Barbie knows her home furnishings

I’m jumping on the Barbie bandwagon, and I’m holding a hand out for you, too. C’mon! Take a ride — it’s going places. 

When I heard that Greta Gerwig had teamed up with Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling and Mattel for a Barbie movie, I knew we soon would be inundated with all things Barbie. I also knew the world was in store for more pink. So much pink. Specifically, Pantone 219 C or, if you’re buying Sherwin Williams, “In the pink.” 

Right on time, La-Z-Boy’s Joybird launched its second collection licensed by Mattel’s Barbie Dreamhouse, a limited assortment that seeks to “evoke childhood nostalgia and add a touch of modern glam to any space.” This very pink lineup of eight frames, announced last month, comes just a year after Joybird’s first collaboration with Mattel to mark the toymaker’s 60th anniversary. 

(La-Z-Boy bought the online startup company in 2018.)

As for Barbara (“Barbie”) Millicent Roberts, she turned 64 this year, and it’s her Dreamhouse that as an industry I think we should pay special attention. This foldout plastic home has modeled for girls how to master their domains and domiciles, presenting a plastic-and-cardboard design lab fully furnished, color-coordinated and fabulously accessorized. 

“Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future,” Ruth Handler, the inventor of Barbie, told The New York Times more than 40 years ago.

Style Maven Barbie

The Joybird press release described the Barbie x Joybird collection as having been inspired by “the timeless trailblazer and her ever-evolving style,” a product lineup that “empowers everyone to curate a home that radiates confidence and creativity just like Barbie.”

This is an interesting way to put it, because Barbie is, of course, a toy. Whatever confidence and creativity she might “radiate,” both attributes spring from the collective minds and boardroom plans of Mattel Inc. She’s timeless because she never ages, but her “ever-evolving style” is more a mirror of changing American tastes and, specific to the Dreamhouse, important changes in home interiors. If for only this reason, as an index of American consumer attitudes and tastes, she and her Dreamhouse are worthy of our attention.

Of course, she’s always been the object of a great deal of attention, and not all of it flattering. The subject of Ph.D. dissertations, books, and, now, a blockbuster movie that broke records beginning with its first day, Barbie is a rising tide the film industry hopes raises all ships. 

Yet Barbie’s crib has received scant little attention with respect to its social significance and cultural influence. (The New York Times recently published an immersive tour of the various Dreamhouses over the years, a fun romp that uses stop-motion photography to animate the tour.)

Part of the Barbie Dreamhouse collection, the Ainsley sofa in hot Barbie pink. Visit, or see it in person in any of Joybird’s 10 showrooms.

Barbie became a first-time homeowner in 1962, which, as a story in the New York Times points out, was part of an era in which single women found it difficult securing a mortgage. That first ranch-style Dreamhouse conspicuously lacked a kitchen and featured only a single bed. Ken wouldn’t be spending the night. For the overtly sexist era of Mad Men, women in popular culture often were depicted cooking and cleaning, and as being rather ecstatic about both. 

Liberty Barbie

Gerwig’s Barbie movie opens with a sepia-toned scene of children ironing, cooking, cleaning and, finally, abruptly and unsettlingly smashing their work-themed toys on the rocks. Towering over these waifs as they revolt against domesticity, like the Statue of Liberty, is the impossibly proportioned Barbie. (The scene pays homage to another film that asks questions about the blur between the real and the fabricated — Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi hit, 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Even as recently as a few years ago, Dawn dishwashing liquid portrayed women’s hands caressing the product as something sent from heaven to make her life better, the hands a synecdoche for women euphorically laboring in the kitchen. 

To this stereotype and sexist trope, Barbie said, “Oh, heck no! I own this home. Ken’s name isn’t on the deed! I don’t even need a kitchen.”

We know that women control most purchases in and for the home. But did you know that more single women own homes than single men? Put that in your Mojo Dojo Casa House! And speaking of man caves, appreciate that Barbie’s Dreamhouse has evolved just as the fictional “average American household” has changed. As I’ve highlighted in this column before, the average American home grew to more than 2,300 square feet in 2001 from about 1,500 square feet in 1970.

From a ranch-style typical for 1970, Barbie’s digs become a three-story townhome in 1974 and get a turret, elevator, spiral staircase and a balcony in 1995. The Pink McMansion had arrived. (For a full history of Barbie’s various Dreamhouses, check out Felix Burrichter’s Barbie Dreamhouse: An Architectural Survey from the library, because like a lot of Barbiecore at the moment, the book is sold out.)

Supermax Barbie

Rather famously, Barbie’s pink-first Dreamhouse color palette and pink plastic aesthetic presented the world with a confident, jewel-toned joie de vivre that, when replicated in the real world, becomes a coveted AirBnB property

It is the color palette, an embrace of modern, and, more broadly, “maximalism” that we will most clearly see proliferate showrooms, product lineups, upholstery fabrics and advertising. The signature turbo-charged pink will be joined by magenta, fuchsia, avocado and mustard. These are the hues we are already seeing in sudden abundance, as Barbiecore flows into our zeitgeist from Gerwig’s and Robbie’s movie like molten lava from a seismic volcano. 

A quick walk through the mall after our nearly sold-out showing of Barbie the day after the premiere revealed Barbie-themed advertising in no fewer than a half-dozen stores, from luggage to clothing to even yogurt. Yogurt! The Barbie tie-ins are growing like . . . Fuchsia! 

Maximalism is back, and it’s going to impact interiors in important ways. 

Times writer Lia Picard noted that from May 2022 to May 2023, or up to and including the hype surrounding the movie’s release, searches for “Barbie aesthetic bedroom” on Pinterest ballooned by 1,135%. The web service reported increases in other searches for hot pink décor, as well, including bathroom and kitchen.

Wearing pink, which nearly every teen in our movie theater did, is only the beginning. “People want to be surrounded by it at home, too,” Picard wrote. 

Historically, bolder, hyper-saturated colors have been more for “pillows and rugs and just the décor accents,” Gifty Walker, Joybird’s director of merchandising and sourcing, told Picard. “Now we see people really making them an anchor piece in the room.”

Storytelling Barbie

I thoroughly enjoyed the back story of the making of the Barbie movie as documented in The New Yorker. I’m always reading with our industry in mind, so when I learned of Mattel’s big strategy shift upon the hiring of its fourth CEO in four years, Ynon Kreiz, of course I thought of furniture manufacturers and retailers.

Kreiz told Alex Barasch, “My thesis was that we needed to transition from being a toy-manufacturing company, making items, to an I.P. company, managing franchises.”

This intellectual property-centric strategy is famously the business model also of Marvel, Disney, Lego and even Hasbro: Creating and curating IP in order to tell compelling stories, stories that can be commodified and turned into Spectacle, stories that create worlds that we wish to inhabit or at least buy something branded as coming from that world.

So, are you making stuff or selling stuff, or are you building and furnishing worlds and telling a story?

In 1962, the year the Dreamhouse made its debut, Mattel’s president told Time magazine how important accessories were in the Barbie ecosystem: “You get hooked on one and you have to buy the other,” he said. Flash forward to 2023, Lisa McKnight, the global head of Mattel’s Barbie and dolls portfolio, told the New York Times that “Dreamhouse owners buy twice as many Barbie toys as non-Dreamhouse owners.” 

So, like Ken, Barbie’s hunky himbo and her ultimate accessory, Barbie has us coming back for more and more and more. Because “to live in Barbie Land is to be a perfect being in a perfect place.” Even if everything is a polymer! 

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

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