I am immune to utility room envy. The only one I know – my father’s – is impossible to lust after: a spidery, grave-cold windowless room, containing only a washing machine that boils clothes, a novelty pewter tankard 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. Celeb magazines and property supplements breathlessly showcase capacious butler’s sinks; floor-to-ceiling cabinetry; “skirtains” (weird decorative valances to hide your shelves); personalized, individual laundry baskets for each family member; and built-in dryer rails. A survey of friends reveals an ardently desired utility wish list: “a massive freezer”, “hidden appliances”, “somewhere for the bloody mop bucket” – someone even says it’s “one of the few things I would move house to have”.
There is plenty out there to populate their Pinterest boards. Jools Oliver’s utility room is two sage and pink rooms with floor-to-ceiling cupboards, a floral papered feature wall, and a pull-out ironing board that quickens even my storage-indifferent heart. Eighties pop power couple Martin and Shirlie Kemp have a spotless cream utility room with a spray tap for dog washing; Stacey Solomon’s is mint green, and Mrs Hinch, high priestess of clean stuff, is knocking down walls to create a vast one for her new home. Then there are the Hollywood utilities (usually “laundry rooms”): Khloé Kardashian’s bespoke labeled shelves contain enough cleaning products to leave a small country meadow fresh; Jessica Alba’s “dope laundry room”, which featured in an Architectural Digest video, is bigger than many laundrettes.
Interior designer Irene Gunter of Gunter & Co says she has “always been excited by utility rooms … they are a wonderful addition to the home, freeing up space in the kitchen.” Some of the features she has incorporated for clients include ergonomic eye-level appliances, pull-out trays for laundry baskets, built-in pet feeding and washing stations, and the ultimate luxury: “a drying cabinet. They use a gentle drying process that protects your items, even delicate materials, such as silk and wool.”
It sounds wonderful, but why do we care where laundry happens? Most people feel less strongly than Kirstie Allsopp who, in 2017, notoriously declared washing machines in kitchens “disgusting”. Utility rooms have always been aspirational, though: they mean you have the luxury of enough space for your washer-dryer to have its own room. That’s already “a middle-class dream come true,” as my friend Arianna, who created hers from YouTube tutorials, puts it.
For domestic architectural historian Philippa Lewis, author of Stories from Architecture, the opposite was true of the scullery, the utility room’s grubby great aunt: “It’s definitely got a sort of servant-y feel about it.” The move to “utility” reflects the arrival of labour-saving devices, and the disappearance of domestic servants. “The utility room perfectly fits the change of status of the person who is doing something in the kitchen.” The arrival of open-plan living was another push factor: “You increasingly want a room where you stick the washing machine because it makes a filthy racket. All that gray underwear hanging.”
But new factors are fueling our laundry-room lust. The first Covid lockdown left celebrities trapped at home, giving us tantalising, envy-inducing glimpses of more mundane aspects of their lives. Jennifer Garner’s video of her in May 2020, in her vast, albeit relatably messy, laundry room has over 6.8m views on Instagram.
The pandemic also kickstarted an exodus to the country. Ben Pridden, of upmarket estate agent Hewetson & Johnson, has helped many well-heeled Londoners move north: when he shows clients around rural houses, the utility room is a powerful draw. “Their eyes open wide and they say: my God, we never imagined such rooms existed. This is an add-on to their previous lives beyond their wildest dreams.” Long-standing country dwellers take their utilitarian utility rooms for granted, Pridden says, but the new arrivals get excited, fueling the luxe utility makeover trend. “People are saying: hang on, this is a wonderful room which is worth cherishing. They’ll push the boat out.” (They’re also posting pictures to torment town-mouse friends.)
Mostly, though, I think we are desperate for order in a world that feels chaotic, frightening and out of control: just ask millionaire Marie Kondo roller t-shirt. It feels vaguely retrograde to care about a neat space to fold pants, but the impulse is real. The Netflix show Get Organized With the Home Edit feeds our desire to stare at celebrity pantries and playrooms getting entirely superfluous, color-coordinated makeovers: even the celebrities themselves crave it. “Scrolling through the beautifully colour-coordinated pictures of what [Home Edit gurus] Clea and Joanna do, it’s literally, like, how I center myself sometimes,” says Jordana Brewster, the star of one episode.
But if butler-sink-and-drying-cabinet-envy is starting to eat you up, take heart: that impression of order and control is ultimately an illusion. As one utility room owner reminds me: “It’s just another room to throw crap in, regardless of how nice it looks when you snap the first Insta pic.”