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RE: Question for Magnaverde -- the challenge of the ugly or trite (Follow-Up #1)

posted by: magnaverde on 11.22.2010 at 04:29 pm in Home Decorating Forum

Awm03 asks...

Do you ever get the urge to use something cliche'd or common or ugly like, say, the smoked mirror tiles, asking yourself, "Can I make this look fresh or attractive?" Do you ever challenge yourself in that way? Just curious.

I think this is an attitude many of us get from having moved into previously owned homes with no $$$ for renovation -- what to do with the blue tile in the bathroom, the oak cabinets, even the smoked mirrors. I saw a room with mini-print wallpaper (late 70s fad, remember?) in a magazine several years ago. It looked surprisingly refreshing.

Excellent question, Awm03, so before I answer, let's break it down into bite-size pieces.

Do I ever use something cliche'd? All the time. It just depends on which era's cliches were talking about. The combination of colors in that satin-striped club chair & the rug in my old gray apartment on another thread--terra cotta & hunter green--was a trendy cliche in the 1940s, as was the rug border's lily motif. In fact, the first time my folks came to visit, my mom took one look at that stuff & said, "When I went off to college, your grandmother turned my bedroom into a second guest room and those were the colors she used. I didn't like them then & I don't like them any better, now!" To her, they were 'dated' colors. To me, they were just colors. Were they my favorite colors? They were not, but the rug was only $20 & the chair was only $7, so I figured for that price, I could live with the cliche.

All the bathrooms in that buiding were sleek 194Os beauties--brown & yellow tile or black & green or blue & gray, all of them but mine, that is, where, because it was the original owner's apartment, the bathroom was done not in then-current styles, but in the owners's own preferred colors, which happened to be ones popular in the late 1920s: turquoise & yellow, with pink-&-green feature tiles, and a black-&-gold terrazzo floor. Everything else in the place was sedate: grays wall, gray trim, gray blinds, and in the kitchen, gray enameled-steel cabinets, gray counters, gray trerrazzo floor & a stainless steel backsplash. Very elegant. Then that crazy bath. Its multicolor scheme wasn't anything I would have ever chosen for myself, but, like it or not. it's what I had, so rather than try to tone it down (a hopeless cause) or worse, screw it all up by painting the beautiful hand-glazed tiles a calmer color, I embraced the craziness. Like they say, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. So the cream-colored upper walls got painted Screaming Mimi Yellow, the cream trim got painted shiny black, and I hung a Screaming Mimi shower curtain & a 1920s poster with a cherry-red background. The room soon becasme everybody's favorite room in the place, and eventually, because of the unearthly yellow glow that used to emanate from the hall whenever the bathroom door was open, the door from the living room to the hall acquired a metal sign with the international symbol for Radioactivity. It made for a nice contrast with all the mahogany & damask.
Magnaverde--2420 Bath, 1977

And in a later apartment--1983, this time--when I was faced with a dump of a bathroom that had walls covered with cheap (& mismatched) fake-wood paneling to hide busted & missing plaster & charred studs--somewhere along the way, there had been a space-heater fire--and a floor of stained, scarred linoleum, I painted the floor with gray deck paint, white-washed the walls & hung a bunch of weatherbeaten architectural fragments that I hauled out of the trash. The only thing in the room that wasn't either sun-bleached-looking or scabby with peeling paint was the stack of brilliant white towels, which looked even brighter against all that gray. Magnaverde--1713 bath
My friends all hated the Hardscrabble Farm look, but these days, well, let's just say a popular catalog should be paying me royalties. But, once again, it was all just turning lemons into lemonade, of going with the flow, rather than playing follow-the-leader with already-popular styles.

But what about today's cliche's?

Well, that depends. I wouldn't use those scrolly iron doodads or Wallwords or 90% of what I see in popular catalogs, not because they're cliches (which, admittedly, they are, but that doesn't matter to me) but simply because I don't like them in the first place. But there are other current cliches that I'd have no trouble using, because these things go in cycles, and eventually, the very same trend-driven people who fell in love with Foo dogs & Chinese Chippendale chairs & ikat prints because they saw them all over the place a few years ago, will forget all about them, at which point I can clean up. Sure, a lot of those things are cheaply made, but others are very nice, and the best thing about the trendy cord is they either can't tell the two categories apart, or they simply don't care, meaning that beautiful examples of blanc de Chine & antique suzanis will go for nothing at the yard salse of 2012.

last year, I heard designers whining because Restoration Hardware introduced a line of outdoor aluminum furnitre modeled after an ancient Greek klismos chair. They worried that the easy availability to the masses would diminish the appeal the chair's classic lines has traditioanlly had to a designers. Well, maybe that appeal will be diminished to shallow-thinking people like themselves, who only want things as long as the riff-raff can't get their grubby mittsa all over them. Once that happens, the allure is spoiled for that crowd. Please. That's flat out ignorant, as well as being insultingly classist. I can't stand people like that, and I look at the availblity of those chairs at reasonable prices as an incredible buying opportunity, because when these babies fall back out of current fashionability--and they will--it will be decades before they come back. Now's the time to stock up.

Do I ever use "common" things?
Well, I'd call linen panels from IKEA pretty common (my current LR); as well as $7 closet-door mirrors from Walgreen's (my old DR); $18 file cabinets from K-Mart (ditto); take-out food containers & plastic shower rings from the Dollar Store (my old DR chandelier). Other "common" items that I've used in the past: saucer sleds & hula hoops to make a gigantic Art Deco chandelier; the dead branches I found in the yard after every storm; a translucent plastic water softener tank I found in the alley, illuminated from within by a plug-in Brightstick from the Piggly Wiggly; & a sparkly, clear vinyl kids' ball out of the toy aisle, presented on a bronze tripod as though it were a rare piece of art glass. Kids always recognized it for exactly what it was, so they went grabbing at it, and every time, their folks would gasp in horror, for fear the kid would break my precious artifact. One woman--a very proper Church Lady type even said a bad word when her kid lunged for it. I pretended not to hear,a lthough I guess when she reads this, she'll know I did.
242O urn
Anyway, context is everything. If you've got enough money, you can buy anything you could possibly desire, so it's what you can make out of nothing that counts. Or, at least, that's the fun part.

do I ever use "ugly" things?
Of course not. Life's too short to be looking at ugly stuff. Then again, ugliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, so it's quite possible that other people might consider ugly what I happen to like. In fact, I can gurantee it. Like they say, there's no accounting for taste. Take the rotten tree stump on my Chippendale-stye mahogany table, for instance. I know that some people consider it ugly and yet it was featured front-&-center in a full-page photo in that article in O at Home. Of course, even after that, presented in a beautiful photo by Roland Bello, some people still didn't get it. Oh, well. Their loss, not mine.
Magnaverde's Plaster Table: Photo by Roland Bello for O at Home magazine

My old living room's rug, with its soft-ball sized holes--cut out for floor outlets--and its raveled edges where I cut it in two with an electric carving knife to make it fit the room is also in some people's 'ugly' category. As is the framed full-page newspaper image of Bart Simpson with the headline "Life follows Bart." If my real name wasn't Bart, I might disagree, but it is, so I don't. Like I said: context is everything. "Ugly" isn't always ugly.

So, short recap of a long answer: yeah, I do all those things: cliche, common, ugly. Whatever it takes to make a good-looking room. And thanks for asking.


clipped on: 03.08.2011 at 07:10 pm    last updated on: 03.08.2011 at 07:10 pm

Question for Magnaverde -- the challenge of the ugly or trite

posted by: awm03 on 11.22.2010 at 12:23 pm in Home Decorating Forum

What prompts my question (I'll get to it! It's waaay down at the bottom) was your post in makeithome's thread. It's insightful, funny, and so informative, I hope you don't mind me reposting it:

"The reason I could move back, and that I can look at these pics of 1977 & not cringe is that, unlike my friends' houses, I didn't own anything that was "in style" that year. I had no money (I was an art major) so all my stuff came from Goodwill, while my friends who were business or chemistry or math majors, all made decent incomes right off the bat. Also, they all got married right about that time, and they filled up their new houses with brand new sofas & loveseats in rust polyester velour or plaid Herculon, gigantic TV consoles (this was before "entertainment centers") and if they (or their wives) were really adventurous, they might have had smoked mirror tiles or cork squares glued to the walls. Smoked, gold-veined mirrors--on the diagonal--were very popular that year, I will say that.

Let's also say they don't have any of that stuff anymore. Some of them realized how ugly it all was early on, and replaced it all with patchwork upholstery in mauve & country blue--OK, this stuff was all their wives' idea--& big prints of young girls in big straw hats with ribbons, strolling along at the seashore & little arrangemets of country blue silk flowers on all the spindly little oak tables & weird assemblages of heart-shaped wire gizmos with cornhusk dolls attached with gingham bows, and some dangling candles &--get this--wheat: I don't know what the wheat thing was all about. Anyway, the "country" look was very popular that year.

Other couples hung onto their gigantic Herculon living rooms, because as ugly as the stuff was, it was also indestructible. Correction: is indestructible, and it will be clawing its way out of landfills--as colorful & stain-free as ever!--long after we're gone. My friends felt guilty throwing away something that still looked brand new, but eventually, they broke down & bought new stuff,this time, new "Southwestern" style pieces in allegedly "desert tones" of peach & teal, or, a few years later, they went in for overstuffed sofas in large-scale striped damask prints in burgundy, hunter green & navy, with gigantic brass lamps, or, later, they bought "Tuscan" dinettes wih heavy frames carved in China, & curlicue wineracks draped in plastic grapes & ivy, with reproduction wine posters or scenes of ancient castles at sunset, or--do you see where I'm going with this?

If any of them still have any of that that stuff--and if they keep up with the decorating magazines & 'designer' catalogs--they're sick of it, and ready to throw it all over. And for what? Probably some gigantic beigey-tanny-grayish ditressed leather sofa, a table that looks like it was made out of weathered packing skids, a gigantic clock that looks like rusty iron (but that ten-to-one is actually plastic) and a big, old-looking scroll deal with the names of a bunch of subway stops in a city they've never visited. The washed-out, cheerless look is very popular this year. I give it till the next election.

Here's the thing: history has a way of repeating itself, and not only in recycled decorating styles--and here, I'm thinking Mid-century Modern or Jonathan Adler's colorful Palm-Beach-Divorcee style--but also in feelings of embarrassment over the things we used to like, and the hard-earned money we spent on stuff that, these days, you couldn't give us for free because we wouldn't take it. Now, all that constant stylistic churn may be good for the economy--or, at least, for China's economy--but is it good for us? You tell me. No wonder people don't know what they like anymore. New looks are coming at us as fast as the candy on the conveyor belt on that old episode of I Love Lucy, and the only way to keep up with all the new trends is to keep swallowing whatever comes at us.

OR--we could move away from the machine.

And how do we do that? How does one break free of the apprently never-ending cycle--of infatuation with a hot new look, then of boredom with the same look? By doing it the way I did: by NOT looking to mass marketers--TV shows & magazines (at least current magazines) & blogs & trendy catalogs for style guidance. All they care about is convincing you that What You Like is what they just happen to have a whole warehouse full of. A whole warehouse that they need to empty ASAP, in order to make room for the next shipment of something else.

If you want to know what you really like--not what you're being primed to like by what we used to call Madison Avenue--get hold of a bunch of old decorating magazines & books. Here's why: once the temporary sheen of newness wears off things, you can better assess their stylistic value. If you look, say, at a 1989 House Beautiful or a 1963 Life Magazine or a 1935 House & Garden--it doesn't matter which magazine or period you choose, because the principle is the same--you'll see two kinds of rooms & two kinds of furniture, both in the ads & in the editorial pages: stuff you'd like to have today & stuff that's hideous."

But here's the amazing part: back then, to the people who bought those magazines new, it all looked good. Or, at least, they thought it did, because it was NEW. Today, now that none of it's new, we can better tell the good from the bad. And once you've looked at a dozen of those magazines or books, or six dozen of them, you'll have a pretty good idea of what sort of thing it is you really like. How do I know? because that's how I learned. Yes, I have an interior design degree, but they didn't teach any of this stuff in school. This is all stuff I learned before I ever quit my first career and went back to school. So, in the 1976s, when my friends & their wives were looking at 1976 magazines for "inspiration", I was looking at magazines from the 192Os & 1930s, and the stuff I liked had nothing to do with either what was temporarily in fashion in 1976, or what had been in fashion when the magazine was new. I was drawn to stuff because of its innate style, not because it had at one point been trendy. Believe me, there was plenty of once trendy stuff that, like i said, I wouldn't take if you gave me. Anyway, looking at old magazines allowed me to see stuff free from the then-current design propaganda that was trying to get me to buy that Herculon stuff. So when that stuff showed up at Goodwill or yard sales, I already knew I liked it.

I bought what I liked, while my pals (and their wives) bought what they thought they were supposed to like. Big difference. A few years later, my pals hated what they had been cajoled into buying, while I've still got all my stuff, which, incidentally, only cost a fraction of what ended up paying to J.C Penny or Spiegel on the installment plan.

Magnaverde Rule No. 14: If something isn't in style, it can't go out of style. "

And FINALLY my question:

Do you ever get the urge to use something cliche'd or common or ugly like, say, the smoked mirror tiles, asking yourself, "Can I make this look fresh or attractive?" Do you ever challenge yourself in that way?

Just curious. I think this is an attitude many of us get from having moved into previously owned homes with no $$$ for renovation -- what to do with the blue tile in the bathroom, the oak cabinets, even the smoked mirrors. I saw a room with mini-print wallpaper (late 70s fad, remember?) in a magazine several years ago. It looked surprisingly refreshing.


clipped on: 03.08.2011 at 06:58 pm    last updated on: 03.08.2011 at 06:59 pm