Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Art of a Bookcase

I love old books. The thing that makes me coddle and sigh over a vintage handbag, is the same feeling I get when I look at an old book. Especially children's books, with handwritten notes inside, pages so worn you're almost afraid to turn them. I hastily try to find the dates they were written, but many of my books don't have them. They are from a time when it was simply enough to say "The End".

This week I decided to redo the bookshelves in my living room. They had been the same way for too long, and the display had become like milk, important but bland. A hodge podge of crafts, paintings, books and collectibles; none of them valuable, all of them precious.

I took everything off (the shelves :-) and thought about it for a while. What did I want to see on there instead? What feeling did I want to evoke? I wandered my house looking for things that I had not noticed in a while, things that maybe needed some attention. I didn't know what I was looking for.

I began to find the children's books, scattered in piles, in different rooms. I hadn't taken the time to look at them lately; they were all so beautiful and different that they had to be appreciated, if only by me. I had forgotten how many I had collected. All my favorites, comfortably loved.

They became the inspiration for my shelf decorating. I collected the books, then began to look through what I had taken off the bookshelves. My intention was to edit out some things, but I quickly realized that my optimism was not a reality. Within an hour I had covered the dining table and the sofa with my "stuff". Instead of minimizing my collections, I seemed to have added to them. This wasn't what I had planned, but I was determined to try and fit everything back on the shelves.

I began with the books, as they were the largest group of items. I loosely divided them into categories - old and worn, poetry and fairies (yes, I know, but I'm being really honest), decorating and design, inspirational and modern. The old books I stood in a row, at eye level, because they were my favorite things at the moment. I didn't line them up according to height; I wanted them to look a bit disheveled, collected over time, with no apparent thought as to how they looked on a shelf. The other books I either stood up or laid down on their side, depending on the size of the book and what their topic was.

After that I took the paintings and placed them so that their scale coordinated with the books (eg. large pile of books, small piece of art work). Once I had the large items in place, it was time to play with the accessories. Small objects can be placed anywhere, but once you start to really look at what you have, you will see that themes have already begun, and it becomes easier to play with what you have. A small tree in front of a painting of a tree, a bird on top of a fairy book or a handcrafted, aged piece of clay nestled against a worn copy of Treasure Island.

An easy way to create interest is to place things at different depths and levels. Lining things up in a row creates a sort of visual indifference, but if our eyes have to dance around to look at things our brain is tricked into thinking it is looking at something more interesting. Try to think of it as an Art composition, rather than just sticking things on a shelf.
If you can't find an apparent theme, emphasise the opposites. Fine bone chine next to an old flower pot, or a birds nest next to (or inside) a sleek, modern bowl. One of my favorite pieces is a crystal Tiffany bowl filled with real cotton buds that have just popped open from their casing. The soft, naturalness of the cotton inside the gorgeously, brilliant crystal takes the formality away, encouraging people to touch it.
If you do have a collection, and you don't want to play with opposites, group them together, deliberately,with no apology, in uneven numbers. Or, for more interest, add an unexpected element. For example, twigs, feathers or rocks lying next to a Lenox collection. Grab something from outside if you need to. Fill a plain glass bowl with dirt as a whimsical counterpoint to the fine china.

When you look at my photograph, you may not like anything on the shelf, and you may think it cluttered, but that's my point. Regardless of how you feel about the items, they are displayed with deliberation. My goal was to display my treasures in the most decorative way possible.

I want you to see that it does not matter what we have, it can all be appreciated and cared for. It is not a matter of style or taste. With a bit of thought a bookshelf can be an interesting (and changeable) part of our home. It can reflect who we are in a provocative way that makes people want to take a closer look.

The End

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Would you tell me, please," said Alice timidly, "Why are you painting those red?"...

Years ago, when my daughter was 2 years old, I decided to remove all of the carpet in my house. My motivation was to make it easier to clean up playdoh, and to accommodate an old, incontinent cat (no explanation needed). It was probably not my wisest decision; it took weeks of hard work, and tackling it with a 2 year old was difficult to say the least. Suffice to say, I can now verify that my daughter used to be the exact same height and width as an enclosed shelf on a very heavy hutch...

After I had pulled up the carpet (and the lining and the tack strips and the nails and the staples) I was left with a floor that was old, but beautiful. Thank goodness. Unfortunately, the floor was laid about 60 years ago, so it was not polyurethened like the modern floors we have now. It had a thin layer of wax on it, which has gradually worn away and is now a haven for every spill and puddle that falls upon it. Disregarding the puddled messes, I love the floor and know that one day I will get it finished, but for now it doesn't bother me at all.

When I removed the carpet on the stairs I found that the risers (the vertical bit that you kick your toe against) were painted white. I immediately redid them in cream to match the living room.

Several years later, and it seems that our home often has 10 year old girls running up and down the stairs. Their feet are growing, often still clad in the sneaker of the week, and they have not yet become as graceful as they are destined to be. My stairs are a mess. The cream is covered in scuffs and smudges that no amount of cleaning will remove. Painting them cream, again, seems like a waste of time. I decide to paint them red.

As I began painting the steps I knew it was the right thing to do. I needed a creative diversion in my home that would not be too time consuming; it would be just enough to keep me happy and content throughout the worst Winter month. And, it would hide the scuff marks.

Like a lot of things in life, the steps looked worse before they looked better. My daughter returned from school (when I had just done one, streaky, hastily brushed coat of paint) and stood there with her mouth open. She mouthed "oh mom" in a loud, slow motion way that indicated she was not too thrilled with the stairs. Which was unusual because she has often come home to unexpected decorating "surprises". After she had calmed down, I told her to be patient, and I promised her it would look good when it was finished. When I suggested writing inspirational words on each step I almost lost her completely! I could see she was very kindly thinking I had gone insane.

Painting for me is very zen-like. I don't enjoy painting entire rooms with a roller and a fistful of tape, but I do love the repetitive calmness of using a brush and transforming a surface into something beautiful. I think part of it is also that it is very transitional, it can be changed and adapted to suit what we want. It is not permanent, which makes it open to all sorts of possibilities.

When I look at the finished steps, it appeals to my childhood. It looks special, and I feel that it is leading up to something magical. Really, it is just our bedrooms and my office, but I like the surprise of it when I turn the corner to go up them.

To me, this is what decorating is all about; transformations that are personal, that provoke an emotion and always make us wonder at the possibilities.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Your questions = Answered

This week is all about you, the people who read my blog and support what I do! Here are some of the questions that I get asked all the time; either by mail or in person. I hope you enjoy reading them, and that they will inspire you to continue decorating your life!

1. How can I create an uncluttered but chic and inexpensive window treatment. I currently have no curtains/blinds etc. in my living space because I just can't decide. My trim is painted wood and my house is about 50 years old with high ceilings.

If you aren't going the curtain route yet then I would buy inexpensive, neutral sheets that you love (measure your windows first so you know what size you need). Hem or fabric glue to the right length. Get copper or steel pipes (or wooden dowels that you stain)for curtain rods. Hang higher than your window and wider than your window to keep it looking casual but modern. Attach curtain clips to the top to hang sheets or, if the pocket is big enough, just thread the rods through the hem of the sheet.

2. I hate the color of my refrigerator. Can I paint it?

There is appliance spray paint on the market. I have never done it myself, and I know several people who have and were not thrilled with the result. I think it's a large surface to cover evenly and professionally. If it was in the garage or basement I would attempt it with primer, paint and a brush or roller but probably not if it was in a very visible part of my kitchen. If you make a mistake your only solution is to keep painting......it's never coming off.

3. If I don't know what my style is how can I decorate?

I think we get too hung up on choosing a style or theme for our homes, which leaves to indecision and, therefore, nothing at all. When we decorate with a specific idea in mind it can look very deliberate and, unfortunately, boring. Ideally, rooms should be created over time. They should tell a story and reflect who you are now, with bits of your history scattered throughout. What makes you smile and what makes you cringe is a good indicator of what you should do!

4. How do I decorate my home with things that I don't like but were given to me by people I care about (without hurting their feelings)?

Funnily enough this has come up a lot lately. My instinct is always to tell you to get rid of those things, but I know in reality it's not always possible. If you have to have them in your home, put some thought into it. Maybe that gorgeously, horrible painting can go in a lesser used hallway, or the large, ornate vase that isn't your style can hold laundry detergent capsules in your basement. Try to integrate it in a place where you are not looking at it constantly. Remember, if you have something in your home that you don't like, and you are constantly looking at it, it will annoy you and put you in a bad mood (I know there's a relationship joke in there somewhere, but I won't say it out loud :-)

5. How do I pick a paint color. My room is white and I want to change it, but I am afraid of making a mistake.

If you haven't seen a color that inspires you (eg. I painted my kitchen based on the smallest piece of green that framed a painting that I love) then do whatever you can to visualize and create the look you want. Go online to one of these sites, you can play with color to see how they would look in a room.

Sherwin Williams: http://ttp//www.sherwin-williams.com/do_it_yourself/paint_colors/index.jsp

Benjamin Moore: http://http://www.benjaminmoore.com/bmpsweb/portals/bmps.portal?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=fh_explorecolor&cachebuster=Fri

Behr Paints: http://http://www.behr.com/Behr/home

Also, look through decorating books at the library or the color leaflets in the Hardware store. These, while not exact, will help guide you in the right direction. One caveat, if you are painting a living area always go a bit darker than you think. It is better to make a statement, than to end up with a pastel room (unless you wanted that in the first place, of course).

6. Why do some decorators match their furniture and accessories and some don't?

When we match items they will always look more formal. Years ago it used to be a sign of wealth, and most accessories were sold and displayed in pairs. Unfortunately, our eye tends to get bored when identical items are spaced evenly, at the same height. We stop noticing them. A more classic approach is to arranged items symmetrically around a room, balancing them in scale, texture and color, rather than duplicating them. Our vision has to bounce around to take it all in, which makes for a more interesting room. Think co-ordination, not repetition.

7. None of my family photographs and frames match. I get new portraits and school pictures every year. I have them on the wall but it doesn't seem to look right.

First of all, it is best to keep family photos in one spot, in a grouping. Plan what room you want them in. Start with a large photograph and hang it somewhere in the middle (about 5 foot about the floor). Add others around it, but keep them close together, never more than 2 inches apart. Hang them so that they overlap, don't try to match them or keep them lined up. If you are not sure, lay them out on the floor and play with the composition and the scale. Your goal is to create an art grouping that can be added onto, not a hodge podge of indecision. If the frames have stands on the backs, either tape them down or rip them off, so they lay flat against the wall. Think of it as a living, changing piece of artwork.

8. How do I make my living room look more interesting? I have 2 sofas, 2 big chairs, a round coffee table and some pictures on the wall. It doesn't seem finished and no-one really goes in there. Any ideas?

What about a bookcase or some shelves? Bookcases can add a ton of personality. They can showcase pictures, books, knick-knacks, children's artwork, plants etc. Also, take a look at the texture and balance in your room; maybe you need to add some interesting pillows, a bowl of photographs on your coffee table or a floor/table lamp?

Thank you to everyone for sending in your questions! I have to end this blog with a very famous, but relevant quote from William Morris.

"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful"