I am immune to utility room envy. The only one I know of – my father’s – is impossible to desire: a spidery, freezing cold, windowless room containing only a washing machine that boils clothes, a novelty pewter jug full of fuses, and a pile of yellowing British Telecom envelopes.
But arachnid-free, luxurious spaces for laundry and storage have become unlikely new status symbols. Celebrity magazines and real estate supplements feature breathlessly spacious butler sinks; floor-to-ceiling closets; “Skirtains” (weird decorative flounces to hide your shelves); personalized, individual laundry baskets for each family member; and built-in dryer rails. A poll of friends reveals a much-coveted utility wish list: “A giant freezer,” “Hidden appliances,” “Somewhere for the damn mop bucket” — someone even said, “One of the few things I’d move for.”
There’s plenty out there to fill up your Pinterest boards. Jools Oliver’s utility room consists of two sage and pink rooms with floor-to-ceiling closets, a wall decorated with floral wallpaper, and a pull-out ironing board that even my heart, which doesn’t have storage, beats faster. Eighties pop power couple Martin and Shirlie Kemp have an immaculate utility room with a spray faucet for washing dogs; Stacey Solomon’s is mint green and Mrs. Hinch, High Priestess of Clean Things, is tearing down walls to create a huge one for her new home. Then there are the Hollywood utilities (usually “laundry rooms”): Khloé Kardashian’s custom-labeled shelves hold enough cleaning supplies to leave a small rural meadow fresh; Jessica Alba’s “Dope Laundry Room,” featured in an Architectural Digest video, is bigger than many laundromats.
Interior designer Irene Gunter of Gunter & Co says she’s “always had a passion for utility rooms…they make wonderful additions to the home and free up space in the kitchen.” Some of the features she’s integrated for clients include ergonomic appliances at eye level, pull-out trays for laundry baskets, built-in pet feeding and washing stations, and the ultimate luxury: “a drying closet. They use a gentle drying process that protects your items, even delicate materials like silk and wool.”
It sounds wonderful, but why do we care where laundry is done? Most people feel less empowered than Kirstie Allsopp, who was infamous in 2017 Washing machines in kitchens declared “disgusting”.. However, utility rooms have always been demanding: they offer you the luxury of having enough space for your washer-dryer to have a room of your own. This is already “a mid-range dream come true,” as my friend Arianna puts it, who created hers from YouTube tutorials.
For local architectural historian Philippa Lewis, author of Stories from Architecture, the opposite was true of the scullery, the scruffy great-aunt of the utility room: “It definitely has a kind of maid vibe to it.” The transition to “utility” reflects the arrival of labor-saving devices and that disappearance of domestic workers. “The utility room fits perfectly with the change in status of the person who does something in the kitchen.” The advent of open-plan living was another push factor: “More and more people want a room in which to put the washing machine because it is a dirty one makes noise. All the gray underwear hanging.”
But new factors are fueling our desire to go to the laundry room. The first Covid lockdown left celebrities trapped at home, giving us enticing, envious glimpses into more mundane aspects of their lives. Jennifer Garner’s May 2020 video of her in her huge, albeit relatively messy, laundry room has over 6.8 million views on Instagram.
The pandemic also triggered an exodus to the country. Ben Pridden, of upscale estate agents Hewetson & Johnson, has helped many wealthy Londoners move north: when showing clients rural homes, the utility room is a powerful draw. “They widen their eyes and say: My God, we could never have imagined that rooms like this existed. This is an addition to their former lives that exceeds their wildest dreams.” Longtime country dwellers take their utilitarian utility rooms for granted, says Pridden, but newcomers are getting excited, fueling the luxury-utility makeover trend. “People say, ‘Wait a minute, this is a beautiful space worth cherishing. They’ll push the boat out.” (They also post pictures to torment town mouse friends.)
Most importantly, I think we’re desperate for order in a world that feels chaotic, scary, and out of control: just ask multimillionaire t-shirt roller Marie Kondo. It feels vaguely backward to bother with a tidy place to fold your pants, but the momentum is real. The Netflix show Get Organized With the Home Edit feeds our desire to stare at celebrity pantries and playrooms getting utterly superfluous color-coordinated makeovers: even the celebrities themselves crave it. “Scroll through the beautifully color-coordinated images of what [Home Edit gurus] Clea and Joanna do, it’s literally how I center myself sometimes,” says episode star Jordana Brewster.
But if butler-sink-and-drying-closet envy is nagging you, take heart: this sense of order and control is ultimately an illusion. As one utility room owner reminds me, “It’s just another room to throw crap in, no matter how nice it looks when you take that first Insta picture.”