"So I concentrate on what I have and where I am. I take pleasure, for instance, in the way the house is aging - the shingles in particular, which have moved so gracefully past tan and tarnished silver to a rich dark brown. Some of this is just dirt, of course, left there by the vagrant fog, but the effect is enchanting. The shingles have grown as rough and mossy as bark, so the house seems more organic, like something rooted in the earth that will have to return there, sooner or later. To my overly romanticizing eyes, shingles are most beautiful when they're closest to collapse.
"On my better days, I try to see my own weathering this way. I rarely succeed. I'm not ready to discolor and rot, no matter how charming the process might seem to others. I'll leave the planet in a state of panic and self-loathing. I'd rather there be peace and a sense of completion. And I'd like Ben there, of course, cuddling me into the void with the usual sweet assurances. I know that's not original as fantasies go - and impossible to ordain - but a boy can dream.
"In the meantime, I tinker with our home in a way that Ben finds comical, if not a little pathetic. I arrange objects like talismans in a tomb, carefully balancing according to how the rivets on the bowl on the coffee table are repeated in the frame of the dining room mirror and the base of an Arts and Crafts candlestick. I know where every spot of Chinese red can be found in the living room. I never add anything to the decor without considering the metal-to-wood ratio and the need for the sheen and color of ceramics. 'Have nothing in your houses,' William Morris decreed, 'that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,' and I can show you a wastebasket that fills that bill to a tee. I bought if off eBay for $385. This house will be perfect by the time I'm committed.
"A case in point: one night Ben and I were watching Six Feet Under when I sprang from the sofa and began rearranging the art pottery on the shelf above the TV tansu. Be indulged me sweetly as I swapped the purple Fulper ginger jar for the light-green one and offset them both with the large bronze Heintz vase.
" 'That's been bothering you, has it?'
" 'I couldn't put my finger on it,' I told him, 'but it's better, don't you think?'
" 'Oh, absolutely.'
" 'Don't look at me like I'm Rain Man,' I said.
" 'Come back,' he said, 'Keith is about to get naked.'
"As we settled in again for the show, Ben's head warming my chest, my gaze began to creep away from the television screen and back to the shelf of now perfectly composed pottery. And Ben somehow sensed this without looking up.
" 'Stop that,' he said, slapping my belly. 'Watch the damn show.' "
Yesterday, apropos a couple of YouTube videos we had watched - a "damned show" if ever there was one - a friend and I in discussing them raised the subject of accents, and how, though I actually have yet to hear an accent I don't like, especially the seemingly myriad Southern, some tones of voice can grate.
The word 'twang" was used and immediately I had one of those moments, increasingly more frequent it seems to me, when I plunged into the past and dredged up the phrase The Twang's the Thang - something I'd not thought of in forty years - the name, I think, of the first 45 rpm single I ever bought. Duane Eddy was the guitarist. Another name that dredged up was Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs but I'm not going to touch that one, the great Woolly Bully notwithstanding. Worrying, how much crap gets stored away!
This conversation got me thinking about accents in design - not the ubiquitous accessories one sees - but more what makes American design different from, say, English design. In traditional decorating - and here you see rooms decorated twenty years ago by Arthur E Smith - the constituents, generally speaking, are the same on both sides of the Atlantic. In the way that it is easy to spot an Englishman abroad, so it is with an American (it's always the clothing) and this before they open their mouths to speak - it is equally easy to know when an interior is American and when it is English.
With clothing the differences are easy to spot - it's a matter of fit and to some extent color. British clothing tends to be trimmer and somehow grayer, whereas American clothing leans towards the generously-cut and the colorful (I'm sure there are a million and one examples of how I'm wrong, but bear with me). The analogy does not fully work out with decorating but it fits pretty well. Scale, or fit, is smaller in England but interiors, and I think this is because of the differences in light, are more colorful - here rooms are larger, as is the furniture commensurately, and in the main neutral. It must be said that on one side of the Pond color is creeping back and on the other it might be beginning to drain away.
So, the differences between American and English decorating, as with the language, is a simple matter of emphasis, or accent, if you will. Now, you might wonder why, in a world where design is increasingly homogenized, I even care about differences in accents. I do, in the way I care about language and how we use it, for good or for bad. I care about accents because, wherever they are from, I love them. I love the cadences, the emphases, the rhythms, the limitations, the color of language - and these are all attributes that can be applied to the language of design. I love how, for example, Michael Tolliver, a survivor of the plague though not untouched by it, describes his relationship with his house, the home he has made of it and the lover who shares it with him, despite knowing, as we all do, it is but a temporary stopping place and one filled with love.
Quotation from Michael Tolliver Lives, Armistead Maupin, Harper Collins, New York 2007. One of the Tales of the City books - a series of novels, but actually one of the most acutely observed, humane, humorous and heartbreaking social documents written during the 20th and 21st centuries.
Update: it was the blogger le style et la matière who kindly wrote and told me to look in Google Reader for my lost post. She, thus, has my gratitude and my friendship.
Photographs by Peter Vitale, accompanying text by Michael Frank written for Architectural Digest, October 1991.
Title of post quoted from an album of guitar music by Mr Duane Eddy
19C French Flower Sellers
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