House hunting for renters is grim at the moment, with skyrocketing prices, shoddy structures and paltry fixtures.
But look beyond the black mould and you’ll see a flattening of design features across our homes. Long gone are the days of exposed brick or 90s feature walls; instead, domestic interiors have succumbed to subtle shades of white, grey and beige — or their cursed cousin: greige.
Once limited to the real estate market — houses stripped of all character to appeal to potential buyers — the greige aesthetic (unlike the wealth!) has trickled down; rental properties today sport poorly painted walls in neutral shades and a limited choice between cheap carpet, laminate and fake timber flooring — aka the “landlord special”.
“It looks like someone took the wood and let it soak in the sea, and then put it on the beach and let it dry, and then somehow made a floor out of it,” says architecture critic Kate Wagner.
While renters were previously able to leave an imprint on their homes, a landlord-geared market in which tenants are cash-strapped and in desperate competition with each other has seen greigeness proliferate.
Worse still, this anti-aesthetic has seeped across the various surfaces of contemporary culture, including fashion.
Whether it’s the beige and black cashmere turtlenecks of stealth wealth (think Gwyneth Paltrow’s trial looks, Succession’s Roy family and Lydia Tár) that we’re lusting after or the elevated sportswear of COVID normcore that we’re living with, there’s a stultifying lack of colour.
‘The landlord special’
Wagner has been documenting McMansions — the gargantuan and gauche homes of suburban USA — for seven years on her blog McMansion Hell, and has recently revisited listings of homes that are still on the market.
“[These homes once] had outlandish interiors … [but now they are] completely grey on the inside,” she told ABC RN’s Blueprint for Living.
Wagner credits the availability of thousands of online real estate listings for the dearth of colour in the property market.
“[Real estate agents] can see what sells, and then they can encourage their sellers to imitate that. And then the rest of us [renters] have access to interiors that were unthinkable a decade ago.”
This trend is complemented by virtual staging, a technology that was popularised during lockdowns, whereby furniture (greige, obviously) is digitally inserted into empty spaces.
“The grey walls and these [box-like spaces] in real estate listings enable the virtual furniture to look more natural, and create an uncanny valley effect that is ripe for digital augmentation,” explains Wagner.
Where did greige start?
Greige has been oozing its way into our aesthetic for well over a decade now, in the wake of the 2007-2009 global financial crisis, which left “opulence” for dead.
It first took purchase in the post-recession trends of minimalism and farmhouse modernism — but at this point, Wagner says, the dominance of greige has little to do with personal taste; rather, it is a result of “the commodification of the house and of the home itself”.
Put simply: “We’ve kept the minimalism because it sells houses,” she says.
“We’re living in times of unprecedented housing scarcity, and if we start to think of things with a scarcity mindset, they lose a lot of joy. And this is reflected in the fact that there’s no colour in houses anymore.”
As with any trend, there is inevitably a backlash, and Wagner says she’s noticed an appetite recently for older houses with charm and distinctiveness.
Some of us, at least, are eager to move beyond the greige box.
“[Ultimately] we need to radically rethink what space does for us, what shelter does for us, [and move towards] the idea of housing as a human right, instead of as this ridiculous commodity,” Wagner concludes.
The Australian context
Wagner is based in Chicago, US and Ljubljana, Slovenia — and she says greige is decidedly an “Anglo phenomenon”.
Wagner suggests that’s because longer-term rentals (which embolden renters to leave their mark on their homes) are the norm in Europe, rather than short leases or home ownership.
Sue Fenton, an interior designer at global architecture firm Woods Bagot and PhD candidate at RMIT University, says she’s noticed our built environments become increasingly less distinct in Australia.
Rather than embracing vintage timberwork, for example, people are choosing to paint over it in white.
“People are frightened of colour because it is hard to harness and control what you’re going to get. And then you have difficulty explaining to a builder how to execute it for you.”
This sense of caution is compounded by increased housing mobility.
“[People are asking themselves] ‘What sort of interior is going to last the next five years? Because I’m probably going to put it [my property] on the market then.'”
“There’s a pace and the cost of buildings, which leads to not taking risks.”
Building costs have skyrocketed since COVID, and many building companies have collapsed.
But even before that, the McMansions that dotted Australian suburbia in the 90s and 00s had given way to volume-built, box-style homes and apartments, often in muted colours.
“Many builders find a recipe that they can leverage in order to make financial gain … [these houses] are all pretty atypical. It’s kind of scary. They don’t have anything unique or anything that’s sympathetic with the [area that they’re built in],” says Fenton.
Fenton says there are glimmers of hope — and colour — with those at the higher end of the market hiring architects to help them build homes with character, and not-for-profit housing organisations such as Melbourne’s Nightingale using colour in their interiors and exteriors.
However, this doesn’t have to be the realm of the high-end and bespoke housing providers.
“Paint is, ironically, where you can do something quite cheaply, using colour in a manner which allows you to transform a space … and there’s also the ability to turn it around later.”
Plus, Fenton says that in larger-scale projects including workplaces and educational facilities, designers are using colour in paint and other surface materials to lure people back to these spaces.
From stealth wealth to COVID normcore
Author and former Vogue Australia editor-in-chief Kirstie Clements recalls attending an Australian interior design event earlier this year in which “not only were all the interiors and what was on offer all in beige, neutral, tan, black or white — so were the guests.
“If someone walked in in colour, a fire alarm would have gone off,” she jokes.
“The greigification of fashion is definitely a trend at the moment, with a lot of the young influencers; it’s beige trench coats and white roll neck sweaters. They all look like Gwyneth [Paltrow] to be honest, at various pricepoints.”
In March, Paltrow’s court looks — including cream turtleneck sweaters, “serial killer sunglasses”, A-line skirts and expensive handbags — had the internet abuzz.
Clements describes them as “the epitome of stealth wealth … a very discreet form of expensive dressing. Only a true insider could spot the label or the designer that she [Paltrow] was wearing, which is the whole point of stealth wealth, it’s very insider.”
The outfits of Succession’s Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) are another prime example of stealth wealth, says Clements.
“Roll neck sweaters, pearl and gold jewellery, pantsuits all in shades of neutrals … [it’s saying] our clothes cost a lot of money, but we’re not shouting about it.”
This contrasts with the loud looks of new money billionaire tech bro Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) or the, famously, ludicrously capacious bag.
While the stealth wealth aesthetic has been in the zeitgeist this year, it’s even older than greige.
“[It has its origins in] intergenerational wealth; you hand down the watches through the family. Think of those old school families, maybe in upstate New York or Italy or France, who have got this classic way of dressing,” she says.
“It’s a uniform of privilege, and the fabrics speak for themselves, not the style or the colour or the print. And they don’t change from year to year … it’s the opposite of fast fashion.”
But Clements says monochromania is spreading into new (more democratic) areas, with an “elevated style of trackwear” now dominating air travel fashion.
She traces this back to COVID lockdowns and our embrace of elastic sweatpants and slip-on shoes.
“Everybody’s discovered how great it feels to be comfortable … it’s a post-COVID normcore democratisation of sporty separates.”
Clements says the only thing now separating the have-lots and have-somes are accessories, with the wealthy kitting their trackwear out with expensive sunglasses, handbags and watches.
As in the housing market, however, every greige wave has its ebbs and flows, and Clements says colour is resurgent in fashion.
“[The way that] the new generation are dressing is super colourful, [with] big clashes of print and a lot of irony. It’s completely gender fluid and everybody’s got coloured hair and coloured this and that.”
Perhaps gen Z will provide hope for our homes. If they can ever get one.