Saturday, April 14, 2012

Adventures in Decorating

Around the time my husband and I married, while we hashed out the guidelines of our future life together, we decided that debt and credit cards were a scam and we would avoid them as much as possible. This led us to buy a 70s-era mobile home and fill it with hand-me-downs and castoffs, but we dreamed of dream houses where everything was "just right". Which, being poor but creative college students looking for cheap entertainment, led to a lot of talking, library book-reading, and window shopping.

We were immediately attracted to Art Nouveau and the Arts & Crafts movement, especially when we realized that the graceful, well-designed houses our older relatives lived in were the Craftsman "bungalows" we read about. In terms of utility, design, aesthetics, comfort, and convenience they were so far ahead of the modern "ranch" houses I and most of our age-mates grew up in that they might as well be from another planet. (I could spend thousands of words ranting about the "ranch" house, but writing time is too precious to rant about anything small. Suffice to say it's impossible to overstate the role of the "ranch" house in the death of the Cowboy Mythos for my generation.)

(And before anybody makes any remarks about being attracted to everything and hating to be categorized, keep in mind it saves a lot of time if you know what bin in the record store you're most likely to find music you like in so you can look there first.)

(And I just realized I dated myself terribly by even knowing what a record store was.)

Last year we bought a 1920 Bungalow and set out to upgrade some of our decrepit furnishings. We soon realized there were some things we didn't know:

1) Craftsmen replicas are hideously expensive.

2) They're very brown. We'd been looking in old books with black-and-white illustrations, and we'd grown up seeing Southern, Colonial-style bungalows which have lighters colors than the older bungalows made up north and out west. We're summer-toned Southerners, we like brown as an accent color but never as a dominant color; and we like jewel toned-accents even more than brown.

So I set about looking for something with Craftsman sensibilities but a more vibrant color scheme. The goal was to find something eyeball-friendly, without the overwhelming, eye-bleeding patterns of the Laura Ashley look or the vast, anxiety-inducing expanses of white of the Modernists. I wanted to give the eye something interesting to look at when it's bored and some blank spaces to gaze into when it's tired.

The "cottage" or "shabby chic" look had potential, when it avoided looking like vast expanses of Modernist white punctuated by puffs of pink. (As with fashion, it turned out the more sedate interpretations of experienced amateurs look much better than the more extreme interpretations of attention-seeking professionals.) I kept hearing the same code phrases parroted over and over again, and I knew there had to be a guru out there somewhere. Turns out she's Rachel Ashwell, and apparently she sells ice cream-colored furniture (WTH did that come from?) and linens through....Target?

Uh-huh. Until we moved, the nearest Target was 3 1/2 hours away. (Now it's only 1 1/2 hours away, but we still haven't been there yet.) No wonder I wasn't aware of the latest trend in "country" decorating. I lived too far out in the country!

Oh, apparently the ice cream-colored furniture is something rich people did in their vacation homes in order to disguise the fact that the their furniture was originally stained *gasp* different shades of brown! Oh, the horrors! Aren't rich people simply too precious for words? I'm not fond of brown, but I don't have a problem with furniture that comes in different shades of brown. It looks more interesting that way.

Besides, I suspect Target is really selling ice cream-colored furniture to disguise the fact that it's probably particle-board crud that will fall apart as soon as it hits the hot, humid Southern air. Cynical, moi?

Still, I could see painting the occasional piece that was too badly damaged to restore. I found a couple of banged-up old tables in the shed out back. I can give those to the girls to decorate, and get at least two weeks worth of art lessons down as well as new furniture. Win!

One of the other things cottage style has going for it is that it's pack-rat-friendly, which is inexplicably rare in contemporary styles. Isn't everyone a pack-rat these days? Er, I mean "collector" of course. I've been collecting decorative boxes (They're both pretty and they organize messier collections) for years, and I love displaying them.

I've seen cottage style photo spreads highlighting just about every collectible you can think of -- except one. The one thing I've never seen photos of collections of in cottage style, or any contemporary style, are books. You have to go back to the old Arts & Crafts layout to see pictures of libraries, yet private book collections are more popular now than ever before in history. I wonder what's behind that disconnection? Whatever the reason for other people's hangups, I realized by age 7 my primary interior design challenge would always be having enough bookshelves.

(Pet peeve time -- if you're going to put up a picture of a room you call a "library" or even a "study" there damn well better be some bookshelves in it. If it doesn't have any bookshelves it's not a "library". 'Nuff said.)

Even with Ashwell I'm hearing something regurgitated from somewhere older, and I suspect, less enamored with vast expanses of Modernist white punctuated by puffs of pink. A bit of digging turns up the Bohemian style, of which Ashwell is an anemic, watered-down descendent.

Apparently the contemporary Bohemian style is a particular outgrowth of the Arts & Crafts movement that started in the 1920s and accreted around the painter Augustus John and his friends and lovers. Hmmm, I wonder how many of the fans of "shabby chic" realize they're following in the footsteps of polyamorous proto-hippies?

Further research shows that boho fashion has apparently been in and out of favor in Britain for several years now, although it gained little traction in the US. Pity that, it's my favorite form of dress. Then again, I've been too busy to dress up any in the past few years.

One of the Immutable Laws of Fashion (don't laugh, a handful really do exist) is that anything that's been fashionable in clothing for over five years becomes a form of interior decor. After a decade of on-again, off-again Bohemian fashions there had to be Bohemian decor, so I googled up some pics.

Ooh, I see color. Lots of color. Sometimes, quite frankly, too much color, but at least there's plenty of jewel toned-accents.

There's also plenty of bookshelves. I approve.

My husband looked at the Google pics over my shoulder and said, "Those look so comforting. Even if I don't like a particular room, it's comforting to see people confident enough to express their individuality like that."

This is starting to look like a win. Of course the fact that I could probably achieve "the look" by simply tossing my scarf collection around the living room is a plus.

The trick is to use strong color while avoiding looking like a rainbow clown wig. Then again, at the craft fair earlier this month I passed up tons of multi-colored pottery and bought an arched tree branch that had been formed into a candle holder. It is easier for an item to be "just right" when it is simple instead of fussy.

I could go with a Colonial Bungalow style with touches of Bohemian. And since one of the other Immutable Laws of Fashion is that when grown-ups become successful enough to dress as they please they invariably head for whatever was in fashion when they were young, as soon as the children of the 90s get some money they'll make sure Bohemian fashion (and by extension Bohemian decor) stays around for many years to come.

This looks like the start of a beautiful relationship.


Daryl Cobranchi said...

We have tons of built in bookcases in our living room and in the smoking room (what we call the family room now). The house was built in 1914.

Lioness said...

Sounds wonderful. Our 1920 house used to have tons of built-ins. One (of many) travesties the previous owners committed was to tear them all out and throw them in the woods behind the house to fill up the old fish pond. We'll start replacing the bookshelves after we finish the kitchen.

Misti said...

Hah! This is perfect. I am ready to start thinking about a completely new decor style and I think Bohemian style may just be it. For me, it will have more than a little French Provincial (off white tending blue milk paint to set off the all jewel tone colours, dontcha know.) :p

Thank you! So glad I visited today.

Misti said...

Hah! This is perfect. I am ready to start thinking about a completely new decor style and I think Bohemian style may just be it. For me, it will have more than a little French Provincial (off white tending blue milk paint to set off the all jewel tone colours, dontcha know.) :p

Thank you! So glad I visited today.