Monday, December 5, 2011

I. Nearly. Died.

"You're staring again," said the Celt. "I am," I said, "but it's all right - I'm too old to be visible." If I was staring it was inadvertent because actually I was listening to a young man, sitting at the counter of a New York coffee shop where coffee beans flew through tubes across the ceiling down to machines and baristas supplying inexplicably baroque concoctions of coffee, who was talking, futilely, it seemed to me, to his companion who was busy watching another man at the other end of the counter who, in his turn was watching .... well, you get the idea. But what had caught my ear was the phrase "the rise of the novel" - not a phrase one expects to hear early on a Saturday morning anywhere.

Used as I am to being met with dismay and bewilderment when I suggest to students that they might pick up a book and read, I settled in, cup in hand, eyes safely averted in the direction of the famous-but-whose-name-escapes-me person walking his dog, for what I hoped was going to be an interesting few minutes. Well, it wasn't, but the speaker's voice having that rising inflection that makes all sentences sound like a question, kept me eavesdropping a few minutes longer until he really grabbed my attention by stating very dramatically "I. Nearly. Died."At which point the Celt, fixing me with a don't-dare-argue stare, said "We. Need. To leave."

We meandered on through streets virtually empty - so unexpected for Manhattan - until we climbed the steps to the High Line and realized it was no wonder the streets were empty, everyone was here and they were walking in clots very, very slowly along the pathway taking in all the wonders than a camera phone can bring.

Later, we sat for a while, that weekend after Thanksgiving, in the sunshine on a stone bench in Washington Square, talking about our plans for our winter vacation and how near our departure was; about how neither of us wanted to shop in the city, except perhaps, for curiosity's sake, a visit to the new Uniqlo on Fifth Avenue (for me, because of its crowds and noise, hell on earth); about where we would eat lunch; about how we hadn't any real interest in visiting museums ... just talking.

I mentioned an article I'd read in the Design and Decorating section of the Wall Street Journal, entitled 10 Odd, Yet Essential Elements of Style and it seemed to me nothing more than trite advice about a formula for decorating a house. Which of course it is, but after I'd gone through the list, the Celt asked me if I'd checked around our place recently to see how many of these odd yet essential elements we actually owned. "Nonsense", I said, poo-pooing the very idea. "When we're home again take a look," he said.

And here, dear reader, is what I observed. Ms Needleman's first essential is A little animal ... people like cute things and animals are cute - it is so nice to have a small creature in figurine form in your house. A funny stuffed animal on a nicely made bed, a white porcelain monkey ... Well, I'm not sure if a Meiji bronze crab counts, but if it does, then I guess check! But, I must say, neither of us likes cute (unless, that is, it sports six-pack abs).

Next up: Jollifiers ... sentimental things that spread a little joy every time you cast your eye upon them. Goodness, we have not just one, but one each. For the Celt, a framed Hermès scarf and for me a Delft tulpenpot, a souvenir of times in Amsterdam.

Third on Ms Needleman's list are Mollifiers, which she defines as ... the stuff that you allow into your home because awful as it may be, it makes someone else happy. We appear to have none of these. Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that almost all our relatives live on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean so there's little need to appease or to be prepared for the unexpected visit.

While an odd chair is useful, it is not used primarily for sitting. It is desirable primarily for its amusing demeanor, making it more like a piece of sculpture in the shape of a chair... We certainly have one of these, in the form of a flea-market 19th century French Modern chair we had recovered in a Timney Fowler silk we bought thirty years ago. We had never found a use for the fabric, with its sketchy drawings of the Three Graces, but eventually it revealed itself as the perfect complement for this dumpy little chair. And the fact that we bought this fabric on a whim without knowing quite how we were going to use it brings to mind another of Ms Needleman's pieces of advice: when love strikes, buy it. You can figure out what to do with it later.

An inordinate number of geometrically-cut Murano and sommerso glass bowls that send off all sorts of scintillations probably come under the heading of shiny object, and are certainly, as Ms Needleman describes .... completely useless items whose only purpose is to sit around looking attractive....  

Ethnic textiles are pretty scarce chez Blue, with the notable exception of a pair of pillows made from vintage Japanese kimono silk. Bought on Etsy on one of the numerous whims to which the Celt is subject. Thank the lord for return policies!

Not too much brown furniture ... too many brown pieces in a room is the surest way to suck the life of it. Ever seen a room and wondered why it looked like a hotel lobby? Brown! Not too much, just a smidgen, in each of our rooms - a dining table, a side table in the living room and bedside tables in the bedroom.

Decorative mirrors ... a big mirror over a fireplace or in a dining room can toss daylight around the room and multiply the light of a chandelier or the glimmer of candles set in its path. That, and it is a big beautiful object that can create the kind of drama that grounds a room. A highly functional decorative object if ever there was one. Yup, got two of those! One a large Venetian that indeed tosses light dramatically around the guest bathroom; the other a gilded, apparently Gustavian treasure that, amazingly, is in fact a gem from IKEA's all-too-short-lived series of reproductions of Swedish classics. We often ask first-time guests who admire it to guess its true provenance. No-one ever does.

Lacking a fireplace, as we do, might be considered a disadvantage for tenet number nine: log baskets. But as Ms Needleman points out, even if you have no use for split wood, you might still like the rugged texture of a big woven basket in your living room or front hall. It gives you something a little rough and adds a sense of depth to both sleek-modern and refined, antique-filled interiors. And in fact, a rather large log basket does duty in our household as a laundry basket.

The last essential is, apparently, some patina, of which our home has plenty. Indeed, the occupants alone provide a fair measure!

I started skeptically believing my own exquisite taste to be immune to the newspaper article's ten decorating clichés du jour. So imagine my surprise to discover we've committed completed nine out of the ten! Well, my dear, I. Nearly. Died.


  1. Most amusing. I'm resisting, at least for the evening, doing the checklist here at Dilettante Acres, but think I know the answers already.

    In the meantime, I'm verklempt that I never knew about the IKEA reproductions.

  2. I'm also amused. We're about a B to B- The log basket got really skanky and we waited way too long to trash it. New species of wood bugs were developing in there, the only exotic things in the house. Our brownest room is pretty darn good though.

  3. New York, no museums and little shopping? I. Nearly. Cried.

  4. Essential comic jolt. But the article is still trash, because it is a to-do list. You had me with the 'rise of the novel' and the faultlessly observed rising inflection in every sentence. Best to take the smallest sips in public, lest they explode through the nostrils in compressed hilarity.

  5. You could make even the phone book interesting if you were responsible. Bravo!

  6. This is perfect!
    Must say, I remember enjoying sampling a bit of conversation the last time I was in NY - a group of 80+ discussing lit and theatre; baume au coeur!
    That was a very nice way to place your Timney Fowler print.

  7. Nothing causes my skin to crawl faster than seeing a newspaper journalist's Rules for Decorating! Not that I entirely disagree with most, I suppose that it is the recipe aspect that puts me off.

    I once worked with a lady architect who had dinner with her accountant husband every evening in a Manhattan restaurant, the more crowded the better. He was forbidden to speak during the meal as the main appeal was to listen to the conversations at the adjacent tables!

  8. loved every word of this, Blue and off to do an inventory of those odd little necessities. If you've got 'em then surely we're all permitted them?
    Was hoping for more pictures though. Tell the Celt I adore his Hermes scarf and pretty keen on the Timney Fowler silk (much less predictable
    than most of their oeuvre).

  9. This got more and more delightful with every gorgeous paragraph!

    Starting with staring and listening in to the conversations...oh yep, I suffer from that same disease. In a rather big way. But it's so hard not to do it when there are so many interesting thoughts to be had in the process. Like trying to work out what kind of people they are, or wondering what they are going to do next.

    And I shuddered with chuckles at the list. Perhaps these lists aren't as superficial as they first appear? And yes, agree with Rose, if you have them then we can too.

  10. Well. My dear. I almost died of laughter! The list be damned. What caught my eyes and ears were the images of the way couples relate to each other and the way we act in space. As we age we do get rather invisible. It does come in handy for crowd staring (watching, gazing etc). We were in San Francisco in the fall, riding the train back from the Honor of Legion museum and this tiny woman, must have been early 70s, was commanding the big boys to give up their seats to their elders. She sat down by me and immediately began giving me her view of her native city. All I could think of was a Eudora Welty short story about the invisible seeming elder woman who was an assassin! The images still makes me laugh. I think you and Celt make a most splendid couple by the way.

  11. Thank you for the joy you give me each time I read one of your articles.

    I loved the "Used as I am to being met with dismay and bewilderment when I suggest to students that they might pick up a book and read"!

    I definitively pick it up for my personal quote book.

  12. My apologies to all who have commented and who are only being being acknowledged.

    Dilettante, thank you. So, what was the result of your search? Did you have some or even all of the specified "odd, yet essential" items? I'm verklempt I did not buy more because as I remember it the furniture was superbly well-made and, of course, very fashionable - it was at the height of the Gustavian craze.

    Terry, thank you. This whole idea there can be too much brown furniture is such a decorating cliche and it is repeated ad-nauseum.

    Andrew, thank you. The relief of not being a consumer for a short while was inestimable.

  13. ArchitectDesign, thank you! That was a very kind thing to say.

    Laurent, thank you. I totally agree with you! I have found an even more banal list which I might use in a future post. I always sip- doesn't a gentleman, always?

    gésbi, thank you. Traveling on a bus, especially, in New York is a superb way of overhearing conversations - as long as one does not appear to be listening, that is.

    The Timney-Fowler print fits us well. I occasionally think I might have the chair recovered but actually the fabric, though not really suitable for anything other than light use, is so personal and serendipitous a choice it would be hard to find a replacement.

  14. The Devoted Classicist, thank you. I agree about the so-called Rules of Decorating list - the recipe - that gets trotted out in one form of another every so often - in the main to be dismissed. I found an even more egregious list on Flipboard the other - utterly laughable!

    I can only hope that the lady decorator heard nothing bad about herself!

    Rose C'est la Vie, thank you. There could be more pictures - just need time. See you soon.

  15. Glamour Drops, thank you. I find it impossible not to eavesdrop on conversations - sometimes there's no need to eavesdrop it gets forced on one. I think the lists are not totally superficial but the contents may change according to whim or desperation on the part of the editor. I mention one above in another reply that was perhaps the most risible list I have seen in a while - all means, supposedly, of "warming" up the livingroom. Whatever that may mean!

    columnist, thank you. The pleasure was all mine - thoroughly enjoyed myself!

    home before dark, thank you. That was a most welcome and moving comment, thank you. Today is our 33rd anniversary so your comment is even more pleasing. The Celt has been a model of patience!

    We do get more invisible as we get older and I for one am thankful for it. It can be very useful! I haven't read that Welty story but will look for it tonight.

    Anonymous, thank you. You clearly know what I mean when I refer to students' reactions to having to read. Unimaginable to me that someone is not willing read!

  16. Blue, Happy anniversary to you both. I am back to say I think the story must have been Agatha Christie. My books are packed up for a remodel. It was a collection of stories by known authors with the general topic of "death in the garden." When our world is knitted back together, I'll share the specifics. Pop the cork on the champagne.

  17. Home before dark, thank you! We're going to pop the cork in Nice, in Rome, again in Naples and in London.