When Malibu-based music manager Jake Hooker and wife Deborah got sick of crowded movie theaters, they bought the biggest TV they could find — an 82-inch high-definition Mitsubishi — and turned their living room into a home theater with surround-sound subwoofers that made the floor shake during flicks such as "Gladiator."
Just one problem. Though the big screen looked great as Russell Crowe wrestled a Bengal tiger, when the TV was off they were left with a black hole devouring their living room. "It just looked so menacing," Hooker says.
His solution: the Living Aquarium, a product of a company called Screen Dreams, which distributes mostly nature-inspired DVD screensavers for flat-panel TVs. For $19.99, it fills his blank tube with a simulated aquarium, complete with air-bubble sound effects. Says Hooker, co-writer of the Joan Jett anthem "I Love Rock N' Roll": "It's like having a giant piece of moving art in my living room."
Back when all televisions were fat and frumpy and symbols of an unsophisticated couch-potato society, people hid them away in hulking armoires and bragged about how little they watched (that "Law & Order" habit notwithstanding). But these days? Tubes have slimmed down and sleeked up. Plasmas are taking pride of place above a mantel or otherwise becoming the focal point of the room.
In response, entrepreneurs and designers are creating elaborate frames, screensavers, even artful canvases that scroll up or down depending on whether one wants to see "Desperate Housewives" or a print by Degas. TV as art?
Well, yes, or perhaps just as a medium for a slide show of family photos. Businesses such as Screen Dreams sell other DVD screensavers that fill otherwise blank screens with simulated aquariums, butterfly scenes and faux fireplaces. L.A.-based Colorcalm, which launched in September, is the designer of soothing cloud-and-sky scenes in 36 rainbow hues.
Plasma Window of Los Angeles turns contemporary and traditional paintings into a virtual rotating gallery. Since launching last fall, founder Chris Gordon says the company has seen sales quadruple in Los Angeles and New York, where customers are more "hip to the trend of using their TVs to display art."
One client is Dr. Ron Grusd, a Beverly Hills radiologist who has a TV in every room of his Mediterranean-style home — 19 total. But he reserves the DVD screensavers for the high-profile rooms: The 60-inch LCD in the den displays works of art, the 50-inch plasma in his office features a soothing waterfall scene, and the TV in the family room looks like a fish tank.
"It's kind of like the picture version of background music," says Grusd, who likes to have them on when he's entertaining.
Video loops aren't the only solution. VisionArt, a system designed by the Newport Beach-based company Solar Shading Systems, transfers original paintings, prints or photos to 200-year archival-quality art canvases to conceal the TV screen when it's not in use. When you're ready to watch, push a button and the picture slides away on the retracting canvas.
Joseph Akhtarzad recently installed the system in his Beverly Hills home, which has more than a dozen flat screens — LCDs and plasmas, petite countertop models and a family-room behemoth. Even the his-and-her master bathrooms have 13-inch Fujitsus mounted in front of the toilets.
Akhtarzad, an electronics engineer who has been selling TVs for more than 20 years at his Santa Monica store, Video and Audio Center, reserves VisionArt for a few of his prime viewing areas.
Downstairs, in the bar, a 42-inch plasma is recessed into a mirrored wall, framed in carved mahogany and covered with a print to match the room's Art Deco ambience. In the pool house, another plasma spends its off hours as a tranquil Portofino dock scene.
The scrolling canvases aren't cheap. Prices vary depending on the size of the screen, from $4,000 to $7,000 for the frame, picture and automation. It's worth it, Akhtarzad says.
"It keeps my wife happy," he says. "I feel like I'm accentuating it, and she feels like we're concealing it."
He took the TV-as-art concept one step further in the family room, where his 50-inch plasma is draped with a 19th century Italian tapestry that shimmies up like window blinds with the push of a button.
Rather than cover the TV, Malibu-based interior designer Joyce Bromily prefers to treat the TV itself as a piece of art. Going beyond typical custom cabinetry, Bromily hired Steve Casey, a custom woodworker who specializes in home theater cabinetry, to frame her TV like a picture with a sleek walnut casing.
"I didn't want to just set it on the floor," Bromily says. "TVs are so good-looking now, I didn't want to just hide it."
Now the 60-inch Samsung is the focal point of her living room, sharing space with other prized possessions including a $2,000 polished wood bowl and a pair of carved African statues in a backlighted wall unit.
Of course, not everyone shares the enthusiasm for bringing TVs out in the open.
"I think it's a tragedy," says Mark Enos a Los Angeles-based interior designer whose clients include many art collectors. "Environments used to be about objects, artwork and comfort. Now they're about theatrical presentation."
Catherine A. Howard, chief executive of Greystone Home Collection furniture showrooms, agrees. "It reminds me of Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451,' where the walls of homes became gigantic television screens."
Deborah Needleman, editor in chief of Condé Nast's newest shelter magazine, Domino, takes a different approach.
"Today there is a respect for honest design — interiors that reflect how we really live and products that are as beautiful as they are functional," Needleman says. "This is design progress. If we watch TV, then we want — and can now finally have — a TV that is attractively designed and out of the closet and accessible for use."
TVs have always spoken volumes about culture, she says, but what they're saying seems to have changed.
"In the '50s TVs were status symbols, by the '70s they were just a fact of life," she says. "In the '80s, the sleek style of interior design meant that the ugly boxes had to get hidden. It was an era of status, of homes where fake leather-bound tomes were proudly displayed and TVs hidden away because the image people wanted to project was of evenings at home spent reading 'Remembrance of Things Past,' not of watching 'Baywatch' reruns."
That shame and stigma are largely gone, she says. The fact that thin screens have become status symbols makes them easier to flaunt. But allowing the TV to be a major part of your décor doesn't mean you should make it a shrine.
"The one trend I can't embrace is hanging TVs over the fireplace," Needleman says. "They're not that beautiful. And they're no substitute for an attractive mirror, a pair of sconces or a tapestry."
Her advice for designing around the not-so-small screen:
"Let it out of the armoire, but just don't get carried away."
Audrey Davidow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.