Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Rustic chic": homage or insult?

Earlier this year, the Lifetime TV network debuted a new show called "Picker Sisters," in which two interior designers (Tanya McQueen and Tracy Hutson) travel around the country buying up junk that their contractor transforms into art or furniture to be sold in the Los Angeles store. The show's website explains it this way:
With keen eyes for style and intuitive design instincts, they travel far and wide to find jaw-dropping bargains on any interesting materials they discover before driving back to California and transforming them into pieces that will fetch top dollar. Whether it's a tarnished file tank sitting in a junk yard, mangled barbed wire, rusty tire wheels or the weathered wood from an entire barn, Hutson and McQueen meet and negotiation with some of the country's most interesting people willing to part with their belongings...for the right price.
Jackie Cooper, a film critic for The Huffington Post, describes the premise as a "horror film waiting to happen." In most cases, the well-coiffed and fashionable women (often wearing short-shorts) arrive at a property in the "middle of nowhere" and begin bargaining with strangers for junk. Mr. Cooper's review of the show, while positive, is loaded with troubling stereotypes of rural America.

In fact, my first impression of the show was laced with similar stereotypes. I admit that when I saw a preview for "Picker Sisters," I worried that it would be an unfortunate example of "big city" designers talking down to (and ripping off) the "rural folk." I couldn't get past the image of these well-dressed women waltzing onto these rural properties. Videos on the website feature banjo-fueled country music in the background. I imagined uncomfortable culture clashes between the LA-based Hutson and McQueen and the individuals they met in Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Or the kind of dumbing-down of (Southern) rural America as described in this New York Times piece and this blog's related post.

I approached the show with suspicion, but my fears of exploitation and stereotyping were quickly allayed. According to the show's website, Hutson and McQueen both grew up in rural Texas. In the three episodes I watched, they were extremely courteous and paid fair prices for their purchases. All of the people they dealt with were smart, savvy individuals who drove a hard bargain because they seemed to understand that the women would resell the pieces for huge sums of money.

However, it is the reselling of the pieces that brought up me to another question: what is with the popularity (particularly among urban and suburban dwellers) of "rustic chic" design? In the second half of every episode of "Picker Sisters," the women return to Los Angeles and viewers get to see the finished product of their picking efforts: an old sign turned into a headboard, rusty tractor fenders turned into chairs, or a log turned into an end table. Beautiful, if not entirely practical, pieces. Rustic chic with big price tags. At this point, I started to wonder, "Who really buys this stuff?"

Despite my incredulity, "rustic chic" design seems here to stay, for a little while at least. Take, for example, West Elm catalog's Thanksgiving table setting (complete with reclaimed wood and hay bales) featured on the design blog Decor Arts Now, pictured at left.

There is an entire website devoted to rustic weddings, Rustic Wedding Chic. Another similar wedding blog is called Sparkle & Hay. Yet another blog, Rustic Chic, is curated by "an interior designer with feet in both urbane Manhattan and rural New Jersey."

The trend continues beyond the blogosphere. Martha Stewart's New York-based former assistant was married in a field in Tennessee and had her reception in a barn. Her wedding was featured on Martha Stewart's website, show, and in her magazine. A hip new bar near downtown Washington, DC called "American Ice Co." advertises itself as "beers, steers and picnic tables," and serves drinks in mason jars.

Words and materials usually reserved for a country house, cabin, or other non-urban dwelling suddenly seem to be everywhere. A March 2011 article from the New York Times describes some followers of the American Rustic ideal:
It is a simpler, more rustic and American-inflected style that is more general store than taxidermy appointed lodge, and that emphasizes objects that are well-made, durable and useful: wire storage baskets, machine-age metal tools, leather couches, canvas bags, colorful woolen blankets and interiors made of barn wood.
In my personal life, I'm no stranger to the phenomenon. My parents live in suburbia, but in a home full of reclaimed barn wood, old windows, and distressed and "rustic" materials strategically used to make the house look much older than it is.

But after a semester in this course and writing and reading this blog, I'm now looking at "rustic chic" through a new lens. Where is this style coming from? Is fueled by nostalgia, a yearning for a "simpler time"? Is there any real connection between rural and rustic? How much of it is tongue-in-cheek and how much is in earnest? Is based in respect, or in co-opting an other's lifestyle? These are all useful questions to consider as I wait to see if "Picker Sisters" is renewed for a second season!


KB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KB said...

I am glad "Picker Sisters" chose not to show rural America in a negative light. It is refreshing given shows like "Moonshiners,” which documents the clandestine process of making moonshine in rural Appalachia. The fact that the main character consistently dresses in overalls without a shirt and drives an old pickup makes me feel as though the producers strategically use stereotypes when they present the characters and edit the show. The show at times implies that people (moonshiners in particular) from Appalachia are uneducated and do not know how to dress.

As for why rural chic is popular, I think nostalgia plays a big part. The decor in my experience is comforting and relaxing for some reason. Maybe it is because rural chic designs evoke an idealized version of the country where stress is absent and family time is abundant.

ScottA. said...

The problem I always have with rural chic is that I was doing this all before it was "cool." Running a trucking company, my family has a lot of junk laying around. I put up old license plates in my room and my grandpa built a picnic table out of old tractor parts. If we'd have known we'd get paid top dollar for this stuff maybe we would have gotten out of trucking and into fleecing rich people.

Patricija said...

I suppose what bothers me about rustic chic is how urban it is. A lot of these items, even the items created by the "Picker Sisters," are remade under the urban aesthetic, the urban threshold of "classy." The kitchen cabinets are not the same type of cabinets that you would get in a rural town, but mass-produced with certain urban acceptable wood and then "finished" to look rustic. Further, I find the real rustic decor special because it has a story behind it, history within its very fibers.