Around the House, Notes on Personal Style

France vs. the United States

How does your country of national origin influence your personal style? Let’s consider the French; they seem to be born with it and maybe for good reason.

The French have a long history of setting fashion trends – style is a part of their culture in a way it may never be with Americans. It goes back to the legacy of Louis XIV, the greatest of the Bourbon dynasty Monarchs, who was aptly called “The Sun King” because he liked to think that the court revolved around him the way the planets circle the sun. In addition to his many military and political accomplishments, he deliberately set out to establish France as the center of culture in Europe, and he succeeded. From the 18th century well into the 20th, France was considered pre-eminent in the worlds of fashion, art, interior design and architecture. Elegance and superiority in the Arts was given a high priority in the national consciousness.

By contrast, America was founded with a sense of the rough-and-ready frontier; as a young country our lofty ideal of “freedom for all” valued substance over style. Our sense of style was largely unconscious – we favored function and comfort. Whatever “high style” we had was imported from England and France. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, when people of humble origins began accumulating great wealth, that interior designers appeared on the scene to help this wealthy but unsophisticated class develop a level of taste appropriate to their newly acquired fortunes. One of the first of such collaborations occurred when Henry Clay Frick hired Elsie de Wolfe, allegedly the first American interior decorator, to decorate the private rooms of his mansion on Fifth Ave. (now the Frick museum). Men of simple backgrounds who had risen to heights of power and financial success realized the value of fine art and furnishings, but they were not schooled or confident enough to purchase it, and so were willing to hire designers to create suitably cultured interiors for them. Since then, we Americans have come a long way in the democratization of design – it’s available everywhere – but still there lurks some of that American predilection for optimizing function and comfort over style.

Design vocabulary

What’s in a name? Be wary of using labels when describing the style and features you want to see in your custom homes. Lots of clients describe to me what kind of style they want for their interiors. I have come to appreciate that what they say may not mean the same thing to me as it does to them. I have found that the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” to be my watchword. The more visual information that we have to go on, the better we can communicate. This goes for whomever you might work with on an interior design project, from the designer to the tile-setter, to the worker who re-upholsters the furniture.

Particularly confusing are the terms “contemporary” and “modern.” While to me “modern” particularly refers to mid-20th century era taste which was generally sleek and streamlined, to one of my clients it meant giant overscaled sofas and chairs! “Contemporary” simply means that it’s happening now. There are contemporary innovations in furniture and there are fresh contemporary interpretations of every style imaginable. Another oft-misconstrued term is Art-Deco. There are several divergent versions of Art Deco design and it is often confused with the less popular Art Nouveau. Again, pictures to the rescue. Unless we are conversant enough to reference specific designers, how else will we know what we’re talking about.

“Shabby chic,” “Arts and Crafts,” “French Country” and other such terms are more specific but still, pictures are most helpful in discerning style preferences. One couple requested a “Napa Valley” look but it turns out that what was attractive to them about that style was the casualness and warmth. What we eventually settled on was what I would describe as “English Country” – a look that is very eclectic, cozy, and not too polished.

Clues to your style

If you’re not sure of your style, look around at your belongings to find some things you really like. Is there a piece of furniture that you love?, a painting?, a set of plates? The legendary decorator Sister Parish once showed a piece of driftwood to her clients who had a beach house in Maine. That was her initial presentation! It’s simple but doesn’t that piece of driftwood evoke the atmosphere of beach house style – casual overstuffed furniture covered in slightly worn fabrics, woven cotton rugs on sunbleached floors, pine tables and distressed beadboard paneling.

Even if you can confidently describe your personal style, you have to start somewhere and it really helps to find one inspirational piece like Sister Parish’s driftwood: it helps the whole process fall into place. Recently, I was given a pair of large brass Moroccan lanterns and asked to design a bedroom around them. What a gift to have that clue from my clients; I loved designing that room!

When you find your inspiration, create a collage around it. Collect accessories, pieces of furniture, colors, artwork and the like. Then figure out how to use them together. Voila you’ll have personal style.

The Comfort Factor

Despite my previous comments about Americans preferring comfort over style (I’m thinking of those big lumpy-looking leather sofas that seem to be standard issue with every starter apartment) there are those who actually neglect comfort. Typically, people who are drawn to very clean lines may choose seating that is hard to sit in. Those deep low sectionals with gigantic chaise components look very cool but sitting on them is another matter – your knees may be hitting your chin and your back aching from lack of support. Beware of the chair or sofa that has the continuous height back and arms – while it looks clean it doesn’t really work with the human body. If the arm is a comfortable height then the back is too low to offer support, and by the same token, if the back is high enough, then the arms are awkwardly high so the sitter is left with the options of scrunching his arms by his side or dislocating his shoulder trying to straddle the elevated arm.

Types that are too intellectual can make this mistake too. Two artist friends of mine who lived in Soho had a Gerritt Rietveld chair in their living room. Rietveld never really expected his design to be used as seating – it was conceived as the “idea of chair” and it is a very basic, severe and uncomfortable conceptual model of a chair!

Life Stages and Style

Your style will change through the years. What looks good to you at twenty may be less appealing at forty. Your horizons of taste will expand as you travel, or collect art or just plain accumulate experiences through the years.

And then there are the stages of life to consider. If you are raising young children you may have to compromise your ultimate design preferences to accommodate fabrics that are forgiving of spilled juice and sticky fingers and sturdy sofas that can stand up to little tykes who like to build indoor “forts” out of the cushions.

Parents of teenage children face different challenges. I have found that it’s best to leave your teens out of the decision making process for the “public” rooms in your home. They can be very opinionated and their opinions are often informed by the passing trends. Let them have free reign in their own rooms or in their own “play” room if they are lucky enough to have one. As a teenager, I can remember one of my friend’s parents letting a group of us decorate their basement for our weekly parties. We had such fun painting murals on the walls and hanging paper lanterns and setting up a Tiki bar (non-alcoholic drinks only of course…).

When the children leave home most couples embark on a decorating project to re-claim the house for themselves or move to a new home altogether. Depending on your attitude this can be a wonderful adventure or a terrifying commitment! Some people know what they have always wanted and others just know they want a change. If you fall into the latter category, look for inspiration (see the paragraph on “Clues” above).

And finally, if you stay in one place long enough things will inevitable get shabby! This year I re-decorated a dining and living room for a couple who are well into their eighties. It was a wonderful experience for all of us: at this stage of life they knew what they liked, they knew what they wanted to spend and they didn’t want to waste time. I prepared three color schemes; they chose their favorite and within two months we had the place painted, all the furniture recovered and beautiful new drapes installed. The clients were thrilled, but I really knew I had achieved success when I got the enthusiastic approval of the ladies Bible study group that regularly meets at their home!

Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at 37 Main St., Tarrytown, NY

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About the Author: Barbara Sternau