"I wrote a book about autocrats’ design tastes. The U.S. president would fit right in." - Peter York
Trump’s design aesthetic is fascinatingly out of line with America’s past and present. If you doubt it, note that the interiors of the apartments his company actually sells bear no resemblance to the one he lives in. But that doesn’t mean his taste comes from nowhere. At one level, it’s aspirational, meant to project the wealth so many citizens can only dream of. But it also has important parallels—not with Italian Renaissance or French baroque, where its flourishes come from, but with something more recent. The best aesthetic descriptor of Trump’s look, I’d argue, is dictator style.
A decade ago, I published a book on exactly that topic: Fascinated by the question of what makes dictators’ houses so recognizably similar, I spent months poring over pictures—from across the continents, from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st—and trying to pick out the features they had in common and what those features said about their occupants. I ended up with 16 case studies—strongmen from Mexico’s Porfirio Díaz to Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic—and most of them, I concluded, obeyed 10 defining “dictator chic” rules.
The first: Go big. Dictators’ building projects are almost always ludicrously overscaled. In the 1980s, the seriously short Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s longtime president, and his wife, Elena, started building what was to become one of the largest government buildings in the world. They called it the “People’s Palace,” and they knocked down a good chunk of old Bucharest to make room for it. There was a huge, impressive yet hideous facade and, inside, quite intimidatingly large public rooms. The Ceausescus were executed before the building was finished, and even today, it reportedly is mostly empty—too large for an entire country to fill.
The second rule of the dictator look is all about “repro.” Dictators might work in the grand styles of earlier centuries, but they don’t usually use old materials and furniture. Everything is brand spanking new. Old styles add gravitas, but antiques themselves are too faded and shabby. You’ll find repro-looking detailing and furniture across the board in dictators’ houses—from Middle Easterners like Muammar Qadhafi to the Central African “emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who preferred a Napoleonic look. The English decorator Nicky Haslam has dubbed this style “Louis the Hotel”—ever crisp and shiny.
This leads to the third rule: Think French.