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Why does everyone but me have a sunburst mirror?

The story of the world’s most omnipresent wall decor.

They’re everywhere!
Target, Wayfair
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.

What are they: Small, circular mirrors with rays or rods extending in all directions. Often affixed to walls as a standalone piece above beds, mantels, or consoles, they’re mostly used as purely decorative rather than functional.

Where are they: Anywhere on an otherwise blank wall. Inside homes across the country, in any particularly glitzy, formal, or boho-chic space, and the wall art sections of home stores from Target to West Elm.

Why you’re seeing them everywhere right now: You’ve probably been seeing them everywhere for your whole life, although whether you’ve noticed them or not comes down to how much you care about relatively inoffensive wall decor. Now that we’re all staring at each others’ homes via Zoom, you might have recently seen a glimmering, spiky thing in the background of a colleague’s disembodied head. That’s a sunburst mirror!

For me, noticing them started with The Real Housewives of New York City. We were in Carole Radziwill’s Soho loft, which included an incredible vintage tiger print couch, a floating staircase, and several small animals, all of whom are named “Baby.” More so than any other Housewife’s, Carole’s apartment was cool, which is why I was horrified to see a certain objet d’art on the wall.

Carole Radziwill and her sunburst mirror.

It was a mirror, too small to use, with a zillion metal poles coming out of it, and I realized then that I had been haunted by these things for my entire life. In my sister’s kitchen, in various demi-celebrities’ affordable home collections, and on any wall that should have had a painting, or a framed photo, or a clock, or something else with even a modicum of personality or meaning, but instead had an ugly fake sun.

It isn’t their functionlessness that bothers me — pretty, unnecessary things are the best! — it’s the fact that so often they seem like a substitute for something interesting. They’re agnostic to taste and style; you see them just as often in modernist spaces as you do in traditional ones, making them feel like an afterthought, a circle-shaped thing to put in between all the rectangle-shaped things. They’re space fillers.

But, I am told, sunburst mirrors are not boring but classic, not devoid of taste but versatile and able to stand the test of time. I’ll let smarter people explain.

Madonna with Child and Two Angels, Paolo di Giovanni Fei, 1380s.
PHAS/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

While there’s some aesthetic relationship to medieval artists depicting God and the saints with halos, often stylized with golden rays, the origin of sun-shaped mirrors can partially be traced back to the Sun King, Louis XIV. Louis, who reigned in France from 1643 to 1715, never had any actual sunburst-shaped mirrors, but the man famously loved both the sun motif and his own reflection, spending the equivalent of millions of dollars on Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors.

Antiques dealer Louis Bofferding told the Wall Street Journal in 2010 that he suspected sunburst mirrors came about as an accidental result of the French Revolution. “The revolutionaries stormed, shuttered, even destroyed monasteries, convents and churches. Among the loot of the rabble were the gilded aureoles of celestial rays that had haloed representations of the Holy Family and saints on altars,” he said. “It didn’t take long for enterprising antiques dealers and collectors to buy those vacant sunbursts for a song, slip mirrors into the cavities and launch what would become a vogue in the 20th century.” (The Catholic Church, always a trendsetter.)

Set designer Tony Duquette’s Beverly Hills home in 1950.
Shirley C. Burden/Conde Nast/Getty Images

The real reason they’re in vogue today, however, likely originated in Hollywood Regency, the 1930s style of decorating that combines glitzy opulence and eclecticism — think plush furniture in vibrant jewel tones and sparkling metallic hardware. Much of this style can be attributed to legendary set designer Tony Duquette, according to Elizabeth Muir, a design specialist at Christie’s. Duquette designed interiors for films like Ziegfeld Follies, the Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine-led Can-Can, and the original Camelot on Broadway. “His rooms are more like stage sets,” she explains. “Duquette used [sunburst mirrors] as a theatrical element — it catches your eye.”

In the 1960s, they became ubiquitous for an entirely different reason: our national obsession with NASA and all things out of this world. “If you’re watching an episode of Mad Men, you might see one of these things — that atomic, Space Age phenomenon,” explains Danielle Blundell, the home director at Apartment Therapy. Even graphic design from the 1950s and ’60s often featured starburst motifs, a nod to futurism. A decade later, designers used natural fibers like rattan to create similar sun-shaped mirrors. (They fell out of fashion in the ’80s — as Blundell explains, “Forms were a lot more tubular. I don’t think the sun was a huge motif in that time period.”)

A sunburst mirror in 1968.
H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

Blundell’s theory as to why sunburst mirrors started to come back in the ’90s has to do with the witchy aesthetic of the time that coincided with a greater acceptance of New Age beliefs. “I had a sunburst mirror growing up in my bathroom,” she says. ”It was celestial-themed — it was that first little kick of astrology. I don’t think it was really harking back to Louis XIV, I think it was just like, ‘Wow, stars are cool. Space is cool.’”

The aesthetics of astrology are in vogue now, of course, too. But Muir suggests our renewed interest in sunburst shapes is a backlash to our decade-long love affair with minimalism. “We’re moving away from Swedish modernism,” she says. “I see people wanting more materials and really want that focal point again. It’s a return to maximalism.” And as rattan furniture continues to take over outdoor spaces (or spaces meant to feel like they’re outdoors), 1970s-inspired sunburst mirrors are now shoppable at West Elm and Urban Outfitters.

A low-key sunburst mirror in a boho-chic space.
Getty Images

There does seem to be a growing interest in sunburst mirrors — according to Google Trends, we’re in the middle of an upswing in searches. It’s possible that it also could relate to the situational effects of quarantine — home redecoration has been a popular way to pass the time, and sunburst mirrors are also very DIY-able, making them a fun project to take up an afternoon.

Muir, like every design and interiors expert I spoke to or read about online, loves sunburst mirrors. “I think they’re just a great piece to draw attention to a room and to really make a room,” she says.

Not only are they laden with art history, but Blundell argues that sunburst mirrors actually do serve a function in a room. “It’s a harmonious and eye-catching shape, and it’s always nice to have a circular or fun shape, because they draw the eye and they help create an eye path around the space. You’re always going to throw light around the space, so it may make it seem like you have more natural light and make your space feel a little bit bigger.”

An episode of Interior Therapy with Jeff Lewis, a short-lived Bravo show from 2012 to 2013.
Isabella Vosmikova/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

It turns out that sunburst mirrors are actually good, and stylish, and useful, and have a history that isn’t completely boring. Some of them are even sort of cute! But I still think the first thought I will have the next time I see a sunburst mirror (which will probably not be for many months, as there are none in my apartment), is that they exist to be forgotten. Which isn’t a crime, I guess.

In fact, that’s what Blundell says makes them so enduring. “[Sunbursts] are an interesting shape, but they’re also familiar. But that’s what the best stuff is a lot of times,” she says. “It’s the one thing that my mom and I can agree on. They’re just pretty, you know?”

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