‘Death by Designer:’ Aaron Schock and the Downton Downfall

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The Red Room’s to Blame

How often does a piece in the Style section tank a Congressman’s career?  What started as a pretty mild inquiry by Washington Post writer Ben Terris in early February, blossomed as his visit to the congressional office of Rep. Aaron Schock apparently accidentally but very importantly overlapped with one by its eager designer, Annie Brahler of Euro Trash, prompting a major PR fumble and more serious investigations into the Republican’s finances and travel, leading to the all-too-predictable dénouement (the media are distracting me from my job, blah blah blah).

The story of Rep. GQutiepie’s plummet from power might have happened eventually, given all the apparent financial malfeasance, but it sure does look like it’s the office that precipitated his sudden and very public demise: by all accounts, a stunning fall (we will avoid the obvious pun and you’re welcome!).  Surely the private planes, concert tickets, and dubious mileage math might have been enough to swat his erstwhile meteoric rise out of the political stratosphere.  But the story that took root was about the office: brilliant red rooms with a hefty sprinkling of gilt (or at least gold-painted), lavish crystal, multiple urns of pheasant feathers, a table with flying-eagle legs.  Of all the possible reasons for Rep. Xtreme to meet his end, how was it design that did him in?

Was it just the ridiculous crudeness of it all?  A suite of rooms that were more akin to an Old West Madame’s Saloon than the meeting place of a legislator?  (But then, Rep. Glossypage did not accomplish much during his tenure in office.)  Note to future office holders: avoid associations with businesses that feature the words “Euro” and “Trash” in their names.

Was it somehow the style itself: sort of Neo-American-Classical-Exceptionismesque, with vaguely traditionalish pieces glamored up and arranged in wacky, unexpected ways?  That’s especially true of the overlapping frames and floating pictures of presidents that hover within them (ostensibly sourced by staffers from the print-on-demand station at the National Portrait Gallery).

Was it the way this suite stood so brashly out from the pack, its red color not only generally announcing soe kind of rebel spirit manifesting Rep. Abulous statement that he wasn’t one of the “old crusty white guys” and dismissing critics of the office with a bon mot featured in a Taylor Swift song, but specifically disregarding the paint color guidelines set down by the architect of the Capitol?  (Yes of course there are rules about these things, even if the Washington Post calls them “arcane.”)

Or might it have been the description of the room that took hold in the media as “based off of (sic) the red room in Downton Abbey.” This statement, told to reporter Terris by an unamed “woman behind the front desk” of Rep. Instagram‘s office, struck a nerve with the public, even though it seems like a false comparison.  The Congressman’s denials of having ever seen the show are probably true, since PBS rarely plays at 24-Hour Fitness.  Likewise, designer Brahler has huffed at the comparison, demanding the design is her own, with no inspiration from the show or otherwise.  This seems reasonable too.  By her own admission, Brahler is not a designer: she rather proudly proclaims to have avoided being “classically trained” (whatever that means), in other words, she is uneducated in design.  She describes her work as being a purchaser and arranger of stuff, kind of like the people who load up TGIFs and Chili’s restaurants with garage sale loot–just with more crystal and feathers.  And now, political scandal.

For Unnamed Lady Behind The Desk to make the remark with such certainly, there must be something to the comparison, and something that triggers the real criticism and outrage over a lavishly decorated room that perhaps represented a misuse of taxpayer money but is by no means one of the grossest expenditures on office equipage by Congressional representatives.  Perhaps it’s not the dough, or the degree to which Schock’s office simulates the alleged original English estate, but the fact that the comparison can be made at all.

The backlash is one more example of a sentiment rooted in the aspirational, chip-on-the-shoulder aesthetic desires of a certain brand of striving, self-loathing American for the elegance and taste that the landed, royalist Brits seem to do so easily.  Since we cut the cord back in 1776, Britain has been a source of admiration and scorn, longing and denial.  Although (often) unconscious, this national tendency may explain why this extravagant room, which might have been just a source of eye-rolling without the allusion to a television show, became such a lightening rod once it was tied to the story about English elites.  Not only that, but Downton is of course the biggest hit on PBS: the visual equivalent of NPR, the station of Prius-drivers and soy latte-drinkers; it’s not the network for real red-meat guns-rights ‘Merika.  A $40,000 design that emulated Duck Dynasty would have a been a different thing all together.

Maybe Rep. Fancypant’s office was a misguided, silly, excessive recreation of the Downton set; maybe not.  Surely it is a fitting tribute to a (former) congressman who placed high priority on sizzle and appearances, one who was expert at gobbling up power rather than wielding influence.  And fear not, fans of Schock, for this is not the death of a congressional career, but–we bet dollars to doughnuts–rather the birth of cable-channel personality, once the inevitable cross-over travel/design/political programming is launched.  Stay tuned.

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