“I was a big fan of seeing the insides of other people’s houses, especially people who were a little bit famous like Melissa,” says Frances, the narrator of Sally Rooney’s “Conversations With Friends,” at the beginning of the novel.
Home ownership is a remote concept for Frances, a millennial student in Dublin who writes and performs spoken word poetry. She is used to sharing a flat with a roommate and is not interested in making a lot of money. But when she finds herself romantically entangled with Melissa and her husband, Nick, their tasteful material life becomes an object of infatuation.
In the new Hulu series, based on the book, the Victorian coastal resident of Nick (played by Joe Alwyn) and Melissa (Jemima Kirke) does not disappoint. The interior walls, made of a textured concrete-like material, are a moody gray-blue and the space is dotted with sprays of eucalyptus, Irish-made ceramics, sheepskin throws and large, artistic lamps.
The dining area appears to have been pulled from the pages of a recent Architectural Digest: a plant-filled space with weathered white brick walls and several doors made of large glass panels in rectangular steel frames, leading to a courtyard.
“Your house is very cool,” Frances (Alison Oliver) says over dinner. Bobbi, the charismatic best friend and ex of Frances (Sasha Lane), says, “I love it. You two are such adults.’ Buying a home remains a “symbol of maturity,” said Dak Kopec, a professor of architecture school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who specializes in environmental psychology. But millennials — saddled with student debt and slow to get married or have children — have entered the real estate market more gradually than previous generations, and those ready to buy now are experiencing low supply and rising prices. It’s no wonder they’ve become HGTV-guzzling, Zillow-surfing daydreamers.
Nick and Melissa — who probably consider themselves part of the troublesome “Xennial” generation — have achieved the homeownership dream that eludes many millennials. And the show turns their home into a symbol of fear and aspiration.
Home furnishings have a way of alleviating the gap between the life you want and the life you have, or the life you can afford. You may be faced with impossible questions about what your days will look like in two, five, or ten years.
“I’ve heard so many couples argue over major rug purchases,” said Aelfie Oudghiri, the 36-year-old founder and creative director of Aelfie, a home decor brand. “It’s this defining feature of their home that should indicate what kind of people they are and what kind of future they want to have.” She sees a different kind of fear emerging in singles: “They don’t want to commit to anything because they don’t know if their future hypothetical partner will like it.”
To Frances, Melissa’s home—and according to Anna Rackard, the show’s production designer, “always felt like we were decorating for Melissa,” rather than Nick—is very attractive, despite her outward disdain for the bourgeois lifestyle it signifies. (Her obvious embarrassment when Bobbi tells Nick and Melissa that “Frances is a communist,” suggests her commitment to this ideology isn’t very solid.)
Melissa’s spacious office, which Frances peers unattended for a moment, is littered with books. For a young writer used to working from her bedroom, it’s heaven.
For Mrs. Rackard and Sophie Phillips, the set designer, the goal was to create a version of a wealthy person’s house that wouldn’t repel Frances — whom she would instead find cool and ambitious. To make the space younger and less fussy, they used plywood for the kitchen doors and decorated the walls with prints and photos instead of paintings. Ms. Phillips and Ms. Rackard wanted an extra but light rock ‘n’ roll look, with furniture and homewares that would make a strong statement on their own.
Mrs. Rackard and Mrs. Phillips see Melissa as someone who is “effortlessly cool”, who has an instinctive sense of style when it comes to decorating a home. But in her deliberate approach to setting a table with matching colored glassware and bowl-shaped plates, as she does for Frances and Bobbi, you could also read fastidiousness or insecurity.
“Melissa is somewhat intimidated by Frances, in a way, because of her beauty and youth and where she is at this stage of her life, which allows her to be quite carefree,” said Ms. Phillips. “Melissa is at the stage where she’s like, ‘Where am I going?’ It makes her very self-conscious in her decisions to create this ‘perfect’ environment.”
According to Samuel Gosling, a psychologist who studies the relationship between people and their living space, one of the central functions of our home environment is an “identity claim.” “These are deliberate statements that we want to make about ourselves to others by saying, ‘This is who I am,'” said Dr. gosling. People generally feel happier when others see them the way they see themselves, he said, citing research by Bill Swann, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, so much so that when viewed in too positive a light, we may feel misunderstood.
This could explain why it hurts Melissa so much to feel “pathetic and conventional” in Frances’s eyes, a characterization that doesn’t fit the classy, cultured person her house shows her. It would explain why some people have mixed feelings about inviting people into homes they share with roommates or others who fear their decor choices could be mistaken for their own.
For people in their twenties and thirties, the desire to be accurately seen through design choices can be enhanced, and perhaps distorted, by the desire to perform our style for the public on social media. “Our homes started to look more and more like sets,” said Ms. Oudghiri, noting that bright blocks of color, crazy rugs and hip, selfie-friendly mirrors are often used to make a statement on social media. The soft, unprovoking look known as the “millennial aesthetic,” heavily marketed as a signifier of good taste, often crops up in these spaces. Among young men, the Eames recliner has become a status symbol akin to hard-to-find streetwear, telegraphing success to the outside world.
Melissa’s muted home doesn’t seem to feature terrazzo or pastel pink, but it does touch upon certain design trends that have been awarded the millennial seal. Rebecca Atwood, a 37-year-old artist and textile designer, identified a few: enveloping wall color (that moody gray), goods bought from brands and makers with a story (that Irish ceramics), an indoor-outdoor feel (the greenhouse-like dining area) . Ms Rackard noted that the conservatory’s fashionable glass doors, while perfect for the warm Los Angeles weather, are unusual in Dublin, where double-pane windows are more suited to the climate. That’s Melissa’s commitment to style, to what people think.
Mrs. Oudghiri, for her part, does not place too much importance on her own interior. She has rented a furnished house in Los Angeles, decorated by someone with a taste for ‘rococo-esque’ furniture.
“Interiors matter to a certain extent. But I’m not on Instagram. No one sees the interior of my house except my friends,” she said. “As long as my couch is comfortable, I’m happy.”