America is a nation obsessed with looking at and acquiring other people's interiors. Architectural Digest, Metropolitan Home and their ilk suggest that the only thing more interesting than other people's sex lives is other people's homes.
Artist and architect Mark Robbins deals in a similar vernacular of people and the houses that shelter them. But his photographic project, Summer Places & Households on display Nov. 15-Jan. 3 at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, takes a very different approach. Robbins documented more than 40 households from Manhattan to Nashville. The large color photographs of the homes are placed next to photographs of their occupants, some clothed and some nude, to create a kind of mural of domesticity.
"Overall I want to be able to show how we actually live, rather than the way we're often depicted ... in Architectural Digest or 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," says Robbins. "Generally we only see really, really wealthy homes as something that we should aspire to or we see the complete abjection of the interiors we see on shows like 'Cops.'"
But Summer Places & Households shares one essential quality with the more traditional brand of house porn: a voyeuristic curiosity about how other people live.
When he was just a child of 7 or 8, Robbins' mother used to take him to model homes to scrutinize what he calls their "stage set" interiors, which suggested occupancy but never offered it. In Households, Robbins continues that curiosity about what lurks behind the neighbor's door, even as it digs a little deeper, suggesting that people are more complex than the sum total of their material world.
Speaking by phone from his own 1940s apartment building in Washington, D.C., Robbins says he sees his work as a truer vision of America and its inhabitants. Instead of the alienating perfection of the homes featured in shelter mags, Robbins' human-scaled photographs convey intimacy. Summer Places & Households offers an array of American living spaces, though gay domesticity is a recurring interest for Robbins. By showing gay men next to their intimate, cozy surroundings, Robbins normalizes gay life, making it comparable to the more traditional American couples and families in other photographs.
The homes Robbins documents range from a cluttered suburban living room flanked by its elderly residents to a posh East Hampton estate to a 200-square-foot apartment in Manhattan, about which Robbins quips, "When the Murphy Bed is down, there goes his dining room."
Robbins has a longstanding interest in the various intersections of design, home, America and architecture. A former director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, Robbins trained as an architect and is currently a visiting teacher at Georgia Tech. He completed the Households project under the auspices of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, a scholarly community devoted to the study of women, gender and society.
Robbins still likes to tour the kind of model homes he visited with his mother, though now the world of unattainable perfection those interiors promised is more transparent. The triple Corian sinks and his-and-her blow dryers, which connote "high class" and spread awed waves of "ooos" and "aaaahs" through his fellow home-tour voyeurs, just hide essentially bad design, says Robbins.