The Magazine

Reality Bites

Rachel DiCarlo, dungeon dweller.

Oct 11, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 05 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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MY MOTHER recently told me that my apartment looks like a nineteenth-century brothel. The dark red of the walls, she said, makes her think of Belle Watling's house of ill repute.

Almost everyone who sees the place has a similar opinion. My father calls it a dungeon. My friends say it's "gothic" and "depressing." It's on the ground floor, and once when I pulled back the patio curtain and opened the door to let some light in, I heard a passerby mutter, "What happened in there?"

There's an answer to that question, and it isn't that I have a warped sense of decorating chic. What happened was reality TV. Specifically, the Learning Channel's Trading Spaces is the source of the assorted eyesores that have taken over my apartment, including framed pictures of elephants (part of the Republican theme the show's designers hit upon in deference to a roommate's job on the Hill) and the blinding red and orange patio curtain, which often won't slide and is falling down because the curtain rod is so cheap.

For those who don't watch the Learning Channel, the premise of the show is this: Two pairs of people switch homes for two days and, with help from some designers and a carpenter, completely redecorate a room for each other on a budget of $1,000.

Old furniture is stripped, refinished, reupholstered, or replaced. Walls are painted. Pillows, drapes, lamps, knick-knacks, and art are added or upgraded. The show climaxes when the participants surprise each other with the transformed rooms.

One of my roommates was invited to participate last fall. Since we had just moved in and had little time or incentive to furnish or decorate a place where we only intended to stay for a year, we all agreed to let the show come in and presumably spiff us up. I suppose we fell for the lure of effortless glamour.

I had seen the show a few times, and I knew about the occasional Trading Spaces horror story. In one episode, the designer (the same who would go on to redecorate our apartment) decided to glue straw all over one couple's living room walls. The husband swore when he saw it. (This episode has been nominated as Trading Spaces's "jump the shark" moment.) In another, the owner of an heirloom piano was distressed to find it painted black.

To avoid disaster, we requested that no straw, glue, or pastel colors be used. Heirloom furniture wasn't a worry since we don't own any. Spared any redecorating duties, I decamped to my parents' for the weekend.

When we came back home to our transformed living room, brownish-red candles in wrought iron candelabras burned on a new dining room table, set with red-tinted wine glasses. A soft, cream-colored couch, two plush brown armchairs, and an entertainment center had been purchased at discount and revamped. There were pictures on the walls. Five floor-to-ceiling cream and gray pillars had been erected in our dining room. Our blinds had been removed and replaced with that curtain. And the walls were oxblood.

On television, it may have looked cozy or even sophisticated. In reality, the deliberate blocking out of natural light, its replacement with candlelight, and all that red paint produced the aforementioned bordello/dungeon effect.

Perhaps not detectable in the broadcast but obvious in real life is that the makeover was slapped together with little time or money. Paint is splattered on the ceiling, light switches, and baseboards. The dining room table and entertainment center, though they gleamed on television, are actually just painted brown. We were left a total of three matching dining room chairs.

The problems aren't just aesthetic. One of those tinny pillars fell down and broke a lamp our first night in our new place. We soon threw them all away. I can't count how many times I've smashed my toes into the dining room table in the middle of the night since it's too big for our dining area.

To help me look on the bright side, my father pointed out that at least if anything gets spilled on the brown armchairs, it won't show. Also, when we leave, Trading Spaces will graciously have the walls painted white for the next tenants.

They never replaced our cleaning supplies, however, which they used up or otherwise disposed of in the course of their creative labors. And I'm out a dining room table and two chairs, removed from the scene by the decorators and carted off to storage, where I was given the option of arranging for their retrieval at short notice.

But there I go again being negative. I'm trying to focus on the couch I've gained. Besides, the whole business is nearly behind us. The lease on my new apartment starts this week.

--Rachel DiCarlo