What is authentic decor? Part III: Modes of authenticity

This blog owes its existence, in part, to my fascination with Peter Thornton’s book Authentic Decor. Before I even cracked it open, when I first ran across the volume while browsing the stacks at Duke’s Lilly Library, I was intrigued by its title. What does it mean for decor to be authentic? What are the criteria for authenticity in interior design? In this essay, I will consider two ways in which design schemes might be considered authentic, or, put another way, I will present two different definitions of authenticity and see where those definitions might take our discussion about decorating. 

In my first post on authentic decor, I posited the idea that authentic materials are (or should be) foundational to authentic decorating. In that essay, I defined “authentic” as “naturally occurring,” and I wrote about natural fibers and natural materials like wood and stone. But the authentic-as-natural criterion is not absolute because “natural” and “manmade” are not hard and fast categories. Consider glass as an example. My instinct is to consider glass a natural material, but very rarely does it occur in nature. Glass is melted silicon dioxide. Silicon dioxide is a principal constituent of sand, which you can pick up anywhere, but in most cases it doesn’t reach its vitreous state without human intervention, so arguments can be made both for an against its classification as “natural.”

authdec2.jpg

I stand by what I wrote in that previous post. But as I suggested there in passing, my definition of  authenticity as the use of natural materials does not always apply if we consider adherence to a particular period or style as a mode of authenticity in decorating.

Let me furnish an example that will clarify what I mean by that. One possible definition of authenticity in relation to interior design is strict adherence to the parameters of a style and/or period. I’ll call this mode of authenticity “period accuracy.” If we use mid-century modern as an example, a style that is much in vogue right now, then the “authenticity as natural materials” maxim goes right out the window, because objects and furniture belonging to that style often incorporated plastics and artificial fibers. The accurate reconstruction of a 1950s or 1960s room would require the use of manmade materials, and could never be authentic if authenticity depends on naturalness. So the authenticity of naturalness and the authenticity of period accuracy are not wholly compatible. But this doesn’t bother me too much because it’s a problem that only arises when we consider the twentieth century—in other words, it doesn’t apply to the vast majority of design history.

But the proposition of authenticity as period accuracy is a thorny one. This may sound contradictory, but by definition, there can be no such thing as purity in period design. As Thornton pointed out in his book, all periods in design history, and all styles named after them, were and are historically contingent. All styles develop gradually and fade in popularity gradually. They are subject to interpretation by contemporary cultures and personalities. No two eighteenth-century rococo rooms were alike; there was French rocaille and then there was English rococo. Period accuracy is a spectrum, a moving target, a Platonic form. It can never be perfected, only approximated. Played with, imitated, but never mastered. Concerning period accuracy, “authenticity” proves to be a more helpful standard than “perfection” or “purity.” A room may be authentically art deco, but it will never be perfectly so, and that is as it should be.

Period accuracy is a spectrum, a moving target, a Platonic form. It can never be perfected, only approximated. Played with, imitated, but never mastered.

The second measure of authenticity I would like to consider here is the taste of the individual decorator or architect. In this scenario, authentic decor means that the homeowner has chosen furniture, fabrics, fixtures, and accessories according to personal preference. He or she is guided by instinct rather than fashion or pretension. The result may be a hodgepodge, an aesthetically unpleasing assemblage, but chances are that visitors will be comfortable in such a space because the homeowner is comfortable and confident in it. 

This is probably the best description of the way I choose to decorate. I tend to choose items for my home that I instinctively like, rather than those that conform to a specific or predetermined style, period, or color scheme. I can theorize all day about what style or category my “personal style” may belong to, but in the end, it’s simply made up of things I subjectively enjoy. The authenticity of personal taste is the most ingenuous, and probably the most common, mode of authenticity in decorating. 

Authentic decor, then, can mean any number of things. Authenticity is a multivalent concept. But the more I think about modes of authenticity in decorating, the more I am convinced that authentic decor is characterized by two fundamental principles: design for others, or hospitality, which I discussed in my second essay on authentic decor; and design as process. I will be exploring this latter principle in a future post, but for now, I will close by making a rather bold claim: that these two principles are timeless. Decorating for others, for real people living real (read: messy) lives, will always produce decor that is authentic in the most important sense of the word. This kind of decorating is always in process because people are always in process. We may aspire to and even achieve authentic decor, but our homes will never be perfect because people aren’t perfect. And the freedom that realization creates is the freedom of creativity.

Check out the other essays in this series on authentic decor: