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A thirst for authenticity

By April AustinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 1999



BOSTON

A friend owns a cabin on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. The cabin is decorated in Early Fishing Shack, with a pair of poles and a net hanging near the door. The cupboards bulge with old Life magazines and board games. Not much has changed since the 1950s, when her aunt put up red-and-white-checked curtains.

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The cabin is as authentic a summer place as you'll find in an old New England resort town. No home-design magazine could hope to capture the blissfully shabby ambience.

Such places are becoming rare. In the rush of the biggest homebuilding spree in 15 years, regional differences in the United States are being obliterated. The result: a bland sameness in architectural styles and home decor. With new-home construction expected to increase well into the next decade, the opportunities (or temptations) for cookie-cutter conformity are legion.

Many of these new homes will be well-designed, with features that make life more convenient. Most of them will have little relationship to the physical and cultural landscape around them.

Frank Lloyd Wright was not the first architect to make the connection between the contours of the land and the shape of a house. But he made a name for himself by respecting the scale of a hillside, keeping roof lines low. He used indigenous wood and stone in his interiors, and rejected ornamental landscapes that relied on exotic shrubs and trees.

Contrast this with the late 20th century mansion house that muscles its way onto a tiny lot, bay windows protruding from a faux Colonial facade. Every shrub is clipped within an inch of its life.

Perhaps saddest of all, such houses could be set down anywhere. They have no regional affiliation, no relevance. Like blank slates, these homes are in need of instant authenticity.

It's no accident that, along with the building boom, the last several years have seen a burgeoning interest in antiques from the Arts and Crafts movement (which lasted roughly from the 1880s to 1910). English designer William Morris, and his American counterparts, eschewed machine-made, mass-produced home goods. They promoted handcraftsmanship and local materials with a spiritual devotion.

Imagine what Morris's reaction would be to imitation wood flooring, which is becoming a hot commodity (see page 13). Such flooring involves "photographing" wooden planks and then laminating the image onto a durable polyvinyl surface.

It's a fascinating technology. And those of us with linoleum floors in our kitchens can appreciate the ease of maintenance that a laminate floor offers. But it still doesn't feel or sound like wood when you walk on it.

In the same way that real wood trumps faux every time, a house that quotes from its natural surroundings beats a McMansion every time.

The lack of regional authenticity doesn't end with homes. Restaurants and retail stores suffer the same stifling banality.

Franchise stores, with their boxy, standard-issue buildings, are easy targets for snobs and purists. But even the higher-concept restaurant chains - such as the Hard Rock Cafe, Rainforest Cafe, and now, March (see story page 16), make a weird kind of pitch for authenticity.

The Rainforest Cafe, like its inspiration, Disney World, is a fabricated environment aiming to entertain. The mix of mechanical animals and real-life parrots, fake foliage and actual waterfalls is a perfect metaphor for the disconnection that exists today between people and the environment.

March, which is a restaurant masquerading as a European-style open-air market, has similar problems with its concept. Whatever the quality of the food, the contrast of neat piles of real oranges with vines of fake wisteria dripping from "arbors" is unavoidable.

Authenticity takes many forms. But honesty and a sense of place go a long, long way.

April Austin is an editor in Homefront.

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