The Strange Appeal of Shelter TikTok

The apartment appears in flashes as a song by Frank Ocean plays. We see a white couch with throw pillows: white squares, pink square, ocher orb, black square. Later come quick cuts: to a standing bookshelf (white spines only), to the throw pillows again, to a transparent coffee table (an opportunity, really, to show off the checked rug beneath). We see a pet dog on bedspread, a side table, a TV stand, the couch again, a dining area with Thonet-style chairs. Among these curated images is a shelf of curated objects, centered on a Polaroid camera. Then come the bedroom, the bar cart, the white Smeg toaster. It all goes by before we can absorb it, but we aren’t meant to absorb it — only to have impressions.

This is a typical post on what I’ve come to think of as Shelter TikTok, a 2021 spin on the design and architecture magazines of the 20th century. On Shelter Tok, you don’t move through a space so much as lurch through it, gravitating from item to item. Mainstays of the genre include zoomed-in footage of carefully placed objects and a lack of interest in negative space. On TikTok, everything flashes by; why should homes be any different?

In another video, we watch a tattooed hand turn a gold lighting dial before panning across an upholstered headboard. From there we cut to the ceiling, where a wooden pendant light hangs from white molding amid undulating zebra stripes. The camera spins away to the floor, where we see that the headboard isn’t for a bed; it supports a row of orange cushions. Nearby is an emerald rug with an orange border and a stylized image of a cheetah at its center. We see a gilt-framed smiley face. A projection screen that rolls up to reveal a mirror above a white brick fireplace. Hanging plants. An alcove full of windows. We’re back to the hand on the dial; the video loops.

There are people who will study these TikToks carefully, as I have. They will pause in each room to note details that can be collected on their Pinterest boards, if not in their own homes. They want to know where the couch is from, the rug, the bookshelf. “This is my style exactly!” says one commenter on that first video, perhaps happy to find a new way of identifying herself. “What would you call this?”

The first known use of the term “shelter magazine” appeared in The New York Times in 1946, when the paper reported that Jerome J. Brookman had been named advertising manager of Your Own Home, a “shelter magazine devoted to low-cost housing.” Brookman was a World War II veteran, and his return home coincided with a housing boom, as 2.4 million other veterans received government-backed loans to put toward their (often suburban) American dreams. It was during this period that tastemakers like Elizabeth Gordon, who edited House Beautiful for 23 years, made the shelter category a blueprint for living. In 1960, Gordon’s two-issue series on the Japanese concept of shibui was so popular that the set resold for as much as $12 — the…

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