Notes on English interior design

As I’ve mentioned previously, my study of interior design has been narrowed to the Brits.

There is much I admire about their homes, which I hope to enumerate here (especially in contrast to some of the more popular American ways of setting up interiors).

I feel justified in this focus for four reasons:

  1. I discovered, to my mild disappointment, that I am ethnically 75% English (and 25% Dutch). My admiration for English design perhaps has some genetic roots. (Disappointing because I was hoping for something more exciting. Even being mostly Irish is more exciting.)
  2. We live in Charlottesville, Virginia, which boasts some of the most English-looking countryside in the U.S. The landed gentry who settled here clearly agreed and fashioned for themselves estates much in the English manner of estate-making.
  3. My admiration bloomed after visiting rambling English homes during the time that we lived in London and I was able to see the homes in the wild, in their natural contexts.
  4. I am devoted to several very English pursuits—namely, gardens, tea, long walks, and dogs—and so it seems fitting that my home should also be very English.

When we first bought our home, eight years ago, I thought I would make a modern Scandinavian home, as I mentioned before, which is much in vogue among my generation. This was entirely wrong for many reasons, foremost of which was that our house was neither modern nor Scandinavian. But we also didn’t live like austere Scandinavians. I can’t have white floors or white furniture. They are utterly incompatible with dogs or small children, and they make me nervous. I also don’t really like the look of very modern rooms. My favorite pieces in our home are antiques, mostly from Guion’s maternal grandparents, who had splendid Southern taste.

Beata Heuman's 5 Stylish Tips For Updating Your Living Room Now | British  Vogue
A room by Beata Heuman. (c) British Vogue.

This realization, among others, has led me to study English rooms, through books, magazines, and websites, and I feel ready to make a few generalizations.

English design:

  • Prioritizes coziness and hospitality over minimalism and cleanliness
  • Celebrates a riot of colors and patterns
  • Emphasizes upholstery and a variety of textiles in every room
  • Insists on vintage furniture and rugs in every room; rejects the shiny and mass-produced
  • Veers toward gold, bronze, and unlacquered brass, with select uses of polished chrome
  • Invests in window treatments
  • Features art, framed prints, and mirrors on nearly every wall
  • Always picks the frilly lampshade over the plain white one

There is a boldness and playfulness to English design that seems difficult to get right. This is why I find myself studying it so closely. And it’s perhaps why I thought I was a Swedish minimalist at first; that looked easier to accomplish. English rooms, however, demand an eye for composition that I’m not sure I have.

Inside a Design Guru's Enviable London Home | Eclectic living room, Home,  Living room with fireplace
Living room by Rita Konig. (c) NY Magazine.

I also sense that English design stands in contrast to a good deal of modern American interior design, as I understand it, which is heavily influenced by Joanna Gaines: “farmhouse” style for homes that are definitely not farmhouses; cutesy signage; a faux vintage/excessively curated atmosphere; gray or white walls everywhere. I was amused to read an interview with a British designer who said that American designers were “perfectionists” — a characterization that makes sense to me. In most of the rooms by celebrated HGTV designers, there is a fussy attention to detail within a pristine environment that strikes me as unrealistic and fake.

An Interior Design Masterclass with Nicola Harding - Mad About The House
A bedroom by Nicola Harding. (c) Mad About the House

In any event, it is comforting for me to articulate English design principles here, in the hopes that I can replicate them, in some way, in our refreshed midcentury American cottage.

Ben's London house - Ben Pentreath Ltd
Ben Pentreath’s kitchen. (c) Ben Pentreath

U.K. designers I’m taking notes on

Wish me luck.

Can I acquire good taste if I study hard enough?

This is the question that has been haunting me as I continue my year-long study of English interior design.

I am not an artist or a designer. I identify as a scholar. I approach aesthetic pursuits with this detached dichotomy firmly planted in my brain. I love artists and yet their instincts mystify me entirely. I am instead comfortable in the realm of cold, hard facts and logical decision-making patterns. I cannot SEE that this chintz will contrast marvelously with that stripe, even though I appreciate the final result. Aesthetes, to me, are as mysterious as prophets.

So I turn to books instead. Or study fashionable friends’ homes with a voyeur’s eye. Or listen to my mother, who is a native-born interior designer, even though she never pursued the profession officially. The hope is that if I study enough naturally gifted designers, my analysis of their good choices will translate into good choices of my own.

The problem is that I’m not convinced that this is the case. Can design instincts be taught? Will assessing the 500th home tour from House & Garden actually result in better choices for our home renovation? Will my feverish pinning of all relevant English design inspiration result in a refreshed and beautiful home?

I think the answer is maybe. Will I ever have an EYE for interior design like many of my gifted friends and colleagues? Probably not. But can I be taught to make better selections? To fight against some of my initial (bad) instincts? I suspect so.

Pinpointing and naming my design aesthetic has at least been helpful. I am solidly enamored with English homes, despite some of my initial desires, and I plan to say more about this, in a notebook-y sort of way, soon.

Every Room Should Sing' Signed Book – Beata Heuman

In the meantime, you can find me nervously taking notes on all the interior design advice I can get my hands on. I’ve been particularly guided by Beata Heuman’s beautiful, thoughtful book, Every Room Should Sing. While I don’t think I’ll ever be gutsy enough to mimic her wild rooms, I am inspired by her counsel. More in this vein soon.

Moving on out (a chance to reset)

In January, we move into a two-bedroom apartment for the forseeable future.

We’ve been told our renovation project may take 6 to 8 months. I’ve been told by every home owner to add several months to that estimate, so I am telling myself we may be out for a year, so that I don’t freak out when it actually takes that long. Or longer.

The stress of the season is getting to me, leaving aside the fact that we’re both working full time, have two tiny children, are putting our dog down soon, and need to pack up our entire house and move out immediately after the winter holidays. I have a hard time falling asleep at night because my mind won’t stop racing (and because the 4-month sleep regression is really taking sweet Felix for a spin).

Deep breath. Leaving all that aside, I am looking for pockets of gratitude.

As I take down the artwork on our walls and pack up toys and kitchen gadgets, I feel like we have been given this amazing gift to reset. We’re reviving our house, for sure, in some significant ways, but we also have the chance to rethink old ways of doing things. In Marie-Kondo parlance, I feel like I get to assess the whole house, as a holistic unit, and ask what really sparks joy.

I get to have a do-over!

There are many design choices I made eight years ago that I still like, but there are also many that I want to reconsider. For example, I thought I could have a cool Scandinavian-modern house if I painted all the walls white. I did not consider the fact that these rooms look so cool because the architecture is so cool. I do not live in a cool Scandinavian-modern house. I live in a very plain midcentury cottage, churned out by the thousands to suit the needs of ordinary working Americans. Painting all the walls white just makes my plain house look even plainer. This is something to reconsider in a big way.

Most recently, I have become enamored with eclectic English cottage design, which I may reflect on in a separate post. This style seems to be in vogue lately among my set and is often called the “grand-millennial” look, which I vaguely object to. But I am increasingly very interested in antiques, patterned textiles, upholstery, wallpaper, and frilly lampshades. Who knew? It’s a far cry from what I admired a decade ago, which was all stark white floors and gray textures. Turns out that’s not how we live or decorate, given our penchant for owning too many books, heavy curtains, and acquiring silly art. I suspect our family tastes are much more in line with the ramshackle English aesthetic.

Meanwhile, please enjoy this photo, in which I take Guion and Felix by surprise while Felix was getting a baby manicure.

Interior inspiration

socialitefamily
Source: The Socialite Family.

I’ve been immersing myself in home design studies lately (one of my many obsessions of 2013). And suddenly Pinterest is incredibly interesting and useful to me again.

Primary online inspiration

Favorite books

Of the 30 or so I’ve devoured, these are my favorites.

I do wish our library had more books by the real, traditional designers (e.g., Dorothy Draper; even want to read Edith Wharton’s book on home design), but the hefty stack I’ve gone through so far has certainly refined my personal taste.

intothegloss
Source: Into the Gloss.

Opinions I have only very recently formed

  • I don’t really like American interior design blogs. For one, all of their homes tend to look the same; and two, I don’t like the way they look (every room is a different color; chevrons and Marrakesh patterns on every conceivable wall and rug; unnecessarily painted furniture, etc.). Three, not everything you buy has to be subjected to some DIY project. Often, it is good and pleasing to leave things alone.
  • Accordingly, white is the only acceptable color for walls. (Although I could tolerate extremely pale, washed-out colors in some small rooms. Or a light gray.)
  • We do not need more things.
  • Countries whose interior aesthetics I generally admire: France, Japan, any country considered part of Scandinavia
  • Beware of trends.
  • A room that looks like it was designed by someone is not a room I want to live in. Rooms should be real and livable and welcoming.
  • Deborah Needleman knows everything that is useful to know.

freunde
Source: Freunde von Freunden.

Home aesthetic goals

Aspiring to a home that is…

  • Welcoming and comfortable.
  • Outfitted with only the beautiful and necessary pieces. (Loving the Shaker dictum: “Do not make anything that is not both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, be sure that it is also beautiful.”)
  • Replete with allusions to nature.
  • Capable of eschewing the principles of wabi sabi. Whatever that means in actual practice.
  • Creative.

Again, have no idea how all of these things would be realized. But they are what I’m thinking about right now. I don’t pretend to know anything about all of this. But I like learning and forming (bizarrely strong) opinions just the same.

Certain slant of light

Feeling like fall.
Before.

Thoughts lately

♦ Been utterly consumed with the real estate market and interior design blogs. First, I could look at other people’s houses ALL DAY, and second, you know my disdain for DIY projects; it is wide and well-publicized. But I harbor respect for these crafty women. And I also don’t know if I have the internal fortitude to join their ranks. The thought of making a fall wreath for my front door makes me want to set something on fire (preferably said wreath). But knowing how to refinish an old table or install new cabinets? Such information could be very useful to me.

♦ Getting a new sister next weekend! Tracy, welcome to the family. Win, good job picking that one.

♦ Let me tell you what is NOT the best breakfast reading material: a book about slum life in Greater Mumbai. But it is a wonderful book overall — beautifully written without being sappy or overly simplistic — and I highly recommend it. I think everyone read it about six months ago: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. (And David Sedaris is right; it DOES read just like a novel.)

♦ Also highly recommended: This Paris Review interview with Czeslaw Milosz, from some time in the mid-1990s. Riveting. And the guy hung out with everyone who was everyone.

♦ Sometimes, I genuinely feel bad for moderate Republicans. It must really suck to have your entire political party co-opted by a fringe group of total wackos. Not that I’ll necessarily vote for them, but bring back the sane, moderate GOP!

And now we're in a different grade of color. #nofilter #fallsky
After.

Monday Snax with a slideshow

Shaun and Ann-Marie get married and we see a ton of other people!

Photos from our whirlwind weekend in Chapel Hill can be found here!

Snax:

Katsuya Kamo, Hairstylist, at His Home in Tokyo. I tend to shun clutter, but Kamo’s packed walls and cultivated collection of items really appeals to me. The beetles make me think of Prufrock. (The Selby)

Sachiyo Nakamura Exhibition in Tokyo. This showroom looks like a dream to me. I will always be in love with Japanese patterns. (Upon a Fold)

Interiors. I absolutely love all of these rooms and had to resist the strong urge to pin them all myself. (TeenAngster)

Hot Tea Is More Refreshing than Cold Tea. Wow, so interesting. So my Japanese host mom knew what she was doing when she repeatedly gave me piping hot cups of sencha on 103-degree days. (Discovering Tea)

At the End of an E-mail, Everyone’s a Valedictorian. Helpful suggestions on how to close your e-mails with more appropriate and tone-specific signatures. (The Hairpin)

Circles of Influence. A fun graphic showing famous writers who influenced other famous writers. (English Muse)

At Home with Elke. Yes, please, glorious home in Provence! Doesn’t this also look like the setting of one of the recent Anthropologie catalogs? (French by Design)

10 Questions for Ellen Picker. Ellen is a friendly face around town and a great young photographer. The Charlotte asks her a few questions about work and inspiration and includes some beautiful examples of her work. (The Charlotte)

Frida’s Corsets. A sad but interesting detail from the life of Frida Kahlo. (The Paris Review)

Super-Saturated Colors. The juxtaposition of these dabs of color really appealed to me. Paintings by Michelle Armas. (Anne Louise Likes)

Catherine Campbell’s Tea-rific Illustrations. Campbell sketches sad-faced ladies in tea cups. It’s very charming. (ModCloth blog)

Voguepedia. People who know about fashion will have more fun with this than I will, but it’s still a cool feature: Vogue, in encyclopedic form. (Voguepedia)

Old Navy’s Performance Typo. It pays to have an editor around when you’re in the business of making graphic tees. (Mighty Red Pen)

My Dreamboat. I think John Travolta is totally gross, but this fitness book of his is probably the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen. So serious! So much spandex! (Lucy Can’t Dance)

Who… Is… Hansky? I just love that this is happening. (Best Week Ever)

Monday Snax

This weekend has been a whirlwind, as we are house/dog-sitting for friends, and because we bought this:

Our new car

So. Yes. It is a lot of fun. Driving to work this morning was actually very exciting. Lots happening! Guion also got the part-time job he wanted at the Wine Guild, so we are thrilled about that. I’m still feeling a bit blurry and hazy from the weekend, so here are some Snax with a lot of caffeine:

A Night with Nettles. Grace took some photos of Nettles‘ recent concert at the Tea Bazaar. A very good show. (Grace’s other photos from the family trip to town can be seen here. For all the Baby Charlie fans out there, there are some amazing shots of him.) If you’re in town, come see Nettles on Friday night at JohnSarahJohn. They’ll be performing for an art opening by Matt Kleberg. (Como Say What?)

Yet More Charts That Should Go with Debt Discussions. Yes, the economy is tanking again, but we should cut down on the griping. See exhibit 1: Americans pay some of the lowest taxes of any developed country. (The Atlantic Monthly)

God’s Blog. God wrote a blog post and is subsequently subjected to all of the crazies on the Interwebs. Not even God can catch a break from those virulent commenters… (The New Yorker)

Wellness Wednesday: Yoga and Why It’s OK to Suck at It. Nina, who is so sweet, makes me feel better about being terrible at yoga. I should start practicing again. (Naturally Nina)

Mariachi Band Serenades a Beluga Whale. This is all over the Cool Lady blogosphere, but I will join them in adding my delight over this clip. It will make you happy. I promise. (Door Sixteen)

Felix’s Felicis. Natalie got a bunny, named him Felix, and broke my heart. I want a bunny! Not as much as I want a dog, but almost! I think Felix and Frances should meet and fall desperately in love. (Peregrinations of NJM)

The Last Thylacine. This is one of the strangest-looking animals I’ve ever seen. It’s a marsupial, but it looks so much like a proto-canid. Those stripes! Sad that it’s extinct. (How to Be a Retronaut)

How to Achieve Uncluttered Without Going Bare, Cold, or Minimal. Such clear and salient advice for people like me, who will be living in small spaces for a while longer. Highly recommended for renters like us who don’t want to live in a place that still looks like your college dorm. (The Small Notebook)

The Filming of Breathless. Guion is a huge Godard fan and this is one of the first of his films that I saw. It’s magnificent and these behind-the-scenes photos are really enchanting. (A Cup of Jo)

Document: Woolf’s Letter to a Young Poet. Virginia Woolf writes a brief review and encouragement to her nephew on his poetry. (The Paris Review)

In Which Vladimir Nabokov Navigates Hell for Lolita. Yes, the protagonist is very icky, but I think it’s one of the greatest novels of all time. Even Nabokov had a hard time convincing people of this, though, as you can see from his letters about the book, compiled here. (This Recording)

To Go-To Snacks of Literary Greats. A series of cute illustrations of what the big writers liked to eat while writing. I don’t think Michael Pollan can be called “a literary great,” but it is interesting that he likes to drink his tea in a glass. I remember seeing that on Food, Inc. and wondering about it. (Mod Cloth blog)

Good News for Wombs: U.S. Paves Way for Free Birth Control Everywhere. All I can say is: It’s about damn time. Look at you, America. Finally catching up with the rest of the developed world! (Good)