What is authentic decor? Part IV: Decor as process

People who write about design often praise the “collected over time” look. If a room appears as though you bought everything it contains in one shopping trip, chances are it will seem characterless and artificial. The colors will match a little too perfectly. A good room, they say, is supposed to look like it was assembled gradually by a tasteful and selective eye. They use words like “curated” and “edited” to describe collections of furniture and objects. 

And the design blogs are right, of course. Any assemblage that appears to have been carefully collected and maintained over time is bound to look better than an arrangement thrown together all at once. But the “look” is not what matters. Development over time is one of the two fundamental principles of authentic decor, alongside hospitality. Improving a room, a home, an inner life over time is fundamentally good because it is creative and productive and works against the law of entropy. And these activities are better still if they are oriented outward, toward others. 

Very few of us have the luxury or the opportunity to decorate a room or a house ex nihilo. That situation generally only arises for people who are very wealthy, or for those undergoing catastrophic transitions resulting from events like fire and divorce. For most of us, assembling a home over months and years is the normal course of events, and it is the ideal one. Change over time is a fundamental characteristic of a home, just as it is a defining trait of all biological life. To use a linguistic illustration, the Russian word for “person” or “human” is chelovek. Broken down into its etymological parts, the word indicates membership in a community over time. If a human is defined as that which holds membership in a community over time, then a home is a container for a community over time. 

For this reason, it’s my personal opinion that old things should play an integral role in good decor. They are less likely to be mass produced, and the fact that they’ve been owned before means that by using them, we’re expending less of the earth’s resources. Old things widen our perspective by reminding us that things haven’t always been as they are now. Their stories enrich our conversation. Their history becomes our history. 

Collecting over time can also introduce an element of chance, a little like the controlled chaos of an artist allowing paint or watercolor to seep across a surface. A piece of furniture chanced upon or inherited can have the same effect. 

Let me further illustrate what I mean by design as process by taking a few examples from my own humble living room, the product of a decade of my husband’s and my accumulated life and stuff.

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The school desk and floor lamp were my grandmother's from rural Iowa. My husband made our coffee table from a single slab of century-old walnut we found in the basement of his parents' farmhouse. We selected and cut the wood a few weeks before we moved to Moscow in January 2013, so it languished in storage for over a year before we had a chance to put legs on it and call it a coffee table. We found the mission oak desk in an antique shop in Naperville, IL, in 2006. The desk chair is also of oak, and Amish. The couch, formerly a hideous brown, came from a friend of a friend in Arizona. I frankensteined new upholstery for it using pieces of couch covers I found in the "as is" bin at IKEA. The rug is also IKEA. 

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My husband and I have both been collecting books since childhood. On top of the shelves stand my samovar, some Soviet-era magazine and record covers, and a valuable vintage globe my mom found at a garage sale in Ohio. We bought the oak armchair at a consignment store in Wheaton, IL and I've redone the fabric on it about four times now. I saved up for that IKEA wingback for almost a year. The small end table behind it came from a dumpster behind our first apartment. The window frame is from a barn on my in-laws' property. 

This room is not complete now, nor will it ever be. Books and art will come and go. Hopefully someday I'll upgrade my computer. Till then, this room will remain "living" because it is, as we are, in process. 

See the other essays in this series, Part I: Authentic Materials; Part II: Hospitality; and Part III: Modes of Authenticity