One of my roommates periodically gets a very crafty idea when it comes to the maintenance of our apartment—he’ll stay up all night and bleach the counters, then pull old wine bottles out of the recycling bin and fill them with olive oil or tap water. The sparkling counters or the shiny glass bottles are refreshing additions to the space; they are also ironic reminders that the floor is covered with little pieces of … something, and the baseboards are grimy, and the sink is full of dishes. The one way to regain control of our lives, given our overall apathy, was through performing a chore that was fun.
That roommate was a frequent reader of Jolie Kerr’s “Ask a Clean Person” column on the women’s interest site The Hairpin, which provides advice to novice homemakers. The advice is, at once, delightfully voicey (“Bleachie,” Ms. Kerr’s term for her favorite cleaning solvent, is a recurring character to whom the author and readers express their “<3”) and useful (bleach really does clean up surfaces like counters). And Ms. Kerr, with her column teaching millennial, gen-Y and gen-X readers how to remove personal fluids from leather or upholstery, is at the forefront of an online movement that’s taking homemaking from the stodgy, didactic world of Martha Stewart et al. to the cluttered homes of youngsters who apparently have no idea how to perform even the most basic task. “How to clean up vomit is a topic you’ll see on Heloise, on Martha,” Ms. Kerr said, “but you won’t find them in a context of people being honest about why they were vomiting on their party clothes.”
It was easy, in the days of Martha’s dominance, to look up to Ms. Stewart while sensing her looking down on you. Ms. Stewart’s business model is based upon marketing the unattainable life. All those lemon centerpieces and deep-fried turkeys and carefully groomed horses add up to a consistent message: you’ll never be this good (prison’s softened her up, but not much). Ms. Kerr and other lifestyle bloggers make cleaning and decorating and cooking seem as easy as, well, blogging.
“Ask a Clean Person,” for instance, takes as its thesis that its reader will know literally nothing about cleaning. Ms. Kerr passes along the knowledge our mothers might have imparted in decades prior: “Hey ladies, do you polish your shoes?” read a column last year. “No? You should!” While Ms. Kerr studiously avoids making fun of those who write in for advice, one question does shock her: “People who don’t understand how to use a sponge … You wonder—has someone else been washing your dishes your whole life?”
Since its inception in March 2011, the column has drawn more than a million unique pageviews, making it one of the most popular features on the site; comments on each post generally number in the hundreds.
While Ms. Kerr’s advice takes into account basic needs, Brit Morin provides the answers to questions never asked. The California-based former Google employee has created a company, named Brit, that aims to share ways to hack the homemaking process. She has shown readers how to convert used laptop chargers into jump ropes and how to make a homemade pizza entirely from canned goods. “If you look at Pinterest and Etsy and Food Network exploding,” said Ms. Morin, “people are enjoying learning to create.”
Ms. Kerr sees it as an “outgrowth of the economy tanking,” she said. “All of a sudden, people couldn’t afford to be eating out as much so they started cooking at home. And all of a sudden they’re in their home and noticing messes.”
“What’s so amazing generationally is that my mother knew everything,” Martha Stewart Living editor-in-chief Pilar Guzmán told The Observer at a recent event for the website Apartment Therapy. “My generation—gen X—we were sort of pushed not to know those things as a sort of feminist reaction. Now I feel like gen Y and the millennials are more excited about the home arts.”
Ms. Morin’s PB&J sushi rolls are perhaps especially appetizing to a young apartment dweller who can’t eat out every night, doesn’t know how to sauté and won’t learn, and, having clicked through Pinterest all day, finds a regular old sandwich disconcertingly plain.
The popularity of sites like Pinterest—where urbanites and Mormon housewives swap notes on cool and attainable home décor—and Etsy—where you can pick up an iron whisk or a “hedge witch whisk” made from real birch and rabbit fur—would seem to indicate that quirk has supplanted aspiration. Spoonfuls of pixelated sugar help the medicine of making your living space presentable go down.
Ms. Morin’s site gets its unschooled quality from the author’s own lack of pretension about her home. “My mom worked all the time,” she said, “so I never really learned how to do things what was considered the proper way. So I would lay over the side of my bed and try criss-crossing strands of my hair until I figured out how to French braid. And I’d put food in the toaster oven and try to make unusual recipes because I wasn’t allowed to use the real oven.” She went on to describe the manner by which she knit Capri Sun packages into a beach tote at age 16. As an origin story, this is not exactly Martha’s catering company.
Fanciful though her methods may be—a recent recipe on the site proposed topping pretzel sticks with pretzel dough for “pretzel pops”—Ms. Morin sees herself as the next homemaking doyenne. Her inspirations include “Rachael Ray for craft and home” as well as Google’s Marissa Mayer and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg.
That Ms. Morin would cite Ms. Ray—the Food Network cook (not chef!)—as a guiding light makes sense; the ambitious Google alumna wanted to start a company, rather than coming up through the food-service or decorating industry. Why should one take her advice? Why not?
Another star of the post-expertise how-to landscape is Jordan Reid, a petite lifestyle blogger who was recently given a show on the Meredith Corporation’s YouTube channel DIGS, in which she goes antiquing to pick out gems for her new Westchester home. “I would never call myself an expert,” she told The Observer. “The most important thing you do is show people how you screw up. It’s saying if I can do this, you can do this.” Her website, created after an aborted partnership with Julia Allison’s blogging network NonSociety and an earlier go at an acting career, is called Ramshackle Glam.
Ms. Reid’s apartment on the Upper East Side suits her project: far from aspirational, her digs are merely just-above-average enough to grant her the leeway to bestow advice. There’s a hubby-appropriate bookcase of comic books, decoupaged with images of superheroes, wallpaper depicting grim black trees, and a pair of small white dogs who seem to have found a diversion under a sofa. “Oh, thank you for dragging me a huge fluffball out from under the couch!” she tells one, scoffing at herself. “Home décor expert! I am barely holding this apartment together.” She’s been much busier since the birth of her infant, a few months ago—though she has it together enough to offer us a Mason jar of water.
“I write about Mason jars a lot,” she told us. “It’s embarrassing. They’re easy to do a lot with.”
Ms. Reid’s site makes overt that which Ms. Morin’s keeps as subtext—that housekeeping is a skill perhaps unmasterable by anyone who hopes to maintain a real life. Ms. Morin presents workarounds that answer questions no one asked (painting scissors with nail polish, for instance, to brighten the workspace), while Ms. Reid confronts the existential chasm that opens when one contemplates the home. Her pictures of inedible quiche fails would never make the pages of Bon Appétit, but failure is all part of the process.
Ms. Reid’s site has seen traffic bumps, she said, tied to major life events—including the announcement of her pregnancy and the birth of her son. A recent post acknowledged the mommy-blogging corner into which she’d painted her site—and the mommy track she’d chosen for herself. “Like many others I know of my generation, I was raised by parents who encouraged me to think that I had all the choices in the world, and all the time in the world to make them,” she wrote. (Her Harvard degree in cognitive neuroscience and decision to pursue acting, then lifestyle blogging, bear this out.)
Needless to say, reality intervened, and the resulting anxiety may help explain Martha’s sudden lack of relevance. Ms. Stewart’s approach presumes a settled manse, a cabinet full of supplies and a house in which one feels a sense of pride. “I love Martha,” said Ms. Kerr, the Hairpin’s Clean Person, noting, however, that “in many ways her approach is kind of a relic of a past time, when people really strove for perfection and to outdo one another. Martha’s whole thing is that she’s so much better than everyone else.”
More than making a new jump rope or decoupaging an end table, the questions that my roommates and I urgently sought to solve were the basic ones. They had criticized me for leaving my bed unmade and my door flung open every day—my room was an unsightly maelstrom of linens. After speaking to Ms. Kerr, my linens are now freshly laundered and tucked in nicely. As for the bigger challenges, we hired a cleaning lady. Our apartment looks perfect.