Around the House, New Year’s Resolutions for a New Reality

Are hard times good for the Design world?  Well, NY Times writer Michael Cannell in his recent article entitled Design Loves a Depression, pointed out that hard times force the world of design to get real.

Gone are the $35,000 custom sofas or the non-functional furniture art pieces.  Design will have to address the real needs of real people.  He cites the success of modernism during the great depression precisely because it addressed the new middle class need for a pared-down lifestyle without servants.  Hence the success of designer Russel Wright with his American interpretation of functional Euro-modern furniture and tableware (the colorful Fiesta Ware which is now so collectible) because it was practical and affordable.  In the lean forties, that famous designing couple Charles and Ray Eames developed some of the great streamlined icons of 20th century design, among them the Eames chair which is made of humble molded plywood and leather. 

What, if anything, will come out of our looming economic downturn? The current landscape is quite different than that of the Great Depression; our biggest issues now are to re-invent our lifestyle in a way that respects the environment and stops squandering our resources. Our society is built on consumerism, waste, and cheap energy; our wasteful ways may have caught up with us now and we may have no choice but to seriously turn our attention to sustainability, recycling, and efficiency.  Cannell even suggests that the bulwark of the American Dream — the single-family home with separate garage, driveway and yard — may "crumble under its own wastefulness" and be  replaced by multi-family dwellings. Did you know that the new luxury condo development, Hudson Harbor, on the river in Tarrytown, is employing geothermal heat — a tremendous energy saver?  The complex also boasts sustainably harvested hardwood floors and energy efficient instant hot water; if this is the wave of the future, it looks pretty good!  Interesting to imagine how different our lives may become and how our values will have to change.  

Edit and Organize

Well, let’s not despair, let’s prepare.  What steps can we take now to re-design our own lives in the current climate?  Let me suggest three New Year’s resolutions to keep your space fresh while saving money and being eco-conscious as well. Resolution #1 –  edit your possessions.  

Myself, I am going to be honest about what I really use – I will keep my collection of ten mixing bowls (constantly in use) but I don’t need six sets of dessert plates – off to the thrift shop or eBay.  Likewise, I have made a list of all the areas in my home I have to address and "edit."  

Especially in tough times, the tendency is to hang on to "stuff" because you might need it "someday" but it’s more than likely you’ll find your precious stuff moldering and useless if that someday ever comes; don’t fall into this trap. 

So, if your home is in need of purging and streamlining, I suggest you make a list of your target areas.  Then, as a warm-up exercise, start small — say with the kitchen junk drawer.  Empty it out and evaluate the contents: is this the best location for the hammer? The extra fly-fishing line?  Those ancient cosmetic samples?  The keys to nowhere?   Throw out, give away or relocate everything that doesn’t belong there and reconfigure the drawer (use boxes or drawer separators) so you can find what you need when you need it. You’re on a roll now – take that energy and tackle a closet!  If you need some guidance, let me recommend a book by Peter Walsh, the de-clutter king of the TV series Clean Sweep:   It’s All Too Much.  It’s a great motivational tool! 

Do it Yourself Painting

If your decorating budget has dwindled along with your stock portfolio, a fresh coat of paint gives you the biggest decorating bang for your buck.  Try a new color!  My own resolution #2 is to paint the master bedroom and bath myself.  Make no mistake, painting is not easy and every time I do it, I appreciate again the care that my wonderful painters take in their work.  If you have never seriously painted a room before, do a little research on what you will need and how to proceed.  Your local paint store will be more than happy to help.  My advice is again to start small – try painting a closet to begin with.  

Preparation is the biggest part of the job. Fill any holes with compound and sand them smooth; be patient — you’ll have to wait for it to dry before sanding.  Get used to using the brush and the roller. Get a feel for the paint. Try using the Benjamin Moore "Aura" series paint – it’s eco-friendly and most colors cover in only one coat.  Also, I highly recommend that you rig up some good direct lighting – it is critical to see what you are doing. 

A word of caution: know your limits.  If you honestly don’t have the patience for do-it-yourself  home improvement projects, don’t attempt them.  I think of my husband who, early on in our marriage, eagerly volunteered to help me paint and wallpaper the guest bath.  I removed the old wallpaper and before I was able to remove the glue residue from the walls, he began painting over it, blithely insisting that it wasn’t necessary to remove it.  Well, of course the paint came out lumpy and uneven and eventually peeled leaving me with a bigger project than I had bargained for.  So, if you sincerely don’t have the patience to do it right, don’t waste your time; hire help.

Re-use, Recycle, Re-purpose

On to resolution #3.  No effort to lower our carbon footprint is too small.  So, say you want to pursue a small decorating project, instead of reflexively heading to the mall, be creative and see what you have that you could re-use or re-purpose. Every time I walk into my guest room, I look at the headboard and think – I’ve got to do something about that and then I look at my photo gallery and think – it’s got to be updated and then there’s the rug that needs to be replaced.  The time has come; it’s not going to happen by itself.  I have to actually devote some time to spiffing up the room and I’m challenging myself to do it by re-cycling, re-purposing and buying as little as possible.  I probably have a length of fabric or an extra bedspread hanging around I can use to cover the headboard.  Alternatively, maybe there is something I have in my basement storage that is longing to be reinvented as a headboard:  a screen, a wall hanging, how creative can I get?  For my photo gallery – certainly I have more recent photos and a reserve of frames to work with.  Last month, I removed the artwork from two nicely framed botanicals that I had tired of and re-used the frames to showcase two large family photos; the size wasn’t an exact match so I trimmed and backed the photos with poster board.  I also have my eye on an ornate used music cabinet to re-purpose as a nightstand; a fresh coat of paint will transform it into a unique piece. New knobs and paint can do wonders for an old wooden dresser.  Replacing the rug is tricky.  I may have to buy a new one but there are bargains galore and, if I have the time, local auction houses often have great deals on beautiful rugs.   

This current economic struggle may be a call to arms to permanently change our wasteful ways or it may be a passing phase, but it can’t hurt for us to clean up our act, use a bit of elbow grease and stretch our creative muscles to get through it.  If you do, you might be surprised at how satisfying it can be!  All the best for 2009!

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

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About the Author: Barbara Sternau