Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Timelessly circling the same lightbulb

Last year I wrote about the difference between critique and criticism and since then I have hesitated to critique fearing it would be misconstrued as criticism – though, given my level of irritation when I read the OMG blogs, I wonder now why I've been diffident. Below is a comment on the previous post that coincided with thoughts I've had about a change of direction – more of a swerve, really – in the blog. It is a very interesting comment because the writer is quite clear in what he, or she, wants. I wrote a brief reply in the comments section of the last post and now would like to expand on that.

"Where do I begin? Another entertaining and informative piece, Blue. I adore the country home of Tony Childs and its timeless beauty. I have a request and a question. The request would be a post by you on what you believe makes a design timeless and give us as many examples as possible using a variety of design elements. As to the question, do you believe the so called "design blogs" are making design better or worse? I read many of them and come away with the impression that readers of these blogs often want to emulate the design aesthetic of the authors. There seems to be a herd mentality brewing in blogland and it's not good. What do you think?"

Dear Anonymous, thank you.

Regarding your request … the question of what makes a design timeless is something I think about a lot. I have provided examples of what I consider to be timeless rooms, but as to whether it is possible to extrapolate from these some rules, principles or guidelines – to codify, crystalize or pin down what exactly is timeless design - I'm not so sure. But it's an interesting challenge and one I shall make attempts to formulate in a future posts. If timelessness is explained as referring or restricted to no particular time then I wonder if it might be worth looking at both positive and negative aspects of an abiding aesthetic. A debate about the quality of design, or lack thereof, after the Industrial Revolution arose, in fact, after the Great Exhibition of 1851 – a debate that, for some of us, is not yet ended. I hope to continue it in future posts.

Regarding your question as to whether the plethora of design blogs is making things better or worse, that's both a tough one and a very interesting one. Personally, I cannot abide the how to style your bar cartor the how to style your bookshelves like an interior designer blogs, or the uncritical let us now praise famous men blogs. On the other hand, it could be argued, any increase in awareness and discussion of design must be a good thing. If the result is a dumbing down of the discourse of design, then is the net result a positive or a negative? The answer to that question is very interesting and, having seen the results in the classroom, slightly scary.

And yet, and yet, maybe it's my age, but I can't help feeling that a Pinterest page full of images copied from other sources – however beautiful – is less valuable to the world than a new design idea, or a new analysis, however much I might disagree with the point being made. Only new ideas serve to move the debate forward. Repetition of existing ideas – the herd mentality of which you speak – keeps us all like moths circling the same lightbulb.

Yours, sincerely, Blue

I give an example above of an article from HG, July 1993, of what the decorator Robert Denning considered a timeless room.  Created in the mid-1970s by Denning and Vincent Fourcade, the reader, twenty years later, was asked to suspend all disbelief and consider this dining room with its uneasy mixture of pattern, color, caterer-style napery, floral centerpiece, cafe curtains, and blind-man's marbleizing to be "the finding of the ideal in something not ideal."

I shall return to this theme.


  1. This looks to be a good topic, and it's one I think about a lot. Up until the day my apartment finally took on the very last bit of cargo it could hold before sinking under its own weight, I always weighed potential purposes in the light of Magnaverde Rule 53: If it's not in style, it can't go out of style. That eliminated fu dogs & starburst clocks tight there.

    Anyway, back in the days when I used to hang out on a few Q-&-A-format decorating forums explaining to people why the decorating ideas they had seen on TV and wanted to copy were a bad idea, sometimes people would get tired of my shooting down whatever was the latest cliché, and they'd ask me how, then, to create a timeless decor. In the green sprit of recycling, here's may answer from 2009:
    [First off, b]eware of anything marketed as "Timeless".

    Here's the thing: the very concept of timelessness is every bit as subject to the whims of fashion-and marketing--as your average teenaged girl's closet. Today, we bestow the word 'timeless' on 1910-era kitchens with white brick-laid subway tiles, oak cabinets & floors & bronze-&-opal glass lights, but that's not really correct, because in the 193Os, a room like that, far from being thought 'timeless' would have been considered a dated horror and the owners of such a hellhole would have lost no time in replacing the dingy oak cabinets with enameled steel cabinets with linoleum tops, in tearing out the wall's boring tiles & painting the replastered walls Jadeite green, covering the oak floor with jazzy patterned linoleum and trading the old light fixtures with the latest exposed-fluorescent tubes. Timeless is relative, see.

    Today, a lot of people would consider that that 'updated' kitchen's new decor--minus the fluorescent fixtures anyway--as charming in itself . Even timeless. But by the 7Os, the same 3Os kitchen would have seem hopelessly dated, so they'd no doubt have improved the room by scrapping the out-of-style metal cabinets & replacing them with timeless beauty of recessed-panel wooden cabinets in a classic honey-color maple, and instead of out-of-date Venetian blinds at the windows, they'd hang traditional tieback curtains of calico patchwork. Such a classic look. A traditional, timeless American look, sort of like Little House on the Prairie. Timeless, that is, until, that is, all those busy patterns & dark woods started looking r-e-a-l-l-y gloomy. I mean, really, who wants to live is an unheated cabin with no lights?

    So an up-to-date homeowner would probably want to upgrade the joint and replace all that dated 7Os decor with something more classic--More timeless, you know? Darks woods were, of course, out of the question, and white seemed so boring & stark & cold--like those metal kitchens in the 193Os--but everyone likes a soft, timeless shade of, say...almond, right? Not too dark, not too light, just simple, classic & timeless. Yeah, well good luck on that.

    1. Simply Grand, thank you.

      I fully agree with all you have to say. Will say more at the end of the continuation below.

  2. ...continued

    Anyway, if any of the trendy stuff that's being marketed to gullible homeowners today as "timeless" were really all that timeless, they wouldn't need to market it at all, because people would have already be loving it--and buying it. In fact, they would have never stopped buying it in the first place. But that's seldom the case with whatever style, or color, or motif the magazines & the shows & the advertisers are hyping as timeless at the moment. In the 5Os, French provincial was timeless. In the 8Os, country decor was timeless. At the moment, it's Belgian décor that's hyped as timeless.

    And yet, if the calm, neutral tones & strength of character, and honesty of Belgian decor were really timeless, shouldn't we have been wanting it--and buying its component pieces--all along, instead of ignoring it till half an hour ago? How can a style it be timeless if most people never even heard of it till day-before yesterday?

    And, conversely, if the warm woods & rich, autumnal colors of "Tuscan" decor were really as timelessly beautiful as advertisers told us it was ten years ago, how is it that a most manufacturers have already stopped selling the stuff? A thing of beauty is supposed to be a joy forever, isn't it? No, it really isn't. In fact, most of the time, it's only a thing of beauty as long as the marketing boys on Madison Avenue tell us it is, after which it quickly becomes tacky & dated, and if we're not careful, we'll soon find ourselves living in the decorating equivalent of Cinderella's coach after it turned back into a pumpkin. Yuck. Who wants that? In a few years, the only place you'll be able to find wine posters or rusty iron scrollwork doodads (or the plastic or version thereof) is at yardsales. By then, even T.J. Maxx will have dropped the stuff. I remember when the rough finishes & sunbleached pastels of "Southwest" decor--the dream catchers made in Indonesia, the alleged Navajo rugs made in who-knows-where, the big rustic pots & baskets--were marketed as classic examples of Timeless American Style. When's the last time you saw a howling coyote wooden candlestick? Where's the timelessness?

    No, there's only one way to get a decor that doesn't start ticking away toward the end of its shelf life the moment you get it home: don't watch TV decorating shows, don't buy glossy decorating magazines, don't ever look at those mail-order catalogs and never, ever, buy anything new. Of course, that's easier said than done, and if we all did it, it would, as Patricia43 suggests above, send our consumer economy into even more of a tailspsin than we're already in. But that's a different problem.

    At any rate, how would I suggest that people create a "timeless" decor? By doing excatly what I've always done: buying whatever I want and not worrying in the least whether or not anybody else likes the way it looks. That, of course, includes not asking people--even knowledgeable people on decorating message boards--how they think something looks. But it will pretty much guarantee that your house won't end up looking just like your neighbor's house. Put it this way: I bet that Axel Vervoordt----the newest poster boy for the "timeless look" du jour--ever asked anybody else for their opinion of his work.

    1. I should have written in my previous answer to you that my version of Magnaverde's Rule 53 is "If it's not in style, it has been, and shall be again."

      Whereas, as I have said, I fully agree with what you have written - and, believe me, I am astonished and gratified that you cared enough to write so much and with such feeling – I wonder how hard it is even for those of us who are resistant to influence not to be influenced by social pressures to be good consumers. The young, especially, are subjected to the need for a uniform be it in the form of clothing or decoration.

      You raise so many points of interest that – I cannot say I am at a loss – I wonder where I shall begin my posts. In the words of Lewis Carroll, I shall begin at the beginning.

      Again, thank you!

  3. In all fairness, the Denning & Fourcade 1970s dining room probably looked a lot better in person, at night, instead of in the lighted-to-see-every-detail for the camera. Would I like my house decorated in this manner? No. Would I enjoy being a guest at a dinner party in that room? Probably.

    But am I appalled at design blogs that so often post pictures of rooms, usually from a new book or current magazine, that the blog author praises as the best thing ever? Almost always. But that is the Blogger's perogative and should, by all means, post what the author likes. Ideally, the photos would offer inspiration and give identification as to the source for further study if desired. That would provide more value than "here's what's hot now" which is the theme of most 'design' blogs.

    Although I have not attended, I understand that the Design Blog Symposiums are led by a panel who are self-professed 'Tastemakers' who tell their readers what is good, but not necessarily what is bad. There's a lot of "what am I to do?" with the fans all voicing their
    opinions. It's all in fun, I suppose.

    Design is subjective, after all. There is no Golden Solution that applies to every situation. But I think Simply Grand's advice is best, decorate your rooms to suit yourself and buy only what you love.

    1. JT, thank you.

      I agree that the Denning and Fourcade room might have looked better in person – depending on the lighting, as you say, but had I not known it was by Robert Denning I would have thought the room to be by a Denning wannabe. It's not often one sees the equivalent of visual indigestion, but here it is.

      There isn't a Golden Solution, I agree, and Simply Grand's advice to decorate to suit oneself is good but there are so many implications about taste that need to be addressed or investigated before the advice is taken.

  4. I need an exclamation mark here, with a pinch of "love it" - the "OMG blogs"!

    I think Simply Grand's advice is the best. If you have an ounce of nouse or style only you will come up with the best design. Copying trends is rather nauseating. But if people didn't then many would go out of business. (Which might not be a bad thing in one sense.)

    1. columnist, thank you.

      See my comment to JT about Simply Grand's advice, which I do not disagree with, but as you imply with the word "nouse" (not heard or read in years) there's a whole lot of ground to be covered before the advice can be given.

      I agree about trend given the modern-day whirl of trend but if it were not for past trends we would not have any historical styles to use in our modern interiors.

  5. "Physician, heal thyself" comes to mind (but of course, "do no harm"), in an adventure based on unidentified terms and subject, by its nature, to the appearance of things. I do not think a dismissal of the OMG School of graven imagery, whether respecting rooms or other constructions, goes far enough, although it could be on the right track. It would be wiser, I think, to critique the construct, "timeless," than to aspire to new terms for its projection. In philosophy we turn, naturally, to the discovery of Giambattista Vico, of the difference between "knowing that Caesar was assassinated" and "knowing how Brutus felt." The distinction between rational knowledge and empathy is not inapposite to your sincere query. Caesar stands for timelessness, Brutus for its critique. The very concept of an undiscovered "principle," vulnerable to the press of a "new idea," expresses an impulse of rationalism loosed beyond its limits. For those limits, I think the remarks of Ivan Terestchenko at itopus.blogspot.com for May 28th argue better for assimilation than neglect, in a project of the investigation of habitants which must ultimately discover what its own nature is. The quest for a rule must always bar that discovery, valiant as the qualities of the heart may be, behind it.

    1. Laurent, thank you.

      A dismissal of the OMG blogs is simply a first shot across the bows of blogduggery. I shall write more about it in the near future.

  6. Maybe a timeless room has almost nothing to do with style and all with proportion. Could it be something like music? Most people respond well to Mozart, the heartbeat and breathing are slowed and relaxed. A really good room should be like that, but who is there to run tests ?!

    Oh, dear. Now I have just clicked and read the old House and Garden article. I have to admire what Denning says and be swept off to think that really, being inventive is the most interesting thing.

    I’m glad to hear your enlightened views -and if ever you continue taking requests, I’d love to hear more about the remark you made a few posts back on attaching ‘names’ to textile design.

    1. gésbi, thank you.

      As with the other commentators you have given me much to think about but I have to say I found Denning's account of his inventiveness purely superficial. That you found it interesting is interesting to me.

      The attaching of names to textile design in the form of branding is on the back burner and simmering.

    2. Most decorating magazines are superficial. I can’t say I truly liked the illustration, but spontaneously, I did find Denning’s attitude appealing. I do believe that almost any space can be made pleasant and that it’s a challenge and a delight to achieve especially with known imperfections. Voilà! Timelessness has nothing to do with it, unless we see the interior designer as Sisyphus.

      Otherwise, like your other readers, I’m interested in great design and decoration history from a humane and personal perspective. Why should all the really good design work going on be cheapened by marketing concepts like ‘the color of the year?’

      There’s a healthy wave of protest here and you answer a need for a consistently intelligent approach. What you do by writing on more recent decorating episodes is interesting and daring because we don’t have much distance yet to judge – and, an unexamined decoration life is not worth living.

  7. Ah, it's the old Chickendale (still laughing over that one!) and the Egg conundrum. Which comes first? I think very few ideas come forth fully formed on the head of Zeus. I do think that creativity is the ability to have fewer filters than most people allowing for new combinations to emerge that others would have chucked out as unacceptable.

    My late mother-in-law used to tell me educate your eye and find your budget on the way down. I take her words to heart as I read and research. For what is creativity but a huge database that runs like a silent roulette wheel to produce the moment of YES!

    Just today I read a highly regarded blog touting a new book that is basically a cookbook for decorating complete with the gimmick of "ingredients" to cook the look. For your health, Professor Blue I do hope you don't stumble into that quagmire without medication or at least a Manhattan.

    I remember opining on the pale ghost rooms so in vogue today. I think it was The Devoted Classicist who remarked that these rooms are popular because they are so easy to imitate. Sigh....

    I hear in Simply Grand's simply grand essay the weariness of having seen decades fly by with incessant change to what effect? We have RH as it now styles itself invading the deeply personal: the cabinet of curiosities into one shop stop instead of the Grand Tour, or an area of lifetime interest and research.

    In my own small world, I have had custom-made bead board installed on my first floor. After living with white rooms for over 28 years and not wanting to stay "in style" I considered many options, but decided to have the walls painted black. I plan to use it as a gallery/library space of sorts. The painter came to look at the project. He's in his 60s —former football player/art major love that!—and when I told him, his eyes lit up. He said, "I'm getting goosebumps. You know you can't force the goosebumps."

    When my husband who loves poetry was in law school, he would often get lost in time and forget our dates. I finally gave him a lovely carriage house style alarm clock and a book of poetry. I told him one was timely and the other was timeless. One was a tool. One was for love. Pretty much sums it up.

    1. I stand by my theory on neutral decorating schemes; it can be easy for both the do-it-yourself-er and the professional. And it can be easy to achieve on a limited budget. That's not to say that there can't be complex neutral schemes, too, rich in texture and reflection of light, however.

    2. Dear TDC,

      Please know I wasn't killing the messenger. I was just deeply saddened to here your wise, practical and realistic comments about the white room rage. Cheers!


    3. home before dark, thank you.

      Awful, the idea that there are decorating recipes but they are on TV, in the bookstores, in the magazines and in blogs. I'd need a plethora of Manhattans before I could bring myself to do that - if I didn't pass out first. It's quite clear that creativity, like democracy, is not for everyone.

      Lovely paragraph about the lawyer, the clock and the girlfriend – the beginning of a short story, right there (though, in reality, a story that has stood the test of time, I think).

  8. The megalomaniacal copy-and-paste image orgies cluttering up the internet are dull and uninspiring.

    I read and enjoy your blog for the following reasons:

    You actually post original content that does not spring from mindless trends.

    You have a point of view and articulate it very well.

    Your criticisms are well-argued, constructive, and avoid an ill-mannered delight in the failures or mistakes of others.

    When possible, you include photographs of your travels and experiences from your own camera. (You have apologized for the quality of certain iPhone pictures. No need! Anyone can post images from magazines or the web, but I greatly admire someone who takes the time to snap a picture, even from a mobile, to capture something they want to share with others.)

    Your writing style is polished, elegant, entertaining, and conversational without sounding egotistical, twee, or insincere.

    You are a gentleman.

    Thank you very much indeed.

    1. Anonymous, (Payson) thank you very much.

      You leave me at a loss except to thank you sincerely for your very complimentary comments about me.

      Again, thank you.

  9. In the words of "Anonymous" who began this "Where do I begin?"

    Nine comments and all of them essays! I shall endeavor over the weekend to answer all of them of course and also in my own essays as I post.

    Again, thank you. For a wonderful, if overwhelming, response!

  10. Blue, you indeed have the most intelligent readers of any blog that I read. When I posed the initial question to you, and you kindly responded that indeed you had been asking yourself some of the same questions, I knew we were in for a real treat here. First of all, no one in blogland can so exquisitely put thoughts and ideas into words the way you do. I knew that you were going to give this subject the weight of your best judgment and opinion and you certainly did not disappoint. What I failed to expect, however, is the provocative responses of your readers. Design blogs have created a new type of voyeurism where via the internet we can peak into our neighbor's space and either validate our own taste or emulate his. "How to Get the Look" seems to be the reoccurring theme in these so cleverly identified OMG Blogs and the look reproduces itself faster than the rabbits in Mr. McGregor's garden. Thank you for the time you are giving to this subject and to your readers who have responded with such thoughtful comments. This post is bound to become one I will reference for years to come.

    1. Anonymous, thank you for the time you took to write to me and pose the questions. I am grateful and hope to show how much in the coming weeks.

      I have been astonished to read the quantity of comments you initiated by asking those questions and more than the quantity, astonished by the quality of all the comments.

  11. All of this, including the marvelous comments, is real food for thought.
    Laurent is on to something when he questions the cavalier use of the
    term "timeless". It has been devalued by over-use.

    Still, we all tend to be less distrustful of rooms that are satisfyingly,
    innately elegant without being "forced". Contrivances are always suspect. Yet understated rooms, for all their appeal, can verge on
    dullness in unskilled hands. When Waugh's odious Mrs Beaver said that
    "decorating isn't an exact science", she was dead right.

    1. Toby Worthington, thank you.

      I might seem like a meagre response to say I agree, but you have paraphrased it all quite succinctly.

      Decorating isn't an exact science, neither is it, as home before dark remarks reducible to a recipe though every month one reads such in the magazines.

      In the past, style was not driven by a need to keep the engines of commerce churning away – changes in style took time and had origins in societal and political developments - a rarely touched on situation.

  12. Blue, I believe your last paragraph to Toby really is the key to the original question and one around which you could write your thesis.

    While I don't mean to hammer the so-called design blogs entirely, we are often told after being shown a photo of an iconic room just how dated it is and that "trends" (and I am assuming the authors mean "styles"), change every ten years. Are we really to accept that those possessions which we have collected over time through our travels and bequest from loved ones must now be thrown onto the trash heap of time because some invisible home decor alarm clock just sounded the warning that the rooms we have loved and nurtured are no longer stylish? For some reason, I don't remember the design magazines purveying this message quite so stridently as we now see on the internet.

  13. "Timelessly Circling the Same Lightbulb" - now isn't that one element of the same question?

    Lighting? How utterly warm and evocative it was in so many of the photographs you have shared here. Yes, lighting is such a part of the creation of mood and romance in a room or the lack thereof. Now consider, the kinds of lighting we are expected to incorporate into design these days and ask ourselves if we can ever create the same ambiance of the great decorators of our past? Blue, this winding road is getting longer than I ever expected.