Visitor, Viewer And Life In the Inside.

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The Drawing Room, Mount Stewart, National Trust

You Are A Visitor, Viewer, Guest and Host…

It is a big deal to invite someone into your home.

It is a mutual recognition of a more intimate relationship and a shift from our public to our private persona. And so, we don’t allow just anyone into our homes.

Our home as our inner sanctum, our world. It is (normally) the one place where we can control who enters. We assess, and make a judgement about all callers and visitors; what their business is and why they should/could be allowed to come into our home. 

The protocols of privacy meet hospitality on the threshold. We make a conscious decision to let someone inside – or not.

Every household has its own rules of access for friends, posh friends, family, posh family, acquaintances, authorities, contractors  – and meter-readers. Some cultures may be entirely open to having visitors inside the home, others less so. 

We don’t treat all our visitors the same. 

We keep strangers (cold callers, deliveries) on the front doorstep or hallway –  sometimes with door tightly closed behind us, or with the doorchain on.  Access denied. Access not necessary.

Inviting someone you don’t know very well into your home initially creates a social awkwardness.

Visitors must wait for signs and cues: where to go, where to sit, what to eat/drink and how long to stay. They may be invited to sit in a certain seat…. must ask to use the bathroom… cannot refuse hospitality. Control over the space lies firmly with the occupants.

With close family and friends we proudly give  the grand tour, extended history of the whole house and free rein to relax and wander from room to room.  Private rooms such as bedrooms, personal bathrooms and studies we consider to be out of bounds. To breach these unspoken codes of spatial behaviour crosses the line where an openly welcomed guest becomes an unwelcome snooper.

At every hour, of every day, our home may not be exactly in the condition we would ‘like’ it to be. A lived-in home has a natural level of disruption and disorder. 

Fore-warned, the occupants will have time to tidy up, buy biscuits, change out of pyjamas, brush the floor and be ready to present their best selves.  Being more prepared enables the occupants to feel more hospitable, which means the visitor will be  made to feel more welcome.

To distract from the scuffed paintwork… the  stained carpet… and torn wallpaper, we tidy and primp the space.  We use clean towels, fresh flowers, newly-plumped cushions to draw our visitor’s eyes elsewhere.  These quick, cosmetic fixes are visual distractions from the space of our everyday self. That is, who we are when we are ‘at home’ day to day, every day.

This is the ‘home’ we do not allow outsiders to see. 

The space is, what it is – there is really only so much that can be done in minutes  to change how a room looks. Tidy, or not.

For important visitors we may bring out our best (rarely used) cutlery, crockery, glasses and clean the home from top to bottom. Special, and seasonal occasions break up the daily routine – where we eat, what we eat and with whom. It gives us pleasure to share our home and hospitality, and it is important to us that people are happy. 

A visitor will always be a guest – because this is not their home.

Visitors outstay their welcome if they stay too long, or make themselves too much ‘at home’. And, as Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said: “Guests like fish,  begin to smell after three days.”

When we visit someone’s home first impressions count.

In an instant we can assess their income level, literary and artistic choices (highbrow/lowbrow) the quality of furnishings (dated, vintage, cheap, IKEA). This is an immediate response, done without thinking. Unconsciously, we approve/ disapprove of colour choices and look for anything unusual such as:  lack/ over-representation of family photos, religious icons, hobbies. 

To connect with the occupants a visitor looks for shared experiences and interests. That is:  what people collect/display,  evidence of their cultural history, family souvenirs, quirky details. Mentally we compare it with our own home and other homes we have visited. But also, we clock how tidy, how clean, how organised the space is; whether or not we ‘like’ it and if we feel comfortable.  

We quickly piece together what we know about the people who live there – or, what we thought we knew. Visitors might notice where certain rooms reflect individual tastes, or one person’s taste, or a woman’s touch.

It requires no special expertise to ‘read’ a home environment, other than  to pay attention to detail.

However, it is a level of engagement that combines intellect and the senses with a view of the world. This evaluation and judgement is more than just a designation of personal style. It is much more revealing and objective.

To every environment people bring their own values, judgement, insight, sensitivity and experience. But also a personal understanding of what they value in terms of comfort, quality of design, light, character, function and spatial practicalities.

To every home we being our own sense of what makes a home, a home. 

We draw on our knowledge of spaces we have visited together with images of homes from movies and TV programmes, websites and books. Fascinated by how others live, we are therefore drawn to the homes of celebrities on MTV Cribs, and visit stately homes just to see how the other half live. Entering a Blue Plaque home makes that person, and his/her lifestyle more real.

Lockdown has given us unusual access to other people’s homes.

On Zoom, we see glimpses of kitchens, studies, living rooms – and not just of the people we work with. Journalists, we normally only see in a formal setting fronting The News, are now reporting from their homes. Because this is their homes we see more of their personality and way of living, which makes them seem instantly more relatable.

From our own experience we might also recognise where a soap character’s curtains come from. The Queen Vic wallpaper…  Ken Barlow’s kitchen cupboards…Friends, apartment chic? If we are to believe these characters are ‘real’  we also have to believe that the style, content and quality of their home fits with what we know of their character – and history.

We use our full body sense to see, smell, feel and listen for cues that tell us information about a space. Very quickly, we can tell a lot: whether the owners had curry last night, the ticking of a clock, proximity to the flight path, cat’s hairs on the sofa, lingering cigarette smoke, the richness  – or stickiness – of the carpet pile. 

Passing a value judgement on someone’s home may seem harsh and critical.

But it is an instinctive and a primal response. We are continually assessing and evaluating our surroundings for danger/safety, as well as personal comfort. Fight, flight… or lay back and relax. 

Making a judgement is much more that  a comparison of good taste/ bad taste. It also relates to  the occupants’ mental health and wellbeing.  Hoarders, for example, have been the subject of many TV programmes. Their homes choc-a-block with items collected over time, left unsorted, and piled up as precious belongings; nothing ever thrown out. 

A neat and tidy home suggests the people who live there are in control of their environment – and their life. But, it could also denote a level of OCD and an unhealthy obsession with cleaning and perfectionism. It could be a life lived to maintain a photo-ready, ideal home. 

Our home is our own private space, but there are times when outsiders (with authority) may need to intervene, collect evidence and evaluate our home environment.

To spot sings of neglect, and to safeguard children, social workers in Worcester use a Home Conditions Assessment tool. In a 45 minute announced – or unannounced visit – the professionals, parents and young person (together) complete a form that identifies (on a sliding scale) evidence of odour, cleanliness of the floors, decorative order, cleanliness and tidiness of the kitchen, cooking utensils and crockery. It also covers the bathroom, furnishings, personal hygiene, household general appearance and evidence of food in the cupboards.   Specific attention is given to bedding and toys, and if there are signs of drug paraphernalia or vermin. A home for children is also expected to include basic safety features and basic essential utilities, be clutter-free and have non-aggressive pets. 

Of course, child neglect occurs in a luxurious, well-maintained homes too, and so the visible signs and condition of the home are just one consideration. A home that seems ‘too perfect’  (a gilded cage) with little or no signs of being lived-in, or personality, might also raise alarm bells. 

As a visitor, when experiencing any environment  (or home) the most important thing of all, is the  personal ‘welcome’ that you receive. That is, about being made to feel comfortable, to feel special and/or part of the household – or not. 

Wipe your feet… take off your shoes… please sit here…warm yourself by the fire… can I get you anything more…more tea?

The level of welcome we receive directly affects how we think about the occupants and their home.  Feeling ignored, some level of hostility, bored or lonely can become the associated memory of that place.   So, no matter how beautiful it looks,  the emotional experience (comfort/discomfort), is what we remember most.

TV programmes such as Through The Keyhole and This is My House  make use of our finely-honed spatial sense-making, our ability to read wider, visual and environmental cues.  The idea is to connect what we see, to what we know and what we presume,  to interpret information about the occupants. That is, who they are and what they do. 

The clues are: the style and layout of home, decorative details and personal belongings. We note the occupants’ tidiness, attitude to consumption and lifestyle. From all this we can deduce some idea of their personal interests and traits.

Real lived-in homes can be messy and somewhat mis-matched.

In addition, they may have damp, leaks, floods and draughts. It is only by living somewhere that we truly discover the foibles and characteristics of a space; the lingering smells, noisy neighbours, creaky floorboards, doors that stick. And, we also recognise that these are not ‘selling points’.

Because ‘home’ is  the place we leave and come back to every day it is difficult  to think about it objectively as a space. That is, until we want to sell it. 

When selling up we want to know exactly how our home compares to others. How much it is worth, what other people have, and what they are looking for. And so, when viewing other people’s homes we think: that might work in my house.

We can  identify  homes that have a better layout, are more comfortable, and have a more up to date interior; homes that are brighter, better maintained and more appealing. This realisation can spur us to make changes – big and small – to our own home.

We turn to interior design magazines and websites not just for inspiration and new ideas, but for the know-how to create a new look. They help to focus our minds.

From beautiful images of how other people live we learn what colours, kitchens, styles are in/out. We evaluate what we like/ dislike, what we are prepared to change and how much money we might have to spend. They help us to see what people are currently doing to transform their homes. And so we use these images to narrow our focus on materials and ideas, shapes, forms and styles.

But of course, these homes are all staged, styled and  carefully arranged to look attractive and inviting. They have fresh flowers, tastefully arranged throws and the table is set for dinner. It looks just as if the occupants have momentarily left the room.

Professionally lit and co-ordinated, primped and prepared  these images present a comfortable and ‘homely’ look. They are expertly produced by people who have learned the art of placement and ‘personality’. That is, how  to make it look not just tidy but  appealing and desirable.

However, listing a home puts private space firmly into the public domain. Through property websites we get to see ‘inside’ any number of homes – without having to be invited.

In a listed home we can see exactly what other people (and our neighbours) have done to their interior. We can estimate how much they have spent. We see how they live. 

In the US, home-stagers typically work  alongside realtors to add value to listed homes. They aim to transform your home with a makeover – not for you to live in – but so it will sell.

Home stagers have the design flair and experience to create a cohesive and inviting look, irresistible to all potential buyers. They work with the bare bones of the space and (according to the budget) dress the space to impress. 

Home stagers understand how to make a home more appealing and know exactly what viewers are looking for. And so, they set up the appropriate cues and signs to sway how the viewer sees, and experiences that space.

This could involve a complete makeover – re-decorating and removing all the furniture, curtains and artwork – to be replaced by rented pieces. Or, working with and around the existing elements by simply adding cosmetic ‘personality’ items  ( fruit bowls, throws, art, mock family photos).

At the same time, they will remove the occupants personal clutter  (photos, children’s drawings, dogbaskets). That is because their job ultimately, is to curate the space so that the viewer’s first impression is a lasting impression. 

While a messy desk might be a sign of creative genius, that is someone whose energy is keenly focused – but not on their surroundings –   this would be too much ‘personality’ for a staged home. It’s not what viewers want to see.

The home stager has much in common with set designers and visual merchandisers.

Their job is to create a temporary illusion, as an impression, rather than a longterm solution. It is about influencing a decision (to buy) and to do this they target people’s senses, emotions and desires. 

Therefore, a home that is home staged highlights the best qualities of the space so that people can ‘see’ it as a ready-made home, an aspirational lifestyle and a place that they could see themselves living – and buying. They should feel  a connection, ‘ at home’ and feel like they ‘belong’. 

It is essentially a ‘stage-managed’ experience rather ‘authentic’. What viewers see is a persona of the present owner’s ‘home’; neutralised, sanitised, beautified.

There are of course the old clichés: the smell of freshly baked bread /coffee, newly painted front door, kerb appeal, shiny floors, clean windows, tidy garden. Any sign of neglect may make the home look sad, exuding a negative vibe.

Viewers are not guests. They should feel comfortable in this space, but not make themselves too comfortable. The ‘welcome’ lasts only for the time slot they are given.  Often, they may not even meet the people who own this property, because the house must ‘sell’ itself. 

A viewer has more access privileges than a visitor or guest. Because they are assessing and evaluating the space they are permitted to open built-in cupboards and drawers, access the roofspace and bathrooms. They can measure rooms and windows,  check out the garage and shed, tap the walls and look under the stairs. They also get to openly say what they think about the space and its potential.  Which, as we see every week on Location, Location, Location,  can mean  denigrating the current occupants’ décor, lifestyle and layout. 

Evidence suggests a home that is not ‘staged’ will not sell as well as one that is.

A home that looks  too lived-in, that is, expressing too much of the personality of the people who live there can distract people emotionally from the space.  For example: purple walls, murals, Victorian doll collection, 20 cats, a shrine for a deceased relative… are a complete no-no. This is not want viewers want to see. Anything that could put them off – will put them off.

To appeal to viewers’ imagination that this could be ‘their home’ estate agents and home stagers therefore tend to favour a ‘neutral palette’ and restrained style. As a result, this influences other people’s own choices. They play safe with what they see as a ‘designer-look’  in grey and beige, because they think that is what will appeal to others – and what will sell.

A staged ‘personality’ effectively eradicates individual characteristics and history and detritus of daily life. One the other hand, it can add glamour and a certain caché. And, even though we know it is all phoney, we still fall for it.

Buying a home is a monumental decision.

For this to be your home you have to imagine yourself living here. Something needs to shift so that feels right, both inside and out. And so, to move from viewer to owner it takes just one step – and a little nudge.

Follow Nuala Rooney:

I am designer, educator and researcher with 25 years teaching/research experience delivering human-centred insights across the social/spatial sphere. My passion lies in exploring people's personal relationships with space across different life stages: design as lived experience.

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