On Saturday I had the rare chance to spend all day with a friend tooling around Frederick, Maryland, a town near here known for its antiques.
The danger of rare opportunities is that they sometimes make me rush into spending money — because who knows when I’ll be able to get back? As if the universe had sensed my need, just before my outing I came across a few maxims in the May issue of House Beautiful magazine that sank to the bottom of me and acted as anchors.
Before I share them with you, I wanted to touch upon why I think creating beautiful interiors is a worthwhile pursuit. I am not good at drawing, or painting, or making movies, but I think I create art through the everyday meals that we cook, the little parties we throw, and the way we decorate our house.
Of course functionality and comfort are important, but beauty is too. Beauty brings peace, it inspires creativity, and it tells everyone who encounters it: we care.
1. “Have fewer things, but better things.” — Suzanne Rheinstein
When I saw the Manhattan apartment in House Beautiful that Suzanne Rheinstein had designed, I felt a sense of calm. And I don’t think it was just because of the restrained use of color — it was the choice of furniture. Furniture that Rheinstein said would see the young homeowners “through their lives.”
“Obviously, it’s a long process. It’s not 10-minute decorating,” concedes Rheinstein. “If you buy one good thing a year, in five years, you’ll have five really good things.”
Finding furniture that is not only well-made but that has a timeless style is a challenge. Each piece would require the thought and money of an ‘investment.’ That’s the way our grandparents used to think of furniture: yes, it’s expensive but you only have to buy it once. These days we expect lower and lower prices on everything, so we can buy more and more. Furniture-makers and fashion designers keep the trends changing so we are almost forced to keep tossing out and buying new.
But maybe furniture should be elevated to the level of real estate: you trade more of your life for it because you plan to love it and use it for a long time. You don’t always have to pay with your money; you could pay with time, like I did this weekend.
My trip to the country winding through room after dizzying room of antiques yielded one great find: this 1850s chest from a farmhouse in Maryland’s Middletown Valley on sale for $315:
It was exactly the piece we thought would look great in our new foyer, but we never imagined we’d ever find it, much less at this price.
Having better things is possible but it demands a lot of us: patience, time, and conviction.
2. “Live with what you love.” — Austin Varner
Just because something is in style or everyone else is doing it (think stainless steel appliances), doesn’t mean it’s right for us.
For one, we all have different budget constraints, we all have different lifestyles, and different priorities. If you’ve ever renovated a kitchen (I haven’t), you probably will identify with this post by one of my favorite writers, Meagan Francis: In defense of the over-the-range microwave, or why I need to worry less about what other people think.
The edict of “buy what you love” is complicated. I’ve often had to ask myself: do I love this because I’m seeing it in all the magazines, or because deep-down I really like it?
One thing we need in our newly-renovated foyer is a light fixture to cover the naked bulb that has been dangling from the ceiling for a couple of months. I love chandeliers. I’ve always been attracted to glittery things, but I have restrained myself (most of the time) over the past couple of decades when it seems like everything from address books to change purses to candle sticks are encrusted with jewels. Now I have a real need (not just a want), and I would love to be able to marry form with function.
Here’s the tricky part: I am drawn to houses that are decorated with a mix of old and new and rough and fine: what they are calling “transitional.” Because most of the other elements of the foyer are traditional, I feel like the ceiling light needs to be modern to shake things up a bit. On my shopping day, I saw a bunch of pendant lamps that would technically fit the bill — funky and modern, or industrial and raw — but I couldn’t bring myself to buy them because I didn’t feel the love. Which means we will probably go another few months with a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. To which — if I want to follow my new golden rules — I must say, “Oh well!”
(The flip side of the “live with what you love” coin is that not everything in the room can be fantabulous; too many movie stars in one room is overwhelming. I need to remember, as my mom has been telling me, that silk curtains need to be balanced with something like a plain Jane natural rug, which is also something I love — just not something I would dream about.)
3. “Authenticity rules!” — Annie Brahler
When I heard designer and owner of Euro Trash, Annie Brahler, say in an interview with House Beautiful, “I have an aversion to anything reproduction,” it was like I was wiping the steam off my own reflection in the mirror. I have to admit, this realization also kind of made me want to give that glass a good crack, because it explained quite a few furniture-purchasing mistakes I have made over the years.
When I buy something that is trying to be something that it is not — a chair that is made to look old with fake distressing, a particle-board bookshelf masked by a thin wood veneer, or a bench that is made with “pleather” — I fall out of love pretty quickly. This short-term infatuation makes me feel good at the moment — “Great, I’ve found something in my price range that looks great!” But in the long-run, all I want to do is leave him and find Mr. Right.
“Authenticity rules” does not mean “something has to be a rare antique,” explains Brahler. “It could be a tin can with rust on it — that’s real patina.” (Brahler, by the way, has crystal chandeliers in every single room of her Jacksonville, Illinois house, claiming, “Overdoing it with one thing is kind of not overdoing it.”)
This real-materials idea helped me keep walking when I came across bins of what looked like antique hooks (something else on my list). Even though they kind-of fooled me, and I had to look really close to determine that they were objects made to look old, I knew that deep down inside they would not be satisfying to me.
If the “realness” of stuff matters to you too, but you can’t find a real vintage piece, one option is to go unabashedly modern. A Lucite chair, for example, is not trying to be an antique; however a traditional chandelier made with plastic crystals is trying to be a chandelier with glass crystals. I was presented with this exact issue when I saw the globe chandelier I have been lusting over at a third of the cost. Even though it was affordable, I remembered that it’s not just the idea of the thing — it’s the texture and feel and the way the light is refracted through the glass onto the rest of your house.
The result of all this is that, yes, I now have a handsome entry chest for our foyer, but — that’s about it. Besides the claw-foot table that once belonged to my grandparents, we have no lighting, no rugs, no curtains, chair, or window cushions. (And don’t get me started on the living room — we literally have to apologize every time we have people over, it’s so bad.)
Unlike the young homeowners in the magazine who apparently filled their apartment with fine furniture in one fell swoop, we will have to be the one-by-one people. No more decorating in a flash (as we did when we were moving around a lot) and then getting on with life.
The upside is that we won’t have to try to simulate the “collected over time” look; we’ll be doing just that.