Home design: The personal style

7 minute read
902 seymourjane
Knock, knock, anybody home?
(and other tough questions about the 'artist' within you)


Second of a series of articles on home design.

“Own your own soul in your bedroom.”
“Find your true spirit in a tree house.”
“Realize the real you in a dream kitchen.”

These false promises and many more can be found in countless shelter magazines. Or you can turn on a TV home show and get advice from the pretty blonde who’ll tell you how to develop a custom personal concept in ten minutes flat.

If I sound too harsh in my criticism of mass media sales pitches, consider this Siematic kitchen ad. Here you’re told to make your kitchen “the same way that idiosyncratic architects back then [in the late 19th Century] took the freedom to combine elements from different historic eras.” Today, the ad insists, “you too can break the conventional rules of style and create something new: your own personal composition, a reflection of your personality.”

Maybe you can find evidence of originality and character in this illustration. I can’t. Besides, the much-touted “composition of styles from different periods” is nonexistent, with the possible exception of a crystal chandelier, which will get hideously greasy if anyone actually cooks anything in this kitchen.

What I do see is a contemporary cliché, a sophisticated up-to-the-minute fashion statement likely to go out of style relatively soon. This glamorous kitchen is a bad buy for anyone wishing to make a permanent investment in personal style.

Now take a look at an ad for Wood-Mode’s refined custom cabinetry, which you are also told will “reflect your own personal style,” even though the room in the picture is filled with standardized Italian Renaissance detailing. Unless you happen to be a sincere Italophile, this “personal” statement makes no sense at all. You can’t just buy an Old World concept package and expect it to deliver an environment chock full of your personality (or anyone else’s). Copies of copies of period styles tend to lack the quality and vitality of the original creation.

Beware instant miracles

Self-knowledge lies at the heart of all successful projects— in home design or any other endeavor. So I urge would-be home designers to begin by exploring your preferences and your lifestyle. Self-discovery isn’t always easy or pleasant. But if I haven’t frightened you off yet, bear with me. You may actually enjoy the process.

(Movie stars claim they enjoy this process so much that they’ve entered the design business themselves. Julianne Moore is featured in Domino’s May 2008 issue in her “best role yet: decorator!”; and Jane Seymour has published Making Yourself at Home (Bullfinch, 2007), in which she tells you how to “discover the artist within you.” Seymour is also launching her own concept packages, including “St. Catherine’s Court,” so that you too can have the “dramatic luxury of her regal 14th-Century English manor home.” That “artist within you” sounds very much like a replica of Jane Seymour.)

Demystifying style jargon

The first step to finding the elusive “real you” is to learn about specific period, contemporary, and vernacular styles. Throughout history human structures and values have determined how ideas are expressed aesthetically. So when people’s perspectives change over time, their contemporary mode of expression becomes a period style. For example, when rich monasteries ruled Europe and dominated almost all building and decoration, the Romanesque period emerged. Then with the rise of cities, the merchant class and the money culture evolved in Gothic style.

Peruse this chronology link and you’ll see that rich folk were the style dictators for 5,000 years! (Fashion was rarely a preoccupation of the starving masses). Not until the industrial and social revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries did the middle and working classes get the opportunity to emulate their peers, and democratic multi-class styles finally emerged.

Since contemporary style draws its inspiration from past styles and present fashions alike, it’s understandably dubbed Eclectic. Happily, this mix-and-match approach is singularly suitable to the idea of personal style, the most challenging goal of interior design in our times. (Formerly, most people were satisfied if their homes were simply beautiful, functional and comfortable.)

But suppose you’re not an artist?

So how do you go about discovering your own charisma? And how can you develop the necessary aesthetic judgment to apply your style to your personal environment?

Unfortunately, there’s no good substitute for artistic talent. Your own talent can be nurtured by hard work and experience, but some people just aren’t artists. If that’s your case, I urge you to (1) continue studying and experimenting until you’re convinced of your competence; or (2) work interactively with an experienced design partner, at least on a part-time basis; or (3) hire an enlightened professional to execute a design plan based on your genuine sense of self.

Go on a treasure hunt

Even if you opt for professional guidance, you need to let your consultant know who you are at home. One road to self-discovery is the treasure hunt: Find your most valued possessions, and pay attention to the story they tell. A chic lady friend of mine identified her grandmother’s slipper chair as her most favorite possession, and she used it as the centerpiece of a 19th-Century neo-boudoir. (During the design process, she began to imagine herself as a character in a Balzac novel, and her husband became similarly inspired.)

Letting your architecture speak for itself is another sound approach, especially if your home already has elements of high drama, like gorgeous ceilings, ancient alcoves or free-floating stairways. One of my students insisted that a carved wooden door in his historic house “awakened his unconscious memory” ⎯ so he opened the door to his garden, and built a walled room outside for meditation. Here he found the peace he badly needed.

Smell that cedar chest

Those interested in cooking or lovemaking or music might prefer to enter the realm of physical senses. Should this be you, check out your home with your eyes, ears, nose, mouth and hands. That’s right— enter each room in your home and feel the suede sofa, smell the cedar chest, and sit down and just listen, and breathe until you can realize the mood of the place. With luck, you’ll connect with each room’s unique ambience, e.g., warm and welcoming, or stoic and invigorating, or morbid and frightening. You may not like what you find out. But on the other hand, you’ll have a good idea of what possessions to keep and what to reject. Good editing is essential to fine design.

One last option, based strictly on the pleasure principal: Concentrate on your favorite activity. Don’t be shy! Just take time to visualize yourself engaged in doing what you like best (even if it’s drinking beer or embroidering). Then envision a special space devoted to this practice. Imagine you have all the time and talent and money you need in order to design walls, floors, furnishings, light and color. These imaginings alone will generate new and wondrous thoughts.

Of course there are a myriad of ways to discover your stylistic preferences. As long as you don’t get bogged down by other people’s design ideas, and you concentrate on what excites and delights you, your success is guaranteed.

To read responses, click here and here.
To read Caroline Millett’s first article, “The home as art,” click here.

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