Entries in Undecorate (2)


On "Undecorating" II: All White Everything



"I personally believe that our obsession with white is a leftover from the Modernist Movement (between WW1 and WW2). The Modernist believed everything could be theoretically explained and analyzed. Everything in life was taken apart and re-assembled, usually separated and run parallel to each other or stacked on top of each other. Everything had to be stripped down to its essential form to fit the function. That included the colors.

Museums did not used to exhibit work on white walls. Wood paneling and colorful wall coverings were the norm. Paintings were hung in rows, almost from floor to ceiling. A museum visit was a social event. If we analyze the purpose and function of a museum, it becomes about the piece of art. Therefore the pieces have to be separated, preferably one or two pieces on one wall. The color white works best, because it does not "compete" with the artwork. The modern museum is born. Our route is controlled; a few pieces from the entire museum collection are shown. Art is no longer an everyday event. It is as if we are trying to eliminate the other experiences that come with going to a place. Our relationship to art changed.

In the Modernist model, each function needs its own environment. Art belongs in the museum. (Again, to me, that is focusing on one issue, trying to resolve it all). It is encouraging to me that newer museums are trying to blur the edges and have exhibits, courses, concerts and other events in their buildings. Some of the newer museums also begin to understand that a Dutch Baroque painting was created in a certain environment and are trying to re-create that experience. White walls become an option, and are not the one and only answer." - Christian Schnyder, "The Meaning of White is Relative", January, 2002



"A gallery is constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church. The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished so that you click along clinically, or carpeted so that you pad soundlessly, resting the feet while the eyes have at the wall. The art is free, as the saying used to go, "to take on its own life." The discreet desk may be the only piece of furniture. In this context a standing ashtray becomes almost a sacred object, just as the fire hose in a modern museum looks not like a fire hose but an esthetic conundrum. Modernism's transposition of perception from life to normal values is complete. This, of course, is one of modernism's fatal diseases." - Brian O'Doherty, "Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space", 1976, 1986, 2000


"The Salon in question is the public art exhibit that was held annually or bi-annually in Paris beginning in 1737, and it is named after the room at the Louvre where it was held, the Salon Carré, or square room. Its significance in the social, cultural and political life of pre-Revolutionary France can hardly be overstated.

The origins of the Salon go back to the 1670s, when the crown-sponsored Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture) began mounting semi-public exhibitions of the work of recent graduates, where they would hang all the paintings in one room, closely next to and atop one another so as to fit them all in (image 2).

In 1737, the Academy opened the exhibit up to the public. This had two significant results: not only was this a place where the social classes mingled in considerable quantity and proximity, but now the culturally important act of having an opinion was open to the rabble (images 3 and 4). And the rabble made themselves heard, often through the publication of pamphlets where members of the audience would record their thoughts on the event, picture by picture (pamphlets were huge in 18th-century France, a cheap and accessible mode of mass-communication, kind of akin to blogging). Suddenly, art was being consumed – not purchased, but visually and culturally consumed – by a different audience, one that was not bound by etiquette or friendship or tradition to the royal artistic agenda." - Anna Hoffman, "Hung: Salon-style Display", Apartment Therapy, September 10, 2009



"If you were to ask old-house owners what is one thing central to the look of all 19th and early-20th-century homes, you'd get a lot of different answers, most of them focused on construction. But the real answer is color! Historic houses used color' they were not painted white inside and out. For interiors, paint and wallpaper and tiles were colorful. Everyone loves living with color. I'm sure, in fact, that folks living in concrete, white, International-style homes would name, as their favorite thing, the colorful throw pillows.

Color is the easiest and least expensive way to impart history to an old house. Our Victorians and Foursquares did not have beige walls. The walls had color, and often pattern. Too many renovations today fall short because they are colorless.

My clients will attest to this: Use color, especially color related to the period of your house, and history will come alive.

White and off-white walls actually deaden the colors and impact of all the things you love about your house: its woodwork, floors, rugs, furnishings, and especially artwork. The reason is contrast. We all know that black and white are the essence of contrast, the classic figure/ground relationship. White makes everything that is on it or around it "black" simply because the contrast makes us see in b&w. Whatever is not white effectively becomes the opposite of white. Hence we tend to see a picture on a white wall as an object—the figure on the background. We see the object as a single color regardless of what colors are in it.

With paint, we find that a background color (not white) works to draw the various colors out of a painting, white is no longer a contrasting "figure." The colors in the painting are brought alive by all the colors in the room. The same is true of woodwork and floors. Color on the walls keys the eye to various tones in wood grain. Figured woodwork against white looks monochromatic; we will see it contrasting with white, and fail to see all the tonality. Not only the color, but also the texture, of the woodwork is overlooked. Color on walls works to help the eye see the midtone colors and shades that textures produces.

(You can test my assertion in the kitchen. Look at wood cabinets juxtaposed with black, white or brushed-steel appliances. The wood will have color but without depth. Look instead at wood against wood—cabinets, say, against an old wood door—and you're instantly aware of grain and tonality." - James Martin, "The News in Hues", taken from Old House Interiors, Jun-Jul 2006



"Coinciding with an era in which the king, Louis XV, had lost much of the cultural supremacy of his predecessor, Louis XIV, this development had a big impact on where cultural power lay. Even while the pamphleteers were denounced and even censored for their supposedly uneducated opinions, the shift of critical authority was irrevocable. Some artists began changing what subjects they painted, or the manner in which they represented them, in reaction to the public opinion. Similarly, the artistic tastes of the elite patrons of the arts were swayed by the public voice, which would either praise or condemn their purchases.

The Salon was so popular, and so important to artists, patrons and the public audience, that it endured in much the same form until the late-19th century, when the renegade Impressionists presented too much of a challenge to Academic ideals and the government withdrew support. Until then, each year, the Salon was characterized by (and caricatured for) its wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling rumpus of paintings. Smaller paintings were hung lower, the largest were highest, and the canvases were angled toward the floor for slightly easier viewing."

The art historian Thomas Crow presents the Salon as a turning point in the French social structure: the public viewing and judgment of artwork, which had always been the domain of the rich and powerful, was both a reflection and a precursor of the changing relationship of the ‘masses’ and the elite. Before the Salon, the Academy of painters fell under the bureaucratic jurisdiction of the crown; painters were limited as to what subjects they could paint (military history and mythology were two of the biggies), and were kept within certain protocols. With the Salon, the public registered their opinions not only of the individual painters and works, but also with the system itself – a part of and a metaphor for the Monarchy. And the public opinion's clear influence on the art world was a demonstration of the new and formidable power of the people in the decades leading up to the Revolution." - Anna Hoffman, "Hung: Salon-style Display", Apartment Therapy, September 10, 2009


"A word about the walls. It had already taken me quite a while to work out why my spouse had surrounded me with white walls. Southern towns like the one I'm from don't teach you how pristine scatterings of objects acquire a halo from such alleged neutral backdrops. Quite pleased with myself when I finally grasped this modern fundamental, I was all the more disturbed the day my 24-hour domestic demiurge began covering all the white surfaces of our apartment with layer upon layer of prints and paintings, rugs and textiles. And overpainting wallpaper (and ceilings!) with variable black grids and "phototiling" yet other walls with a repeating laminated photograph. But now I am starting to think that white walls look bleached, naked. They just stand there embarrassed, not knowing what to do. I like our busy, full-time walls." - Carl Skoggard, "Yes, I Too Married a Decorator", taken from NEST, Issue #2, Fall 1998





On "Undecorating": Atemporality, Clutter, and Interior Boredom 


"I am really just bored with the interior design scene. I think it has become an uninteresting subject because everything has been said, everything has become sort of tired and finished." - David Hicks [uncited, via The Blue Remembered Hills, 3.27.11]

"Though his passions are legion, there are some things Mr. Holtzman does not like. 'I'm tired of found objects, people just assembling things,'' he said, adding snobbishly that the stylish eclecticism practiced by flea-market shoppers is nothing more interesting than 'just good taste.'" - Joe Holtzman in conversation with David Coleman [The New York Times, 9.10.98]

"In related news, DwellStudio founder Christiane Lemieux recently released her first book, 'Undecorate: The No-Rules Approach to Interior Design.' The title alone bugs the ever-lovin' hell out of me. It indicates a Selby-like approach of throwing thrift store knitted afghans all over the place and calling the result 'subversive.' Puh-lease. It's just crap decorating." - Raina Cox [via If The Lampshade Fits, 4.6.11]

"1. The cult of the amateur is digital utopianism’s most seductive delusion. This cult promises that the latest media technology -- in the form of blogs, wikis and podcasts --  will enable everyone to become widely read writers, journalists, movie directors and music artists. It suggests, mistakenly, that everyone has something interesting to say." - Andrew Keen [taken from "The Anti Web 2.0 Manifesto"]


"[Barbaralee] Diamonstein: There might have been another cue that you have given to the occupants. When that house was photographed with three perfect lilies in one place, and two books in another-you had soap powder for the kitchen sink on the kitchen sink, and some of the cupboard doors open. It was very much a lived-in environment. It seemed evident that this was a deliberate structuring of the photo to reflect an environment in which real people lived real lives.

[Frank] Gehry: Actually, it wasn't structuring the photo.

Diamonstein: It was taking a photo of the way you live?

Gehry: Yeah. Well, what happens is, I've had a lot of photographers there now. Each one comes in and has a different idea of how the place should look. So they start moving the furniture around. If I get there in time I start putting everything back."

"Such discussions imply a displacement of architectural space such that the positioning of its contents-objects and human bodies alike-becomes problematical. It is a feeling that can only be properly evaluated in a historical and comparative context and, in my opinion, on the basis of the following proposition: if the great negative emotions of the modernist moment were anxiety, terror, the being-unto-death, and Kurtz's "horror," what characterizes the newer "intensities" of the postmodern, which have also been characterized in terms of the "bad trip" and of schizophrenic submersion, can just as well be formulated in terms of the messiness of a dispersed existence, existential messiness, the perpetual temporal distraction of post-sixties life. Indeed, one is tempted (without wishing to overload a very minor feature of Gehry's building) to evoke the more general informing context of some larger virtual nightmare, which can be identified as the sixties gone toxic, a whole historical and countercultural "bad trip" in which psychic fragmentation is raised to a qualitatively new power, the structural distraction of the decentered subject now promoted to the very motor and existential logic of late capitalism itself." - Interview text: Barbralee Diamonstein in conversation with Frank Gehry, 1980 [originally from the video interview series American Architecture Now; transcription taken from "Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" by Fredric Jameson, 1991. Last paragraph by Fredric Jameson, from the same passage]


"I saw the book referred to in the link, Undecorate: The No-rules Approach to Interior Design, on the bookshelves the other day and I admit I, in my blasé way, walked on by, thinking that finally we had come to this: someone sat in an office somewhere planning the next wave marketing ploy, and this is the best that could be thought of?

Much, in the magazines, is predicted in terms of styles yet little actually stays the course. The mainstay of traditional decorating from the 1980s onwards, the so-called English Country House style as personified by Lancaster, Fowler, Buatta and Parish, and the American Style personified by Billy Baldwin, Hadley and few others, were merely longish-lasting fads - we're all trapped in our times and subject to the ultimate influence of our time - selling. The fads of one generation become the justifications for the succeeding generation to cite the names of its (preferably dead) practitioners and thus, it is hoped, give credence to their own work and place in history. Ultimately, I think, it doesn't actually matter. For if the only standard is to sell, and if quality - if it still exists - has been usurped by the logo merchants... then what hope is there? 

, in interior design, as in fashion, is nothing more than the re-styling of what has already been used but deemed out of style. Unfashionable and its siblings new and classic is but a concept that drives the wheels of industry, and turns the pages of books and magazines. Much as the words new and improved sell washing powders (even as the contents remain the same), the self-same same words or their synonyms are designed to sell magazines and the products the editors have to all intents and purposes discovered. New is never, however many times the taglines repeat it, about style.

Perhaps, then, here is the explanation for the growth in propping and accessorizing - the fictionalizing of interiors as I've called it before, with its underlying desperation for novelty where there is none - where nothing changes except for superficialities. Interest must be created somehow. The latest superficiality, seemingly, is to make a fashionable virtue out of disarray - mess, some of us would call it. Perhaps that pile of last week's clothing still on the bedroom floor, the unmade bed, sex toys on the nightstand, last night's dinner still on the kitchen countertop - in fact, all that is slatternly could, arguably, become storybook elements for the interior design stylist." [Author Unknown ("Blue"), via The Blue Remembered Hills, 3.27.11]



"The idea that history ended, and that the market sorts that out, and that the Pentagon bombs it if that doesn’t work - it’s gone. The situation now is one of growing disorder. A failed state, a potentially failed globe, a collapsed WTO, a collapsed Copenhagen, financial collapses, lifeboat economics, transition to nowhere. Historical narrative, it is simply no longer mapped onto the objective facts of the decade. The maps in our hands don’t match the territory, and that’s why we are upset.

Now, a new master narrative could arise on paper. That would be easy. On paper, if it were just a matter of paper, we could do it. But to do that via the Internet is about as likely as the Internet becoming a single state-controlled television channel. Because a single historical narrative is a paper narrative.

I don’t think we are going to get one. We could conceivably get a new ideology or a new business model that is able to seize control of the course of events and reinstate some clear path to progress, that gets a democratic consensus behind it. I don’t think that’s likely. At least not for ten years. I could be wrong, but it’s not on the near-term radar.

What we are facing over a decade is a decade of emergency rescue, of resiliency, of attempts at sustainability, rather than some kind of clear march toward advanced heights of civilization. We are into an era of decay and repurposing of broken structures, of new social inventions within networks, a world of ‘Gothic High-Tech’ and ‘Favela Chic’ (as I’ve called it), a crooked networked bazaar of history and futurity, rather than a cathedral of history, and a utopia of futurity.

That’s just the situation on the ground. I don’t want to belabor this point. I don’t want to go on and on about the fact that this is a new historical situation. If you don’t get it by now, you will be forced to get it; you will have no other choice." - Bruce Sterling [taken from "Atemporality for the Creative Artist," 2.25.2010, via Wired.com]



"I do not much like this word clutter. It has a pejorative tone. I read recently the phrase 'elegant clutter' used to describe Diana Vreeland's apartment in New York. But the Oxford English Dictionary gives the word no cosy connotations, not even a suspicion of charm or elegance. Clutter, it says sternly, is 'a disorderly assemblage of things'  ...  'crowded confusion' ... 'a clotted mass'. I discovered also the excellent seventeenth-century word cluttery, meaning 'disorder and dirt'.

As a style of decorating, however, clutter has an honourable history going back at least to the reign of Good King William and dear Queen Adelaide, and certainly cluttered rooms existed long before 1830. We can imagine them occupied by convivial rectors grown rich on pluralism, by amateur inventors with their combined libraries and laboratories, and by spinsters and dowagers surrounded by the souvenirs of a lifetime.

What was perhaps new in the second quarter of the nineteenth century was that the public or entertaining rooms of both modest and grand houses began to fill up with furniture and bric-a.-brac. All this embryo clutter converged in the middle of rooms. Nevertheless I suspect that the present orthodox opinion that in the eighteenth century all the furniture in every room was always pushed against the wall is a lot of fashionable claptrap.

By the end of Queen Victoria's reign, as we all know, if somebody wanted to glide about in what had once been called rooms of parade, it meant going on a species of assault course round whole clumps of potted palms, sociables, and occasional tables awash with framed photographs.

Only a decade later at the beginning of George V's reign there were already signs of change and Queen Mary set vigorously to work to simplify the Royal palaces. However, I know of one instance when, on expert advice, the Queen cleared out all the junk in a room in Buckingham Palace without telling the King, who, when he found out, made her put it all back!" - Min Hogg with Isabelle Anscombe [taken from "Interiors", 1988, by Min Hogg, Wendy Harrop & The World of Interiors]



"In fashionable circles in those two hectic decades between the World Wars - indeed in all circles of people who wished to appear Up-to-date and Thoroughly Modern - the stripped-to-the-bone look was all the rage. Down came the Nottingham lace and up went the hessian. Almost all pictures were banished. A mass of knick-knacks would have looked very odd on a streamlined side-table veneered in Empire woods or on one of Mrs Maugham's dubious pickled commodes. For the rich the only touches of lushness were the bosomy Bower arrangements of Mrs Spry. Here is a description of a room (as late as 1939) by the great historian of taste James Layer. An imaginary cultivated couple of modest means have ' ... plain distempered walls, straight-lined open bookcases, chairs comfortable, but without any unnecessary upholstery, covered with plain, coarse canvas. Their carpet is self-coloured harmonizing with the tone of the room. Their lampshades are made of plain sheets of parchment. On their walls they have one picture: a varnished Underground poster. Good Taste.' Those who remember those sparse rooms can understand why reaction set in.

There were exceptions already among the avant-garde. Pioneer connoisseurs of the Regency had already packed in the sphinxes and obelisks, the marble busts and the ormolu. Already also, a trickle of 'amusing' domes of wax fruit, Berlin woolwork of overblown roses and papier mache painted with sad-eyed dogs was infiltrating many a smart interior as war loomed.

The notion of clutter - and its boon-companion, Wit - as a decorative theme was spotted and plugged by the English edition of House and Garden (bi-monthly in those rationed days) well before the Festival of Britain in 1951. Not for nothing were a revived pair of white and gold Staffordshire figures of a lion and a unicorn one of the official souvenirs of that extraordinary show. In 1959, Osbert Lancaster brought up to date his brilliant pre-war collection of satirical essays on interior design, Home Sweet Homes. He called his wicked version of clutter 'Neo Victorianism' because clutter then was mostly of Victorian artifacts and aimed to revive the cosiness of that era. It was not the mad mixture of all periods popular today. Lancaster blamed the style on the cheap second-hand furniture couples were forced to buy because most new stuff was For Export Only. 'So strong', he writes, 'was the character of these pieces that, like a faint touch of garlic, they completely transformed any interior into which they were introduced. One Victorian work-table ... heralded the arrival of a whole summer of ottomans, Aubussons, beadwork fire screens, Martin engravings, lustres, portieres and Bohemian glass ...'" - Min Hogg with Isabelle Anscombe [taken from "Interiors", 1988, by Min Hogg, Wendy Harrop & The World of Interiors]



"Nevertheless, the style of clutter-mania as we know it took a long time to catch on. John Fowler, on whom the look has often been unfairly blamed, was sparing with his pictures and objects, and his own rooms were positively sparse by today's standards. He was also very economical with the chintz with which his followers smother their rooms. True clutter is very different from those artfully arranged tablescapes, piles of expensive books and endless buttons and bows aimed to give an instant lived-in look. It is based on the often unconscious acquisitiveness of many of the Human Race who cannot resist making jackdaw nests for themselves with things which have taken their random fancy. Another sort of clutter springs from the passion of the dedicated collector who will always find space for yet another incunabulum, stuffed bird or snuff box.

We may note all these themes in this chapter of the book. When I was squinting through my magnifying glass at the O.E.D's harsh definitions, I flattered myself that they did not remotely apply to me. Then I found a couple of my rooms had been cruelly selected as illustrations. These photographs were taken eight years ago. To my horror, looking at these same corners today, I found the breathing space (not generous, I admit, even then) has become even more clogged. Brackets now climb the walls to support even more junk, yet more surfaces have become packed with books and objects. I now realize I am a terminal case of cluttery even though the disease has lasted many years - and I may last a few more.

Although I suspect that the style's days of high fashion are already over, this section of the book is a Grim Warning to those who may still want to inject cluttery artificially and all at once. They will probably catch the disease in real earnest and though the symptoms can be fun, the infection is almost certainly fatal." - Min Hogg with Isabelle Anscombe [taken from "Interiors", 1988, by Min Hogg, Wendy Harrop & The World of Interiors]


"The question is: now what? Given that we have atemporal organized representations of verbal structures, what can we actually do? Where is the fun part?

Where is the fun part? And I think there could be some, actually. We are living in an atemporal network culture, and I don’t think that requires a moral panic. I think it ought to be regarded as something like moving into a new town.

We’ve moved into a new town, and the first order of business is like : ok, what gives around here? Well, there seems to be this sort of decayed castle, and there’s also a lot of slums…. That’s not the sort of thing which requires a punk ‘no-future’ rage. Like: ‘You’ve taken away my future, and I am going to kill you, or kill myself, and throw a brick at a cop!’ I don’t really think that is helpful.

What’s needed here is like a kind of atemporality that’s like agnosticism. Just a calm, pragmatic, serene skepticism about the historical narratives. I mean: they just don’t map onto what is going on.

So how do we just — like — sound out our new scene? What can we do to liven things up, especially as creative artists?

Well, the immediate impulse is going to be the ‘Frankenstein Mashup.’ Because that’s the native expression of network culture. The “Frankenstein mashup” is to just take elements of past, present, and future and just collide ‘em together, in sort of a collage. More or less semi-randomly, like a Surrealist “exquisite corpse.”

You can do useful and interesting things in that way, but I don’t really think that offers us a great deal. Even when it’s done very deftly, it tends to lead to the kind of levelling blandness of ‘world music.’ The kind of world music that’s middle-of-the-road disco music which includes pygmy nose-flutes or sitars.

That kind of thing is tragically easy to do, but not really very effective. It’s cheap to do. It’s very punk rock. It’s very safety pins and plastic bags. But it’s missing a philosophical high-end, really an atemporal meaning of life. High-art.

And I would like to see some of that. I think there is a large hole there that could be filled, from an atemporal perspective. Not at the lowest end of artistic expression, but way up at the top philosophical end." - Bruce Sterling [taken from "Atemporality for the Creative Artist," 2.25.2010, via Wired.com]


"2. The digital utopian much heralded “democratization” of media will have a destructive impact upon culture, particularly upon criticism. “Good taste” is, as Adorno never tired of telling us, undemocratic. Taste must reside with an elite (“truth makers”) of historically progressive cultural critics able to determine, on behalf of the public, the value of a work-of-art. The digital utopia seeks to flatten this elite into an ochlocracy. The danger, therefore, is that the future will be tasteless." - Andrew Keen [taken from "The Anti Web 2.0 Manifesto"]

"Since I founded DwellStudio in 2000, however, the thing that's had probably the biggest impact on me, creatively and professionaly, has been the Internet. It's no exaggeration that the Internet has totally changed the way the world works. It used to be that you'd design something (anything: a dress, a pillow, a car) and then send it out into the world, and the only way to gauge its success would be to look at how many people bought it. But with the proliferation of design websites and personal blogs, a whole new window has opened up: I get to see how people are actually living, whether it's with the bedding, tabletop, and home accessories we design at DwellStudio or with the stuff they've turned up while trolling eBay. I used to turn to the experts—the fashion and interior designers of the world. These days, I much prefer to go to the amateurs. The Internet offers so much proof that the most vibrant style ideas are coming from the minds of real people.

The variety of styles I see on the Internet doesn't necessarily translate seamlessly to book form. Or so the editors kept telling me. We needed to narrow it down a little, to sift through all the great design and inspired ideas that are out there and figure out what it all meant. So I spent months looking at everything from slick, well-designed blogs to humble sites documenting one homeowner's DIY renovation. And somewhere along the way I heard a word that stuck in my head, a word that seemed to me to encapsulate the one common thread in all these great spaces. Because design has its rules, and what I was noticing more and more is that the most stylish people are wiling to disregard those rules. And this word I picked up from who-knows-where seems a very apt one for this approach to decorating. That word is undecorated." - Christiane Lemieux [with Rumaan Alam, taken from the introduction to "Undecorate: The No-Rules Approach to Interior Design", 2011]