Down with purity, up with character: Radical (but sensible) home design tips

Down with minimalist design!

6 minute read
Minimalist house by MariÓ  CastellÓ³ Martinez: But is it really you?
Minimalist house by MariÓ  CastellÓ³ Martinez: But is it really you?
Fifth in a series of articles on home design

Reading endless shelter magazines, as I must do, I am bored to bejesus with contemporary minimalist homes. These rooms are starved for personality. With all those regulation black/ gray/white spaces dominated by formulaic furniture and the flat screen TV, surrounded by oodles of glass, the best imagery in these minimalist rooms is usually the view out the window. For more than 30 years the anorexic room has reigned as the icon of high life style.

During this same period, many art gallery environments succumbed to a similar "white cube style," a purist box with shining concrete floors, "impeding rather than enhancing the rhythms of art," as Jerry Saltz put it earlier this year in New York magazine.

Saltz reached the same conclusion as I have: It's time to activate the sterile environment with individual creativity. Down with obsessive purity and up with color, chaos and character!

But how, exactly, can the enlightened homeowner face such a challenge?

1) By gaining the confidence to express his or her own personal style instead of following fashion's dictates; and

2) By learning basic aesthetic principles. Since I have already written several columns (beginning here) about developing personal style, I'll focus in this article on the how-to's of making your home beautiful. Learning three aesthetic principles"“ symmetry, continuity and focus"“ is a good way to start.

Symmetry means balance, and most people's eyes associate beauty with balance. In strictly symmetrical interiors, a theoretical axis divides the space down the middle with identical furnishings on both sides of that axis. Although such rooms are usually very formal, they need not be the least old-fashioned. Take a look at Greg Lynn's corian breakfast nook.

Lynn is an avant-garde architect best known for his "blob" works, but he has also designed a personal environment almost as symmetrically balanced as a Greek temple. Please note that Lynn's room is not perfectly symmetrical (the objects above the sofa don't match). Nowadays, classically acclaimed "perfect symmetry" has pretty much fallen by the wayside, since it seems so cold and/or artificial. Modern eyes feel more comfortable with asymmetrically balanced interiors, such as Lynn's, where both sides of a space have equal visual weight, without being identical. Happily, more relaxed rooms give the homeowner a certain allowance for artful messiness.

These more comfortable, contemporary arrangements lend themselves to aggressively individualized lifestyles, where form tends to follow function freely. For those who celebrate their treasures in the increasingly popular Eclectic Style, asymmetrical balance is ideal.

Continuity is all about images forming patterns, such as waves in the sea, or musical beats involving both repetition and progression. Shelves of books and panels of curtains provide obvious and often pleasing rhythms (And, yes, designing rooms resembles making music).

Continuity comes easy when you arrange dining chairs or a series of small rugs. You might enjoy experimenting with patterns made by candles, pots, linens or, best of all, framed artworks.

Focus, as in the movies, is the central attraction. Almost all fine works of art have at least one focal point that's easy to identify. Similarly, your rooms require a compelling feature that commands attention. Since earliest times, the fireplace has been a focus, drawing families and furniture together for warmth, food and security. Your own central feature may be less commonplace, so you ought to consider dramatic and/or comic attractions. My own favorite rooms offer an element of surprise: a big butterfly kite flying in the eaves of my Brazilian kitchen, and a mannequin dressed as a policeman guarding the back door.

Tips for arranging rooms

Once you understand these aesthetic principles, it's much easier to start arranging your furnishings artfully. Here are some practical tips to guide you along the way:

Think "function." Eating, drinking, sleeping, working, playing, washing… Places are literally shaped by all these vital activities. Take a close look at what you actually do. Have you enough truly comfortable seating? Adequate lighting? Side tables for martinis and peanuts? Be candid about what you really want, and then get it.

Open up your space. Be sure your furnishings and artworks all allow enough room to breathe. Keep areas around objects walls and doors stairways reasonably open. You need traffic lanes! Keep in mind that space isn't just emptiness: It's a basic design element. On the other hand, don't go mad with minimalism. Excessive nothingness is like starvation: highly undesirable.

Pay attention to relative dimensions. All-important pieces need a good relationship. Observe how major furnishings relate to interior architecture. If, for instance, you have a Victorian house with high ceilings and windows, conventional wisdom suggests that you introduce a high-backed sofa, a tall armoire or other lofty pieces. (On the other hand, you can create a wonderful focus by going purposely out-of-scale: Imagine the drama of one huge tree in a glass-domed entry hall, especially if a tiny bird sings in it).

Experiment with furnishings in large spaces. Have you tried floating your sofa, out in the open, away from the walls? First float, then create groups of major pieces"“ putting them together facilitates communication, the natural way. Notice how guests often pull chairs together naturally, so that they can hear and see each other easily. (On the other hand, should you really want the formal, grand Louis XIV look, line your chairs and tables up against the walls like soldiers). In a very large room, you probably will need two or three different furniture groupings, perhaps with a round table or sculpture between them.

Reduce scale of furniture in smaller spaces. Using downsized pieces is the usual way professionals design small rooms. It works. But if you prefer standard-sized furniture, select just a few special pieces— perhaps a love seat instead of sofa. If you have plenty of overall space, you might enjoy using a small room for a very special purpose. For instance, you could make an intimate space by tenting the walls and adding chaise lounge, along with a charming table for two.

Final advice: Don't forget who you are. Many otherwise intelligent people forget themselves and their own needs when it comes to home décor. Probably they've been programmed by phony imagery (my clients and students often hand me pictures of self-important rooms they want to copy). Liberate yourself from status-conscious "museum perfect" salons, frighteningly gadget-driven kitchens and those hot red bedrooms where no one can sleep when sober. Instead try to follow your own guidelines, or find a professional designer or artist who's capable of subordinating his or her ego and helping you edit and refine your own self-expressions. There are some of us out there, you know. â—†

To read previous articles in this series, begin here.

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