Cribs, the despot edition

Dictator style  
By MIKE MILIARD  |  June 8, 2006


CLASSY: Art from one of Saddam’s palaces.
Home is where the heart is. But if you’re a heartless dictator, home is where the hideous ersatz pagodas, caged leopards, massive eagles built from multicolored marble slabs, room-size shoe closets, and bizarre bathroom appliances are. In his new book, Dictator Style: Lifestyles of the World’s Most Colorful Despots (Chronicle), journalist and style maven Peter York pokes a camera lens into the private domiciles of some of history’s most brutal despots, from Stalin and Mobutu to Saddam. And — perhaps unsurprisingly — he finds as many crimes against good taste as he does crimes against humanity.

“[T]he psychic dynamics of generic teenage boys in their own spaces and those of dictators at home aren’t all that different,” writes Douglas Coupland in the book’s hilarious foreword. “And yet there’s a problem here. A dictator’s house has to impress the buddies, but it also has to be photographed and shown to the serfs. The result is an interesting clash of needs.”

And so, as we tour chronologically through the 20th century and around the world, we see despots’ domestic sides, seldom included in the newspaper accounts of their iron-fisted atrocities. Much of it is the sort of stuff you’d expect to see in a megalomaniac’s home. There’s the gaudy frippery and cultural kitsch (clashing rococo designs, echt Arabic décor) favored by Franco and Milosevic. There are the demagogic tokens of enormous egotism. (Hitler and Mussolini both hung dramatically lit portraits of themselves in their offices.) Most entertaining are the symbolic touches of totemic virility, like Idi Amin’s bulletproof Citroën sports car, or the astoundingly tacky murals in Saddam’s palaces, reveling in sophomoric soft-core sci-fi porn.

In helpful home-magazine fashion, York provides a handy sidebar informing the upwardly mobile how to “Get the Look.” Among his tips: big it up. (“Make sure that everything is seriously over scale. If you copy a French château, double the size of the rooms.”) Hotels, grand and gleaming, should also be chief inspirations. (“Modern dictators have spent a lot of time in hotels — plotting coups there when young and hanging around in them when deposed.”) And, in addition to filling your abode with as many brand names (Ming, Aubusson, Versace) as possible, you can also never have too much gold (bathroom faucets, especially) or too much glass (chandeliers, mirrors).

In fact, décor like this is often not all that different from that favored by many nouveau-riche Americans nowadays. Indeed, perhaps the book’s most chilling revelation is that we might have homes like these too, if only we could. “Dictators’ houses show you what happens when people are left to exercise their fantasies, unrestrained by scale,” York writes. “Dictators are frankly just like the rest of us. Only more so.”

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