The home as art

6 minute read
Free at last (of Ralph Lauren and Oprah):
A new manifesto for affluent homes


First of a series of articles about home design.

in 1840 Edgar Allan Poe pronounced the decorating of American homes “preposterous.” Unlike our English forebears, Poe observed in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, we Americans had “no aristocracy of blood … and have therefore fashioned an aristocracy of dollars… and have brought to merge in simple show our notion of taste itself.”

Poe concluded that Americans confounded the two separate ideas of grandiosity and beauty, and he proposed to “obviate vulgar pretensions” and “blind subservience to the caprices of fashion” by showing his readers how to design their personal environments the same way artists made their art.

Poe remains America’s most farsighted critic in the field of residential design. The aristocracy of dollars still rules the home front today. Just look at the McMansions and movie star retreats featured in Architectural Digest and it’s clear that grandiosity and vulgarity still prevail.

To be sure, in the last two centuries Americans have built the greatest number of efficient, comfortable and accessible dwellings the world has ever seen, spending countless billions on home renovation and decoration. If the magazine stands and cable TV shows are any indication, Americans feel a nationwide passion for interior design.

Why, then, is the quality of creative expression a matter of such minor importance in most people’s homes? Why do even people of wealth and taste seem to live in homes that are just like those of every other person of wealth and taste?

The big four culprits

I blame four big roadblocks to real design creativity in American homes:

Mass production. Unlike furnishings and accessories of the past, the vast majority of American home products are machine-made in enormous quantity. Most household goods are now conventionalized and packaged. Room functions are predetermined. Floor plans are standardized. Even color schemes are systemized. These goods and services are then mass-marketed— often with greater creative inspiration than went into the products themselves.

Design dictators. Despite the vigorous lip service that interior designers give to individual lifestyles, many of them decorate their clients’ homes down to the toilet paper. Others create product lines. Ralph Lauren is the most shining example. With undeniable skill, he orchestrates complete home concepts like “Newport Mansion,” “Western Ranch” and “Jamaican Resort.” Designers’ concept packages include furnishings, accessories, linens, clothes, perfumes and other thematically integrated “essentials.”

The problem is not a lack of quality; it’s a lack of self-expression. Ralph’s Lauren’s vision— whichever one— isn’t necessarily yours.

Grand illusions. At the other extreme lies the disastrous obsession with “doing it yourself.” Without training or technical expertise— let alone professional advice—many well-intentioned Americans fashion hideous homes simply because Martha Stewart told them how to do-it-themselves.

For an excellent example of haste making waste, check the Spring 2008 issue of Oprah Winfrey’s O at Home magazine, which urges readers to create an “Instant art collection.” How? “Instead of traveling to flea markets for vintage art, consider hanging this… wallpaper.” For $1,200 you can buy a pseudo collection, which is really four sheets of paper featuring copies of bad art.

What is the alternative? In her new book, Inspirations from France and Italy, Betty Lou Phillips makes what to most Americans will seem like an earth-shaking suggestion: Domestic décor should evolve over time. Phillips urges Americans to learn from the French, who see “decorating their homes as an aesthetic undertaking en route to self-fulfillment.” Hmm. Self-fulfillment without hiring a therapist. Fancy that!

Lack of confidence. Even as design dictators urge us to scrap our favorite possessions for the sake of maintaining stylistic integrity, we’re inundated with intimidating notions in newspapers, TV, catalogues, malls, design centers, eBay. The net result is befuddlement and insecurity, two commodities deadly to inspiration and creativity.

When the bourgeois meet the Bohemians

But enough negativity. Here’s the good news: I believe a new, educated class has surfaced in American culture— an upper class whose value structure has already made significant improvements in the realm of home design. As David Brooks so brilliantly explained in Bobos in Paradise (2000), the cultural war between the artsy, spiritual bohemians (like Edgar Allan Poe) and the rich, rational bourgeois is finally drawing to an end. The two classes have co-opted each other to celebrate both enlightened creativity and the best quality of life that money can buy. Typical Bobos— that is, bourgeois Bohemians— disdain excessive opulence while applauding all that’s unique, comfortable, earthy, handmade, organic and warm. They have money, taste and the confidence to pursue their individual visions.

As an example, Brooks cites the transformation of Wayne, an old Main Line suburb and upper-bourgeois WASP stronghold that now boasts a variety of coffee houses, bookstores and restaurants, all of which serve as gathering places for artists, intellectuals and thoughtful people of all kinds. If Brooks is right, this kind of social transformation is a blessing for those who want to be artists in their own homes and gain the respect of others at the same time.

A poker room on a Caribbean cliff

Over the last two decades I’ve observed the changing attitudes of both my interior design clients and my students at Penn. I rarely get requests for conventional copies of period rooms, or what Poe called grandiose apartments. Instead, clients and students alike are asking for help in editing and refining their own personal styles. Designing “green” is also in demand; so are downscaled houses with higher quality interior architecture.

Some of my clients want spaces planned around their favorite activities. I’m thinking, for example, of an Anguillian “rock room” carved out of a cliff above the Caribbean— a hideaway that had served as a hurricane shelter until I transformed it into a poker room, centered by an octagonal table and circled by a collection of Robert Indiana “number” lithographs. Another sports-happy family wanted a full-scale spa within their Barclay Hotel condo. My design partner and I gave them an elevated marble bath, extensive exercise equipment, a ballet bar and mirrored walls beneath a series of dancing nudes by Philadelphia artist Ursula Sternberg. Currently I’m creating a three-dimensional artistic composition using a New Jersey client’s treasures– antique textiles, gilded candlesticks and colorful oddments collected on her travels.

All these projects were designed to fulfill several goals— comfort, convenience, and beauty— simultaneously. Not coincidentally, these are the same qualities set forth by the Roman architect and theoretician Vitruvius in his Ten Books on Architecture in the First Century B.C. Vitruvius believed in perfecting the beauty of buildings as an imitation of nature, and to that end he integrated landscape architecture and artistry in his own projects. We’ve had his guidelines for 2,000 years; why not follow them? For the affluent, at least, money isn’t the primary stumbling block; courage and imagination are.

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