While I truly adore HGTV, their shows are mostly about magical before-and-after reveals, not about the style in which the designers are decorating or the history behind those looks.
Thanks to Barbie and her role in popular culture, Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge (airing for four Sundays in July and August) touches on design history throughout Barbie’s life—since 1959—and how those decades have been reflected in her own Dreamhouse.
HGTV is teaching design history and I am excited to see it.
The history is light, to be sure, but I am glad to see the channel consider real design history and the way it has infiltrated Barbie’s and our lives. The final product is a light journey through our childhoods with tidbits of the history of design woven in.
How Barbie brings design history to life
The premise of Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge is eight teams each renovate the rooms of a real house in different decades that mirror the various Dreamhouses that have come out over the past 60 years.
During the renovation, Mattel marketing and design executives are interviewed and explain the integral role that design history has had on Barbie.
But honestly, I think through the process of this series, it becomes clear that, thanks to Barbie, there is a lot of design history most people already know, whether they realize it or not.
I should begin by confessing that I never technically owned a Barbie Dreamhouse, though I loved them. I had a handmade, wooden doll house in the style of a 1970s Swiss chalet—likely based on the 1979 A-Frame Dreamhouse. It took up nearly a quarter of my bedroom, and its physical size was matched only by the amount of love I had for it in my heart.
I had friends with the Dreamhouse and I admired its modernity and bold colors, but the great thing about my doll house was that I got to redecorate it. My mom would take me to the local interior design shop where I picked out old wallpaper and carpet samples that they were discarding.
I had Barbies, a lot of Barbies, but for me, the internal story I created for them of where they lived was so much more exciting than the dolls themselves. At one point I designed a round house in my hula hoop and Barbie lived there for a good week before moving back into the chalet.
Barbie and her house, furniture, and interior design choices had such a profound impact on me that I would partially attribute it to helping me choose my career. Between then and now, I ended up getting two degrees, one in architecture and one in design history. I have worked as a decorative arts curator in museums and historic houses.
How history is informing HGTV designers
Fifteen minutes into the first Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge episode, I was elated to hear mention of the Memphis style movement and the effects the 1964 World’s Fair in New York had on American housing.
The first episode begins with the competitors visiting Mattel Headquarters to see the Dreamhouse archive and learn the rules from host, Supermodel Ashley Graham. In each of the four episodes, two teams of two are assigned a room in the house and the decade from which they should design it.
They must also include a “toyetic” in each room. Before this series, I had never heard this word. But Graham and the designers must have repeated it approximately 150 times during each episode. (It could have been a drinking game!) For those of you who are also not familiar with a “toyetic,” according to the on-screen definition, it is a toy-like feature that often serves a dual purpose.
The competition starts with the Food Network’s chef Antonia Lofaso (Beachside Brawl) teaming up with HGTV renovator Jasmine Roth (Help! I Wrecked My House) to design Barbie’s kitchen and family room in the style of the 1960s.
I was happy to see them immediately reference the original cardboard, fold-out Barbie Dreamhouse from 1962 as inspiration for the mid-century modern patterns and furniture. Lofaso and Roth recreate the exact plaid textile from Barbie’s cardboard sofa and use the decals of the 1962 Dreamhouse as inspiration for the kitchen’s backsplash.
The 1964 World’s Fair in New York is mentioned because it looked to the future and pavilions at the fair offered visitors a glimpse into what new inventions and innovations could do for their homes. If you have visited EPCOT at Disney World, then, in a sense, you have been to the 1964 World’s Fair. Walt Disney helped to design both to show off different countries’ cultural offerings and technological advances.
The 1964 Fair introduced Americans to color television, video telephones, and automated kitchen appliances and was an excellent historical reference for these room renovations.
In a final touch that was fitting and feminist, Lofaso and Roth include a portrait of Astronaut Barbie from 1965 above the fireplace in the style of photographer David Levinthal. The space race was the original inspiration for the atomic age look that was so popular in the middle of the twentieth century: think The Jetsons.
The other team in this episode is Egypt Sherrod and Mike Jackson (Married to Real Estate). They renovate the living and dining rooms in the style of the 1990s. Here, the Mattel designers reference color-blocking, acid-washed denim, and the Memphis style of design.
Memphis was the name of a post-modernist design group, led by Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass in Milan, Italy in the early 1980s. They embraced rule-breaking and shed all previous historical styles—much like Art Nouveau had done in the early 1900s—but this time with geometric shapes, new plastic and industrial materials, and bold colors.
You can see this style in Sharrod and Jackson’s space best in the wallpaper they applied to the wall to the left of the front door and the squiggly lines they painted on the fireplace. If you had a nylon jogging suit in the 1990s, I can pretty much guarantee it was in bold, jewel-tone colors and had a decorative panel of a Memphis-inspired pattern. Just me?
Making the staircase look like a giant pink plastic feature in the living room really brought the feeling of a doll house to life and was a playful choice.
In episode two, 1980s icon Jonathan Knight and his design partner Kristina Crestin (Farmhouse Fixer) were given Barbie’s primary bedroom and bathroom to renovate in the style of the 1980s.
I love how they went for the soft Laura Ashley-inspired 80s and not the punk 80s, as noted by one of the judges, designer Jonathan Adler.
The television shows Dynasty and Miami Vice are noted for their contributions to 80s popular culture and the look of the decade. The idea of “more is more” and maximalism (currently having a resurgence) are also used to describe this decade.
Not only did Knight and Crestin remake the exact Barbie canopy bed that I had, they also used a large-scale pink carnation wallpaper in the bathroom that reminded me of my own doll house.
The funny thing about using real wallpaper scraps to decorate a doll house is that the scale is often too big. This feature was matched by their oversized recreation of a Barbie brush hanging on the bathroom wall. For me, that was the personal, nostalgic touch that made me fall in love with their rooms.
The 1970s come to Ken’s den
Their very serious competitors, Alison Victoria (Windy City Rehab) and Ty Pennington (Rock the Block) were given the difficult assignment of creating a room that has never existed: Ken’s den.
Because Superstar Ken came about in 1978, their design decade was the 1970s. Inspiration for this decade was disco, glamour in fashion, and patterned wallpaper with even bolder looks than the 1960s.
I appreciated their inclusion of the 1979 Dreamhouse’s latticework pattern within the room. Any reference back to the toy itself is a smart touch in a show all about capitalizing on viewers’ nostalgia.
The influence of disco on the 1970s cannot be overstated and so their toyetic feature of a dance floor à la Saturday Night Fever was absolutely appropriate.
Upcoming in episode three are Keith Bynum and Evan Thomas (Bargain Block) renovating the exterior of the house and giving it Barbie curb appeal versus Brian and Mika Kleinschmidt (100 Day Dream Home) upgrading the backyard, pool, and patio into the perfect place for a party.
It could get trickier in these spaces to reference particular decades. Based on what I have seen in previews, I’m not sure they allude to historical styles, although, they are going to have to start addressing the decades of the twenty-first century, and seeing contemporary designs—while you are in them—is an extra challenge.
The final episode will feature Christina Hall and James Bender (Christina on the Coast) creating Barbie’s walk-in closet against Michel Smith Boyd and Anthony Elle (Luxe for Less) designing her office—two spaces that the Barbie Dreamhouses of my childhood did not have.
While one person will be able to stay in the real-life Barbie Dreamhouse, I hope all viewers walk away with a little more understanding and appreciation for design history and the styles that make each decade discernible and the talented designers—both from today and in the past—who make decorating the space you find yourself living in fun. Thanks to Barbie and to HGTV, we get to learn a little bit about the last 60 years of design history while still getting the satisfaction of the before-and-after reveal. I hope this trend continues on the network.