It’s behind you! Look over your shoulder!
No, it’s not panto season yet. It’s pandemic season (still). But the battle cry is the same. Time to stop fretting about when you can get your roots done and tidy your bookshelves because in the video-conferencing age, you win or lose according to your backdrop.
With a Zoom parliament, a Houseparty social life and a Microsoft Teams meeting schedule, our lockdown lives are being played out against a backdrop of bookshelves and kitchen cupboards. The pandemic turns out to be a bit like living on the National Theatre set of a Harold Pinter play. Around now, we would usually be bombarded by red carpet images from Cannes; instead, we’ve got Joe Wicks’s back garden and the stoutly furnished studies of MPs.
A list of surprising lockdown winners – and unexpected losers – is emerging. Meryl Streep nailed a pitch-perfect performance in a virtual staging of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company. In honour of the composer’s 90th birthday, Streep charmed everyone. It wasn’t just her earrings (vintage-looking, fabulous), her martini (the classy choice for heavy drinking, don’t @ me) and her bathrobe (bow down) but the bookshelves behind, bare save for a wooden duck of the generic seaside-gift-shop variety – less an objet, more an afterthought. No Oscars. No colour-coded books. So relatable. A quarantined audience fell in love with Streep all over again.
Anna Wintour’s Zoom backdrop, by contrast, has not been as scrupulously curated as one would expect from one the most valuable personal brands in Manhattan. On the Vogue Instagram, the editor’s lockdown looks have been exacting, low-key chic: in her lush spring garden with an adorable dog, at her elegantly curated desk in tailored sweatpants. But hosting Vogue Conversations videos, or on Naomi Campbell’s YouTube channel, she is in sunglasses framed against a window with drawn curtains. Closed curtains and sunglasses in the middle of the day make for a shifty, motel-room-scene-in-a-heist-movie look, even in the Hamptons. It’s all wrong. What I want from Anna is a crystal vase of peonies, a Smythson notebook with a silk ribbon and a Diptyque candle.
There is a good reason we are obsessed with backdrops. You have seen the faces – your colleagues, your favourite Pilates teacher, the Duchess of Cambridge – 1,000 times but you haven’t seen inside their homes. The pandemic has forced us to make our private spaces public. And what may have begun as a voyeuristic interest is morphing into something else as the potential “new normal” sees us spend much more time at home long term.
Your house is no longer just your home. It’s your HQ. In the new world order, the bookcase and the gallery wall are king of the power Zoom. Both backdrops can bridge the gap between authentically homely and rigorously professional. If the ideal power backdrop was once the skyscraper skyline view from your glass-boxed top floor office, a wall of books or black-and-white photographs makes for a passable lockdown substitute – the same busy, masculine right angles, the same solidity. You don’t have an office filled with leather-bound reference tomes or a study lined with weighty hardback biographies? No problem – a sitting-room shelf of battered paperbacks will do, at a push. Messaging is about simplicity and clarity, as every politician knows (or so we used to assume).) A bookshelf backdrop is a visual reassurance – to your constituents, or your boss, or your tutor – that although you are at home you are working hard, not skiving.
Assessing celebrity bookcases is a pandemic parlour game. The Twitter account Bookcase Credibility assesses backdrops with a pithiness to match Craig Revel Horwood on Strictly Come Dancing. On the Conservative politician Liam Fox: “The bold grab at credibility is somewhat undermined by the hardback copy of The Da Vinci Code.”
Meanwhile, more visually oriented public figures recreate the same mood with a gallery wall, with lots of images of various sizes jigsawed together to create a pleasing but undistracting backdrop. One arresting arty image rarely works, especially if it’s a portrait – as Matt Hancock discovered, when a video shot in front of a Damien Hirst image of the Queen made him look as if he was photobombing a royal photocall.
Just like live theatre – which, in a way, it is – the magic of the Zoom backdrop is in the potential for disaster. (Who can forget Prof Robert Kelly, upstaged by his daughter Marion?) There are shelves with a distracting number of books about Nazis. (I get that there’s nothing wrong with reading books about Nazis, it just looks odd to have them front and centre.) There is the rookie error of placing the laptop too low, framing your head in silhouette with an expanse of ceiling behind you. This gives the viewer the feeling that you are looming down threateningly on them, which is not great for a chat. There are pop stars who forget to make their beds before broadcasting to the world, as Charlie Puth did.
Even fashion obsessives have taken to poring over decor, not dresses. When that Adele photo landed last week, my social media was full of comment – not about her weight loss, but the grey clapboard architecture and cutesy rose arbour, which one Twitter wit skewered as making her look like “a sorority treasurer about to marry into old money”. Marc Jacobs has, inevitably, the most fabulous Zoom look I’ve seen to date – red manicure popping against his yellow velvet sofa, wooden panelling oozing order and luxury.
But the backdrop equivalent of the crisp white shirt is proving to be a serene, unadorned room with only a closed door and perhaps the edge of a framed picture in the background. A closed door makes you look like you are in serious, Do Not Disturb mode. Designers Marine Serre and Simone Rocha, on Zoom for the Vogue Conversations, each sat in a calm-looking room with a shut door behind. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge Zoom from a grey room with a white closed door with a lovely arch above it, which makes them look slightly holy. Am I reading too much into a Zoom backdrop? Possibly. If so, I’m not the only one.
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