Sometimes, I think the only enjoyable thing about the internet is interiors inspiration. You wake up, reach for your phone and begin to scroll. First, the news, to see if the world is still coming apart at the seams. Then, the sidebar of shame, to ensure famous women are still "pouring their curves" into clothes like liquid sex. Next, Twitter. Everyone is shouting at each other about the ghostwriter of an American influencer they don’t even really care about. You decide to take refuge on Instagram.
Typing in #interiors, you find 18.5m posts to swipe through. Far from feeling overwhelmed by this bottomless ocean of content, you feel relief at how deep you can dive into it. Accounts overflow with verdant houseplants – monstera deliciosa in terracotta pots. They soothe you. You imagine, for a moment, that you live in the Barbican conservatory and not in a box room so small you’re not sure if it’s allowed to be let out as a bedroom, which you can’t really afford anyway. It feels good.
Norman Fucking Rockwell (Lana Del Rey’s new album) plays through your phone and, just like that, you emerge from an end-of-summer spiral of non-specific millennial anxieties about student loans, whether people are judging you because you’re not vegan, late capitalism and the climate crisis to find that you are just like everyone else. All you want is a home of your own. One that you can fill with stuff. Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like you to have, but you have it. Like your favourite poet, Emily Dickinson, who never married and seldom left her family home, you dwell in possibility.
Two more clicks and you land on the page of an influencer with 300k followers. The backdrop against which her life is set is the home she owns in west London. You followed every single update while she was doing it up. You know her parents probably bought it for her but you’re prepared to do some magical thinking. You muse on her mustard walls. You could absolutely make that colour work in that house you bookmarked on Rightmove yesterday. You respect her cream sofa. A bold move for a woman with a young child. This could be me, you think as you click on the tags to see where her scalloped-edge lamp is from even though you know you can’t afford it. But, if you could, you would put it in the living room, although your housemate would probably break it. She breaks everything.
Growing numbers of young people in Britain today cannot afford to buy a home of their own. As a report from the Resolution Foundation warned last year, a third of those born between 1981 and 2000 could be renting from cradle to grave because home ownership is increasingly unaffordable and unattainable.
Private renting has swelled in the last two decades. At age 30, four in 10 millennials live in a house owned by a landlord. That’s twice the number of Generation Xers and four times the number of baby boomers who rented at the same age. It’s worse for women, for whom, the Women’s Budget Group points out, there is nowhere – not a single place – in the United Kingdom where housing is affordable.
Millennials are a much maligned generation. It feels like not a week goes by without an article about how lazy and/or entitled we are. All the while, we’re just trying to keep our heads above water while we work to hand over the majority of our take-home pay to someone from an older generation who got lucky in the buy-to-let market.
We got a very bad deal when we were landed with tuition fees which our parents and grandparents’ generations didn’t have to pay. Things got worse when we inherited a housing crisis they’d benefited from by speculating on houses as assets and not homes. And still they write articles about how our problems are all our fault because we can’t stop eating avocados.
Yet despite the fact that so many of us will never own homes of our own, millennials are keeping the British tradition of interiors inspiration alive. Just as we watched Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen spew camp baroque fixtures and fittings over new-builds in Berkshire as children or listened in our teens to Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud ask whether a painfully trendy '00s couple would go over budget as they built their dream home out of steel and glass in the middle of a West Country field, we look longingly through the window of Instagram into the homes of other people.
I can’t look away. Nor, it seems, can you. It can be no coincidence that we flock in our droves to follow influencers who are living out our unrealised fantasies by buying houses (not tiny flats) and doing them up on social media. There are middleweight accounts like Alex Steadman’s TheFrugality, where she champions the art of slow, affordable renovation from her London home to her 234k followers. Or Brittany Bathgate, who took us step by step through the impeccably tasteful makeover she and her boyfriend Dean gave their Norwich home.
And then there are behemoths like Poppy Deyes (sister of YouTuber Alfie) with 1.1 million followers. At just 28 years old she has defied the statistics by becoming a homeowner no less than five years before the national average of 33. A post about floor tiles from her newly purchased Brighton home gets more than 28k likes.
If interior inspiration and property porn can thrive in the midst of an epic national housing crisis, does that make us masochists or hopeless optimists?
If interior inspiration and property porn can thrive in the midst of an epic national housing crisis, does that make us masochists or hopeless optimists? I’m genuinely asking the question because I recently bought a subscription to Elle Decoration.
At night, to unwind after a hard day, I like to sit in the bath flicking through its flawlessly curated pages stuffed full of beautiful things I’ll never be able to buy, placed perfectly in homes I’ll never be able to set foot in, let alone afford. This should make me feel a sense of loss, it ought to be the lifestyle equivalent of lurking on the profile of the ex ex ex boyfriend you’re still completely in love with a decade later even though you know you’re never getting back together and, yet, it brings me peace.
Property aspiration is nothing new. This is Britain, after all. A country which once bought so enthusiastically into the idea of becoming a nation of homeowners that it self-harmed in the process by selling off all its social housing. On Instagram, influencers are only doing what TV producers were doing two decades ago. It’s just shoppable now.
The first episode of Grand Designs aired in 1999. Twenty years ago. We were approaching the end of the 20th century, fearing humanity would short-circuit as the clock struck midnight on the cusp of the year 2000. The air crackled with fear and excitement. We were more preoccupied with the idea that the millennium bug would cause planes to fall out of the sky than the epic housing crisis on the horizon.
That year, people were losing their homes. Repossessions hit a record high that would only be topped in 2008, when the global financial crash hit. As we approach another recession, with the elastic relationship between house prices and what we earn stretched to its limit, property porn and interiors inspo continues to thrive because we can't help but hope that, one day, it could be us living in a sanctuary where we can shelter from the storm.