Posted by: Daryl & Wendy Ashby | August 30, 2010

Shabby isn’t Chic

Flip through current architecture and interiors magazines and it would seem everything is permissible. All design approaches are valid and there are no rules. Not true.

The first rule that many contravene, including occasionally those whose homes appear in magazines, is that even the best-designed houses must be clean to be stylish. Dusty, dirty and unkempt is often the secret reality behind homes that otherwise photograph sublimely. Not that they should be sanitized like hospitals. But many of these places could benefit from a little more effort than a quick, monthly vacuum. More effort and less air freshener is the solution. All this was easier to accomplish when mothers stayed home all day and mopped and polished. It’s arduous now when most work outside the home and kids won’t lift a finger (especially if it’s a domestic chore). Interestingly, grime at home is not something the rich tend to worry about, as they can hire platoons of housekeepers. Having a cleaning person is fine, if he or she knows how to clean and you know how to supervise. Keeping house is not instinctual, you have to be trained to do it right.

Related to good design’s need to be clean is the necessity of a good repair. Shabby is chic only if it reflects the patina of civilized use, rather than decrepitude. Junk is still junk. Being too lazy to repair a wobbly chair or get a sofa re-upholstered is sloth, not style.

A second rule is to not to confuse decorating with hoarding. The élan of a well-proportioned room is hidden when crammed with stuff, even the finest 18th-century furniture. This isn’t a plea for minimalism but rather an observation that intelligent design relies on restraint. Over-stuffing may take the form of too many family photographs littered about, multiple outbreaks of dried or other flower arrangements, sideboards heavy with knick-knack, books piled in corners, and gardens that look like nurseries bursting at the seams in spring.

Why do we start with a nice house and then wreck it with out-of-control consumption? We’ve become a country that loves to purchase but not purge. Look at the proliferation of storage facilities that people spend a fortune to rent to store trash. Better here (I guess) than living with it. As obesity starts with children, so does gross materialism. It’s appalling to see kids’ bedrooms larded top-to-bottom with unused toys and neglected games; it’s the harbinger of what their homes will look like as adults.

A third rule is that people should have an emotional connection to what they live with. Coming home shouldn’t feel like sleeping in a furniture store, even if the furniture is perfect. The disconnect between us and our stuff is most poignant when it comes to the art we put on our walls. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the kitsch that unselfconscious homeowners hang on their walls to add colour or otherwise make a room look less bare. It’s art that doesn’t mean anything. Be it a silly seascape or a French Impressionist knock-off, we’ve all seen it, if not grown up with it. Most of us aspire to better, even if just to leave the walls empty.

At the other end of the spectrum is fine art, the kind that’s bought at commercial art galleries or fancy auctions. It’s mostly of the branded variety. You can identify what it is, and likely worth, the minute you see it. Real art is “classy,” and spending $10,000 on a painting is more impressive than buying a sofa for the same price. Like decorators who fill rooms with objects that owners know nothing about other than it impresses their friends, much “real” art, especially if contemporary, is bought with advice from consultants who simply know what’s cool. Some consultants charge fees, others get kick-backs from sellers. The result can be a bizarre assemblage that engulfs occupants who have a marginal understanding of it. Asked for an explanation, these art collectors recite their consultant’s justification for purchase as a substitute for having a real connection to their art. It’s a desperate status-seeking game that art patrons play.

All three rules have one thing in common: Style is about living, not acquiring. Cherishing what you own means taking care of it, including the humdrum notion of cleaning. Disciplining consumption is about valuing what you already have. Being connected to what you own, be it art or a foot stool, is the difference between vulgarians who believe they can buy refinement and those who know they’re only purchasing the appearance of it

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