How Fiction Can Inspire Wonderful Rooms
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How Fiction Can Inspire Wonderful Rooms

Novelist Sloane Crosley on how she goes deep into her imagination to conjure fictional interiors.

By SLOANE CROSLEY
Thu, Jun 2, 2022 11:43amGrey Clock 4 min

DURING MY SENIOR year of college, I took a literature class called The English Country House, which focused on dumbwaiters and dining rooms from Woolf to Waugh. The class is responsible for my fluency in oh, say, wainscoting. At the risk of belabouring the point? I went to a liberal arts school. But what appears to be a rarefied entry point into the literary landscape is actually a portal into the Great Hall of any novel. Once you start paying special attention to where novels are set—not just their country or cultural moment but the minutiae of where our heroines and heroes lay their heads—their narratives open up in new ways. After the characters have gone, you can still stroll from room to room, an unpaid housesitter grazing her fingers along the wallpaper.

So many of the canonical examples of fictional interior design really do come from the British, who like to inhabit etiquette minefields stuffed with generational trauma, class issues and chintz (“Bleak House,” “Howard’s End,” “Wuthering Heights,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” “The Remains of the Day”…Jane Austen takes the prize for Pemberley alone). Contemporary British authors are also unavoidably good on the subject (I’d gladly entrust Rachel Cusk, Alan Hollinghurst or Zadie Smith with my blueprints).

But there is no shortage of memorable interiors scattered across all literature. Both as a reader and as a writer, I have always gravitated toward fabricated design (by which I mean not just imaginative design but the actual, literal fabric of it; see also the Jenny B. Goode tapestry pillow that Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” clutches as he nurses a cocktail). I find such details, which purposefully but slyly speak to the time in which the characters live, move a story along as much as they pin it in place.

In the Glasses’ apartment in “Franny and Zooey,” “not only were the furnishings old, intrinsically unlovely, and clotted with memory and sentiment, but the room itself in past years had served as the arena for countless hockey and football (tackle as well as ‘touch’) games, and there was scarcely a leg on any piece of furniture that wasn’t badly nicked or marred.” This is no mere décor. It is, to employ a cliché, another character. The first image that pops into mind when I think of that particular book is of Franny, staring up at the ceiling. I can see the apartment as she sees it, fill in the gaps. Just like when I think of “The Great Gatsby,” I am struck less by Gatsby’s infamous green light than by the first sight of Jordan lounging on a sofa, curtains billowing behind her, “extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless, and with her chin raised a little.” I know that divan. I can run my fingers over the upholstery. I can also tidy the bookish disarray of “Giovanni’s Room,” ascend the crumbling steps of Manil Suri’s apartment block in “The Death of Vishnu” and feel the deep, deep anti-Craftsman sentiment of Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”

As someone who spent her childhood sleeping in an 8-by-8 bedroom of a small house and whose current furniture is flush to the walls of her apartment as if being held at gunpoint, I come by this fetish honestly. I have now lived in New York City for over 20 years, and I still think the height of luxury is the exposed back of a sofa. Once you can afford a 360-degree view of your own furniture, you get to worry about aesthetics. Writing fiction gives a person such as myself the opportunity to imagine my way into whatever space I like with whatever budget I like. In short? It gives me the chance to really go to town.

My first novel, “The Clasp,” begins in a mansion in Miami and ends in a 16th-century French château. But for my new novel, “Cult Classic,” I did a full gut renovation, turning a derelict synagogue on the Lower East Side into a sleek cultlike club. The design details are not explicitly named, but I know that those are lighting designer Lindsey Adelman’s chandeliers dangling from the ceiling, Danish designer Jens Risom’s chairs and Scalamandré wallpaper in the bathroom. And because the synagogue is less a manifestation of my personal design dreams as it is satire, the tray of bottled water in the conference room is that of a “branding studio” where I once took a meeting. The drinking straws are striped. Very Instagrammable. And there’s a room with nothing in it, save for an amethyst geode, an image I swiped from a self-serious spa that I went to once.

But is this what I want people to take away from my novel? Danish side tables? Not really. What I hope a reader remembers is how the design unfolded alongside the plot. So much is kept secret from our heroine, her access to information and her access to space are intertwined. I wanted to create a feeling akin to the one I felt as a child, reading Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”: “Five children and nine grown-ups pushed their way in—and oh, what an amazing sight it was that now met their eyes! They were looking down upon a lovely valley. There were green meadows on either side of the valley, and along the bottom of it there flowed a great brown river. What is more, there was a tremendous waterfall halfway along the river…” I, sir, am no Roald Dahl. But there is, in fact, a fountain in the lobby of my fictional club.

With few exceptions, writers must force themselves to reign in their descriptive tendencies, lest they wind up with five static pages about a claw-foot bathtub. The trick, especially when it comes to interiors, is in peppering signifiers without listing them. Too few? I don’t know where I am. Too many? Well, if I wanted to read a catalogue, I would read a catalogue. In the end, the visual impact of a space is not up to me but to readers. Readers who will set about correcting or replacing my images with versions of their own, with details of their own. Or, in the words of Maggie Smith’s famous poem, “Good Bones”:

“Any decent realtor,/ walking you through a real shithole, chirps on/ about good bones: This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.”

 

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: Jun 01, 2022



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Hong Kong Takes Drastic Action to Avert Property Slump

The city’s real-estate market has been hurt by high interest rates and mainland China’s economic slowdown

By ELAINE YU
Fri, Mar 1, 2024 3 min

Hong Kong has taken a bold step to ease a real-estate slump, scrapping a series of property taxes in an effort to turn around a market that is often seen as a proxy for the city’s beleaguered economy.

The government has removed longstanding property taxes that were imposed on nonpermanent residents, those buying a second home, or people reselling a property within two years after buying, Financial Secretary Paul Chan said in his annual budget speech on Wednesday.

The move is an attempt to revive a property market that is still one of the most expensive in the world, but that has been badly shaken by social unrest, the fallout of the government’s strict approach to containing Covid-19 and the slowdown of China’s economy . Hong Kong’s high interest rates, which track U.S. rates due to its currency peg,  have increased the pressure .

The decision to ease the tax burden could encourage more buying from people in mainland China, who have been a driving force in Hong Kong’s property market for years. Chinese tycoons, squeezed by problems at home, have  in some cases become forced sellers  of Hong Kong real estate—dealing major damage to the luxury segment.

Hong Kong’s super luxury homes  have lost more than a quarter of their value  since the middle of 2022.

The additional taxes were introduced in a series of announcements starting in 2010, when the government was focused on cooling down soaring home prices that had made Hong Kong one of the world’s least affordable property markets. They are all in the form of stamp duty, a tax imposed on property sales.

“The relevant measures are no longer necessary amidst the current economic and market conditions,” Chan said.

The tax cuts will lead to more buying and support prices in the coming months, said Eddie Kwok, senior director of valuation and advisory services at CBRE Hong Kong, a property consultant. But in the longer term, the market will remain sensitive to the level of interest rates and developers may still need to lower their prices to attract demand thanks to a stockpile of new homes, he said.

Hong Kong’s authorities had already relaxed rules last year to help revive the market, allowing home buyers to pay less upfront when buying certain properties, and cutting by half the taxes for those buying a second property and for home purchases by foreigners. By the end of 2023, the price index for private homes reached a seven-year low, according to Hong Kong’s Rating and Valuation Department.

The city’s monetary authority relaxed mortgage rules further on Wednesday, allowing potential buyers to borrow more for homes valued at around $4 million.

The shares of Hong Kong’s property developers jumped after the announcement, defying a selloff in the wider market. New World Development , Sun Hung Kai Properties and Henderson Land Development were higher in afternoon trading, clawing back some of their losses from a slide in their stock prices this year.

The city’s budget deficit will widen to about $13 billion in the coming fiscal year, which starts on April 1. That is larger than expected, Chan said. Revenues from land sales and leases, an important source of government income, will fall to about $2.5 billion, about $8.4 billion lower than the original estimate and far lower than the previous year, according to Chan.

The sweeping property measures are part of broader plans by Hong Kong’s government to prop up the city amid competition from Singapore and elsewhere. Stringent pandemic controls and anxieties about Beijing’s political crackdown led to  an exodus of local residents and foreigners  from the Asian financial centre.

But tens of thousands of Chinese nationals have arrived in the past year, the result of Hong Kong  rolling out new visa rules aimed at luring talent in 2022.

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