It worked for Napoleon (but he lacked Internet access)

"Narrative style' in interior design

7 minute read
Napoleon's bed was fit for an emperor, but not necessarily for sleeping.
Napoleon's bed was fit for an emperor, but not necessarily for sleeping.
Even before he conquered Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte confronted a major challenge at home: how to persuade the world that a commoner could become an emperor?

Fortunately for him, Napoleon was a master of self-promotion. With astonishing speed and panache, he replaced the interior decoration of Kings Louis XIV, XV and XVI with what quickly became known as "Empire Style."

The new emperor commissioned the most prominent artists, architects and artisans of his day to design furnishings reflecting the glory of his military conquests in Egypt and Italy. He and Empress Josephine filled their palaces with powerful architectonic pieces, replete with ancient symbols of power— eagles reigning over beds and lions' feet supporting chairs.

Nearly two centuries later, President Jimmy Carter sought the opposite of Napoleon's personal narrative. To that end Carter often retreated from the White House to his three-room log cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains where he could weave bark chair seats, display his bottle collection, catch fish for family meals— and pose for a New York Times photographer. By making their private home life public, the Carters celebrated traditional American values of self-sufficiency, egalitarian simplicity and family ties.

Revolt against cookie-cutters

Napoleon and Jimmy Carter both made successful (albeit very different) political statements using their residential décor as a vehicle. To be sure, both leaders employed professionals to guide them— in Napoleon's case, a vast number of architects, artists, furniture and fabric makers; in Carter's, the designer Carleton Varney.

But in today's world, you don't have to be a potentate or even rich to make a meaningful statement about your preferred lifestyle. Perhaps as a reaction to cookie-cutter housing and formulaic décor, more and more homeowners are now celebrating their own personal histories, fascinations and dreams— what I call the "Narrative Style" approach to interior design.

Part of the reason, I suspect, is that it's so easy to indulge our tastes, no matter how bizarre or revolutionary our choices may be, when everything's so accessible online.

Night club-cum-library

One of my own interior design clients, a former basketball player whom I'll call Bob, wanted to spend as much time as possible in his own uniquely personal sanctuary after working all day in a bank. This up-and-coming bachelor was determined to pursue his private pleasures to their utmost— which meant he needed a flexible setup that would enable his party life, and also provide ease and comfort essential to his more solitary pursuits.

So Bob bought a one-of-a-kind loft studio— really just a huge rusticated room. Aside from his giant-sized bed, all his streamlined leather and hardwood furniture could be rolled or stacked, even an island made of butcher block. With all this flexibility, he could transform his pad into a "night club" in a matter of minutes. At least once a week his musician friends and dancing girls rocked there 'til dawn.

But on quieter nights Bob read books from his considerable library, or he cooked and conversed. We made his open kitchen a model of efficiency. Because he was tall, he wanted everything possible hung from ceiling racks; and he kept his collection of beer steins and copper pots on open shelving he made himself. It was a delight to watch him swinging around his kitchen making omelets while talking a mile a minute about his decorating trials and tribulations.

Favorite ties

Since Bob was clueless about color schemes, curtains and floor coverings, I took him to his closet and asked him to show me his favorite ties. Almost all were stripes of various shades of blue, alternated with red and creamy white. So we painted the entry area wall the welcoming soft-red hue, plus several interior walls varying shades of his blue— with the warm white everywhere else.

For curtains, I showed him how to cut and clip sheets of nubbly burlap to rods, and they floated cheerfully over his pine floors. For rugs, I found him brindle cowhides, each one a unique and roll-uppable accent piece.

Since Bob was by nature a do-it-yourselfer, I acted primarily as a guide who coordinated his project, maintained quality control, kept the budget in line— and otherwise kept out of his way.

Quarrelsome couple

Of course it's relatively easy for a designer to work with someone like Bob, who lives alone and has complete control over his space and finances. But what happens when you're dealing with a husband and wife whose personal narratives are diametrically opposed? Consider a quarrelsome couple whom I'll call Leroy and Loretta Lockhorn.

Loretta, the charming wife, came from a privileged background, and she brought a small inheritance, along with antique silver, china, and some excellent Federal Style furniture to the marriage. Leroy supported her and their two rambunctious sons by working as a high school sports coach. For years they lived cheerfully together in their three-bedroom house with a big kitchen and even more spacious living room— but neither family room nor basement.

When their sons became teenagers, they and their dad began a remodeling campaign: All three wanted to turn Loretta's showplace living room into a family "game room," with a huge TV, pool table, bar with stools, poker table, even a dartboard.

Loretta was dumbfounded. How could she possibly entertain her lady friends for cocktails and tea and charity meetings in such a ghastly macho barroom?

Persuading the guys

The Lockhorns couldn't afford to build a major addition for the proposed game room. So Loretta brought me in to try and find viable alternatives.

I pointed out that their budget would allow for a relatively small, prefabricated garden room addition to the house, where Loretta could continue to entertain with all her beautiful furnishings, and be surrounded by glorious flowers and herbs, to boot. Meanwhile, I persuaded the guys that they could have all their favorite things in the living room— provided Loretta and I chose furniture styles and coordinated all the room arrangements. They agreed readily.

I found an old mahogany bar in a warehouse sale and added elegant cushioned stools, along with a traditional fireside armchair that everyone liked. After the project was complete, Loretta's lady friends gave the garden room high praise, yet many found themselves drawn to the mahogany bar… and everybody was happier than ever.

Bottom line: If a husband and wife seem to be heading in different directions temperamentally, it may be time for deacquisition and reorganization. Reorganizing your home may be complicated and costly, but it's a lot less devastating and costly than divorce.

Oprah looks in the mirror

I recently read that Oprah Winfrey is coming to terms with her own clutter and "turning her house into a home that's all her own," according to the March issue of O Magazine. After her interior designer told her that where she lives "should reflect who you really are," Oprah finally admitted to herself that her half-dozen previous dwellings had been designed to impress other people.

So now it's out with the grand gilded mirrors, marble urns, and sumptuous carpets. They may have worked for Napoleon's purposes, but Oprah says she can now share her home freely with her friends and pets and come home to old oak floors that "bring peace and joy with every step forward." She didn't need a huge mirror after all— just a small one to examine herself.

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