of holy domesticity: father, mother, children, old couples at dining tables or nestled on sofas in a nimbus of light, the windows casting otherworldly visions into the night air.

To catch sight of an open window at night while zooming down Cactus Road in the passenger seat of my crazy mother’s car was like mental candy, windows blue and sweet and delicious.  Everyone behind the glass looked happier than I was. I do not remember hunting for windows before my parents’ divorce, when family and activity made its own world inside our walls, when we projected our own vibrant lives through the windows without regard for anyone else.

narcissaniblackthorneNarcissa Niblack Thorne made voyeurism high art. Well, Thorne might have been interested in interior design and historicity, but she made other people’s rooms her life’s work, work meant to be looked at from the outside.  She created at least 99 miniature rooms, most of which are now displayed in The Art Institute of Chicago and The Phoenix Art Museum. You can watch a video of her rooms here.

Thorne’s modern counterpart, Tim Sidford, writes on his blog, “I’ve always been fascinated by the beauty, atmosphere and sheer design daring present in many historic interiors.” He makes tiny “shelf rooms,” like morsels of doll house surgically removed and placed among your books.  I want one so bad.  You can see one of Tim’s “shelf rooms” on his site. (He does commissions.)

Decorating in and of itself is a sort of control. Within four walls we each create a narrative of how we think life should be properly lived, our “normal,” through the choice of colors and furnishings. Even an undecorated room is declaring something. My take on decor is “Half-drunk Granny”— an abstract vintage painting of flowers in pinks and yellows, a fat, green ceramic elephant next to a faded toile chair, a gaudy, fake golden monstrance, all an effort to convey benevolent silliness and comfort and a not too self-conscious reference to the heavenly realms—  comforts I haven’t always had. I leave my shutters open. Please look in.

“Decorate your home. It gives the illusion that your life is more interesting than it really is.”

         Charles Schulz                                                                  

Thorne Room, Phoenix Art Museum

Miniature rooms, open windows facing out to dark streets, the background in your friends’ Facebook photos,  invoke the hypnotizing power of surreptitious observation, voyeurism, if you will.  We are born in rooms, raise our children in them, make our irreversible decisions and mistakes; we receive declarations of love, hear of loss and tear open sympathy cards while our hearts are breaking into pieces.

Tell me about your  rooms.