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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyDecember 17, 2023

Why is everybody’s house greige now?

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

The saturation of grey has been called Greigeification, International Airbnb Style and the Landlord Special. But what’s behind the banal trend?

There’s a children’s book which begins: “Mr Plumbean lived on a street where all the houses were the same.” Mr Plumbean and all his neighbours liked the street, calling it “neat”. Then one day, a seagull dropped a bucket of bright orange paint on Mr Plumbean’s roof, leaving a big orange splot. Instead of tidying it up, he looked at the splot for a long time then went about his business. But the neighbours got tired of seeing the big orange splot. Soon one of them said, “Mr Plumbean, we wish you’d get around to painting your house.”

“OK,” said Mr Plumbean.

If this book were written today, all the houses would be painted in light grey, beige or white. Inside, all the furniture would be simple structures of light wood with rounded corners. The upholstery, bed sheets and curtains would be natural linen in neutral tones. In the corner a fiddle-leaf fig and one red or orange lamp would stand among the sea of beige. That’s the interior design aesthetic that has come to permeate magazines, social media, shops and our homes: minimalist, modernist, and extremely inoffensive. 

Of all the beautiful options in the world, why does it seem like everyone is picking the same one? The saturation of grey has been called Greigeification, International Airbnb Style and the Landlord Special. But what’s behind the banal trend?

Google image search results for ‘living room’.

It probably started with a revival of modernism. Turning to modernism after recessions is a repeated pattern through history, with this particular revival beginning in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. Now, we’re more than 10 years deep into a trend of minimalist and rustic modernism, which is shifting to include touches of midcentury design. 

The origins of architectural modernism, says Julia Gatley, an architectural historian and associate professor at the University of Auckland, are rooted in 1920s Europe, where it was developed with the idea that good design should be accessible to everybody. Its fundamentals are that form should follow function, and be unornamented – in other words no frills, bows, patterns or fussy detailing. 

In New Zealand a regional modernism developed after the second world war. Architects designed in a way that used less material and created more space, which they thought suitable to the informal New Zealand lifestyle. They opened up interiors (fewer walls) and rather than trying to cover up the materials that the buildings were made with, like timber posts, beams and rafters, they exposed them.

The trend we see in magazines today has a similar approach. “It really shows an enthusiasm for working with and really showing off the building materials, rather than covering them up with fabrics and floral patterns, and things like that. I think part of the reason is an appreciation of the crafting that goes into the making of a quality building,” says Gatley. When she says it like that, the current modernism is the opposite of a coat of greige paint, yet somehow it’s trickled down to that.

Originally modernist simplicity was about quality, but in trying to emulate that cheaply, people are using greige as a cover-up. Modernist furniture designs were simple and pared back so that quality would be accessible to all. Now, that same style can be bought in flimsy Kmart versions. The form has been removed from its function. Greigeification, International Airbnb Style and the Landlord Special don’t show a considered modernism but instead its most basic aesthetic features turned into an inoffensive neutrality.

Forget millennial pink, it’s greige now.

In February 2023 TikToker @chloeisag coined the term “millennial grey” through a video about finding a grey bathroom in a Mexican restaurant. “It’s giving sponsored by Hobby Lobby,” she sang, “it’s giving house flipping … It’s giving airport”. More than three million people saw the video in five days, and now millennial grey has its own entry on Knowyourmeme. Examples of the meme show before and afters of renovations, where the befores are spaces with character features, and the afters are grey and described as “soulless”.

Kate Wagner, an architecture critic and author of the hilarious McMansion Hell blog, attributes the bland uniformity to a confluence of factors in one of her columns. One is the modernism trend, but bigger than that, Wagner thinks the chokehold of Greigeification is a result of the commodification of housing. “The home is no longer seen as a space of personal expression or comfort, or as the backdrop of everyday life, but primarily as an investment and as an asset – meaning that enforcing one’s aesthetics is a financially detrimental decision.” 

The problem with having a unique interior is that other people might not like it. If your house was going to be your home for a long time, it wouldn’t matter. But that is not the reality of housing. In New Zealand, houses are sold on average every five years and six months. For owner-occupiers, a home is usually their biggest financial investment and asset. If you do something weird, it could conceivably reduce its value by narrowing its market. For landlords, a house is a product that must appeal to renters. For renters, a house is transitory, somewhere difficult to personalise because they are under the power of their landlord, and because on average, they move every year.

The managing director of Harcourts Metro in Auckland certainly seems like someone who knows the power of appearances. Todd Sherley regularly wears suits, crisp shirts and a belt with a silver Louis Vuitton emblem as the buckle. “Generally speaking, if I compare property that’s vacant and been nicely staged by a company [with occupied properties filled with real people’s decor], then definitely we do get more inquiries. I don’t know the exact percentage, but it’s definitely noticeable.” 

Plain spaces are thought to allow people to project their own furniture and lives on to a property. In his 12 years of selling houses, Sherley has seen, and embraced, the trend toward using staging; that is, having professionals style houses with furniture and decor. “Stagers have quite modern, sort of vanilla furniture, nothing with too much personality,” he says, “so that it appeals to as many people as possible.” This look works in the favour of the sellers. 

Real estate staging in Auckland.

Because of this trend, agents like Sherley don’t let vacancy completely determine whether a house should be staged. “If we’re selling a property and the owners are still in there, and they’ve got quite a distinct flavour, their own style, or maybe it’s an older couple, and they’ve got the La-Z-Boys from 25 years ago, stuff like that, then we quite often do recommend that they get a staging company in.” He says “it’s crazy how just having a big old couch can really date a nice space.”

His usual staging costs for a three-bedroom house will be around $2,000 – it has become cheaper as it has become more popular, and vice versa. Essentially it’s an investment to attract more potential buyers. 

The neutral tide does not stop with houses that are for sale or rent. Catherine Huckerby, an expert on colour with her own interior design practice and business teaching others about colour, says that the key considerations she makes when choosing colours for her clients’ houses are their personality and lifestyle, the style of the house and the quality of light in each room.

Part of your lifestyle is how you view your house. When she arrived in New Zealand from the UK 13 years ago, Huckerby was used to working with lots of colour, but here, “people were very, very scared of using any colour”. They would tell her that because they may sell their house at some point in the future they wanted something which “wouldn’t upset people”. She says they were really asking to make their houses blank canvases.

Neutral colours are also popular because people think, “Well, I’m not gonna be painting every year”, so they prefer to go for colours which seem to be timeless, she says. But this is a fish-in-water situation – people get used to seeing certain colours and “often think it isn’t a trend”, but even within the neutrals there are trends. Twenty years ago it was creamy, yellow-based neutrals. Ten years ago it was cooler colours, like greys. Now people are wanting warmer neutrals again, but rather than a yellow base more pinkish. It isn’t unusual for people to repaint their homes in a slightly different neutral tone, especially if they’ve just moved in. 

A small selection of Dulux’s many greys.

After the Covid pandemic, Huckerby says, people are starting to “want some personality in the house”. They’re getting braver with colours, and terracotta is coming back into fashion (until recently it was considered dated). People are more open to feature walls and patterned wallpaper. At the same time, they are wanting to make their homes comforting and peaceful, so greens and blues are having a moment, whether they be sage, olive, or even deeper. Green is described on the Dulux website as “versatile”.

Another factor people consider is wanting to fit into the neighbourhood. Huckerby’s clients will often take walks to find colours they like, and then point out these houses to her, asking her to recreate a similar palette. This creates localised trends – “for instance, in Ponsonby and places around there, there’s lots of white, off-white, black and white palettes used, and then that also transitions to the interior.” It’s just like Mr Plumbean’s neat street.

Mr Plumbean bought blue paint, white paint, red paint, yellow paint, green paint and purple paint. He painted all through the night. When he was finished, the orange splot was still there. Around it were rainbows, a jungle, animals and other wonderful things. 

Page 11 of The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater, 1977.

The neighbours said, “Plumbean has popped his cork, flipped his wig, blown his stack, and dropped his stopper.” For a while they pretended not to notice, but when they saw Mr Plumbean drinking lemonade on a hammock strung between two new palm trees, they said, “Plumbean has gone too far!”

They took it upon themselves to visit and ask him to change his house back, so they could have a neat street again. But as each one visited and stayed up late drinking lemonade and chatting with Mr Plumbean, more and more of the houses started changing, until every house on the street was different to the next.

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