“Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” – A. A. Milne
Every year during the Oscar's, the Academy remembers those members of the film community who passed the year before. Similarly, the New York Times Magazine recently noted significant individuals by showing photos of objects that had been significant in their lives...for James Gandolfini it was his decrepit old Cadillac convertible which was used as a beach buggy and much beloved.
Photo by Henry Leutwyler...
Esther William's bathing suit perfectly expressed a moment, a mood that seemed almost her essence.
Photo by Henry Leutwyler...
As I read the thoughtful obituaries of so many lost last year, I found myself wanting more images of things that had been important to each person. And I started to reflect on the importance of things in our lives.
Even before I became a designer I had some reservations about THINGS. Growing up, in the post war years of my father's struggling health, badly wounded by a land mine, cumulative other injuries and the effects of malaria in the South Pacific, sometimes even as a child in a simpler time I could tell that we didn't have as much as our neighbors. I was a babysitter from a young age, being mature and large for my years, and especially remember the home in the slightly more affluent part of our neighborhood that was filled with a "collection". The couple had a house full of what they called Mission Style furniture and I now know was probably lots of original Stickley...excellent pieces that they treasured.
A beautiful example of Stickley furniture from the Dallas Museum of Art...
While I could tell that the pieces were important to them, it seemed harsh to forbid their toddlers from touching so many things. At home, nothing was off limits. But at home as I was to learn, perhaps there was less to protect, less need for fussiness. I liked my house better.
Things didn't seem important. My dad's stacks of cowboy romance novels and Jim Beam bottles were just part of the landscape. Sometimes in the way, nothing of significance.
As I grew older, learned more, became interested in design and fashion, I also became more disdainful of my parent's décor and the stuff surrounding me. My grandmother's paintings, my father's photographs, my aunt's crocheted linens, my mother's eiderdown duvet....how embarrassing. Didn't they know how passé that all was. Yet the worst was the day they fully embraced mid twentieth century design and our house was suddenly filled with Dark green ferns on the draperies, sputnik shaped tables with nubby low sofas and chairs everywhere.
Not my actual house, but you get the idea...
How horrific!! I hated the colors and the fact I didn't get to select a single piece. I did sort of like that our décor was coordinated though...something of an improvement. I didn't understand the modern extreme and somehow I knew that the quality was on the lower range....after all Sears wasn't known for expensive furniture. But they certainly had everything, even lamps. For once, our furniture all matched.
In college I dreamed of being a philosopher, (being completely oblivious to what a philosopher would actually do). This led to a questioning of materialism.
This is a question I still have to grapple with.....especially since I make my living and my entire life is intricately coiled in and about the whole subject of THINGS. Some of my clients are clean freaks and they throw out everything they don't currently use, connecting no sentiment with any possession. Some are almost hoarders and never part with a single object, assigning equal importance to each item. I am probably in between, leaning to the hoarder side.
And this is why...
I assign meaning to things.
I have a pair of earrings that a friend gave me fifteen years ago. She surprised me with them, lovely things made of silver and rock crystal and tiny dragon flies carved into the metal. She knows I love minerals, that Cole's emblem is a dragonfly, that I often wear silver. No matter what, I would never part with those earrings. They represent her love, her generosity and thoughtfulness and layers of other things that bring joy to me in my life.
In my work I have found certain items can bring a deeper more complex and interesting aspect to a design, even when they really don't "go" with the décor. My favorite example is one of the most stunning rooms I have ever had the excited pleasure to help create. It is a two story library built with mahogany paneling and book cases, topped by an elongated dome and skylight which is painted with a 17th century navigation map with all the emblems of the stars etched in white on a black-blue sky.
The floor is a hand coped intricate inlay of rare woods and marbles, topped with an antique Persian rug. Every detail is exquisite, from the hand carved two story inlaid marble fireplace to the custom coffee bronze coffee table inlaid with the names of important architects which influenced us in designing the room. The textiles are buttery kid leathers, rich silks and antique tapestry. The furnishings include lush modern sofas counterpointed with rare period antiques. A book collection similar to the one personally collected by Thomas Jefferson is just part of the amazing library.
And yet, my favorite object in this room is something that stands out as unexpected. It is an old wingchair, an antique of sorts, imperfectly covered with worn cinnamon-red leather, standing tall and proud by the fireplace. This chair belonged to my client's father. It is the thing that she associates with him, that connects this room with her life beyond and past... that jogs her to think yet again of someone precious to her, who has shaped her and nurtured her tastes and values. Its very uniqueness implies something beyond simple decorating.
Another item in the room that isn't a period antique (or the exact look of this magnificent room) is the beautiful Kittinger office desk that her husband first used in the early days of his career. Now, more than thirty years later, they might choose something else, but this holdover from the start of their journey together represents beginnings to them, all the antique bureau plats out there be damned! Meaning trumps decorating!
All that being said, beauty is the greatest attribute to me when considering most things in life...beauty of form or beauty of another, perhaps deeper aspect. My most beautiful acquaintances are not necessarily fashionably beautiful... in fact if mere physical beauty is of too much importance to someone, their attractiveness to me actually diminishes. But we all know truly beautiful people, those who exude kindness, genuineness, and wonder at the goodness of life.
So a truly beautiful room for me is one that includes a connection to its occupants, that seems personal without being too invasive, that suggests obliquely something of the values and interests of those that create and occupy it.
That is how I have reconciled my desire to avoid undue materialism and the importance of material things in our lives. That and the fact that I get intense joy and pleasure from getting to work with beautiful things and people who appreciate them every day.