Senses of Living® Holidays

August 2003
© 2003 by Bret S. Beall

Focal Point, Schmocal Point!

If you watch design shows on television, or read magazines about design, or listen to lectures about conventional design, you will always hear two words that should strike fear in your heart: Focal Point.

I’ll be honest: I have no idea when the concept of focal point was introduced to interior design vocabulary. My “gut” tells me it was sometime in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when post-war materialism reared its [ugly] head, and homes became “about” their furnishings rather than their occupants.

Now, there is nothing wrong with something being highlighted, or given the place of honor to enhance visibility. But, when one is designing a room meant for multiple occupants, or with a designated purpose (like dining, or entertaining, or sleeping/romance), YOU DO NOT NEED A FOCAL POINT. The occupants are the foci (plural of focus; check your Latin).

Décor should be about enhancing relationships, not replacing them or substituting for them. Interior design should be about providing a backdrop for interaction. Decorating should be about comfort, convenience and cultivating communication. “Keeping up with the Joneses,” impressing people, ostentation and hoarding are not relevant to décor.

I’m sure we are all familiar with examples of designers who decide (often arbitrarily) that a painting or a photograph or some other piece of art will be “the” focal point of a room. The sheer arbitration of the selection shines a light on the superficiality of the activity. Instead of thinking in terms of how people will use the room, instead of thinking how the objet d’art will enhance the interactions of the inhabitants, instead of positioning furniture to facilitate conversation and communication, all attention is forced to whatever the focal point is. Even with some large scale item, like a fireplace, we need to think about this: is it the rule or the exception that we sit around watching the fire burn? It’s the exception, and it’s often when we are alone. Why make this the focal point?

Then we have the matter of the television/entertainment center. It is the rise of the television in post-war America that led me to my earlier comment about the timing of the use of “focal point” in interior design. Our own memories and experiences, coupled with old newsreels and nostalgic documentaries will clearly illustrate that the television became the center of attention in homes across America and eventually the rest of the world. Our lifestyles adapted whole-hog to this “box” that occupied center stage of our homes. TV dinners were invented. TV trays were invented to hold them. Scheduling revolved around television programming.

Networks increased. Programming hours increased. Cable and satellite options became available. VCRs (and later DVDs) became ubiquitous. The constant barrage of images has taken its toll in terms of physical health, mental health, and what can generally be termed “overstimulation.” I will address this phenomenon in a future column, but I want to use this idea to segue back to home décor.

Despite what seems to be an abundance of designers talking about “zen-this” and “zen-that” (wait until you read my column on THAT topic), we have a majority of design specialists who seem to prefer a “more is better” approach. I just call it “busy-ness,” and I consider it harmful on a multitude of levels.

Perhaps the greatest harm of “busy-ness” is that it encourages distraction and discourages focusing. Isn’t this ironic, that in a time when the dominating decorating philosophy virtually mandates the presence of a “focal point,” that the resulting product yields a reduced ability to focus? Consider that at least one nationally known interior designer pointed out his cleverness in putting two focal points in a room that he designed. Imagine having two foci in your living room, or your dining room: just being in that room would be like watching a ping-pong game or a tennis tournament, with one’s attention going back and forth between the focal points, if indeed they function that way.

They don’t. If anything, focal points tend to establish a theme, as they are used in general design context. This isn’t necessarily true, however, because sometimes the “inspiration piece” can be quite small (we can then discuss why we even need an item to suggest a theme, but that’s yet another column).

What IS true, is that home décor is about relationships. It’s about having an environment that enhances your lifestyle and communication, NOT about BEING your lifestyle or a SUBSTITUTE for communication. Home décor and interior design are backdrops for your life. They are part of the path to better living, not the goals in and of themselves.

Get it? Let me help you.

Now that we’ve abandoned the concept of “focal point” in interior design, let’s celebrate! I’m ready for a party.

American Artist Appreciation Month: We must appreciate artists, American or otherwise, 12 months out of the year! I use “artist” in the broadest sense, anyone who uses creativity in some way. That includes painters, musicians and writers, but also computer programmers, and maybe the manager who finds a better way of attacking a problem, or maybe the sanitation engineer (garbage person) who handles the route more efficiently. They are all artists, so let’s appreciate them!

Brownies at Brunch Month: Frankly, I’m back on my same old soapbox about not baking or using the oven during the hot summer months. Brownies are a great addition to brunch, but wait until the weather cools down! Celebrate by just having brunch! It’s a dying art, but one that I would love to help revive (start by serving the recipes in this month’s Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® recipes).

National Eye Exam Month: Take care of your eyes! Think of a life without colors and shapes. It’s also Cataract Awareness Month, which is yet another reminder to get regular eye exams.

Goat Cheese Month: I love goat cheese. I celebrate its importance on a regular basis. Goat cheese can be soft or firm, mild or robust. I particularly enjoy the products of Cypress Grove (http://www.cypressgrovechevre.com/indulge.htm ) and Capriole Farms (http://www.capriolegoatcheese.com/ ), so try to find them at your local fromagerie (here in Chicago, I have long purchased cheeses at Binny’s Beverage Depot, but my new favorite is The Cheese Stands Alone, near Wilson and Western [4547 North Western, 773.293.3820]; Matt and Sarah will really help you).

National Peach Month: Is National Peach Month in July or August? It doesn’t matter ... just eat peaches. Put them on salads as a first course. Mix them into a salsa and drape it on your favorite poached or pan-seared meat entrée. Enjoy sliced peaches macerated in marsala either on their own or over pure vanilla ice cream (see my comments in July’s Senses of Living® column on vanilla ice cream).

Sandwich Month: I know that I eat a lot of sandwiches during the summer months (especially for breakfast), mostly BLTs, and a variety of variations to take advantage the wealth of delicious, in-season tomatoes (I also like grilled cheddar and tomato sandwiches). I hope you’ll take advantage of these no-cook or low-cook options during August.

National Water Quality Month: Right now, there is a low of controversy about our nation’s (and the world’s) water quality, and the amount of contaminants considered safe. For more information, please visit the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency site, www.epa.gov/OW/index.html or the site of the Water Quality Association, www.wqa.org . Educate yourself, and ACT!

National Smile Week: Can we ever have too many smiles? I don’t think so. Let down your inhibitions and smile your way through the second week of August, and then keep doing it the rest of the year, and the rest of your life.

National Apple Week: Instead of celebrating this holiday during the second week of August, I’ll celebrate later in the year when I can make apple tarts and freeform apple pies and baked apples and apple streudel. Please join me; you won’t regret it. In the meantime, though, create an apple salad with some lemon juice and fresh mint and maybe some toasted walnuts and just a dash of salt … YUM! You can add some mayo and chopped celery for a Waldorf Salad, and serve it over lettuce leaves.

National Friendship Week: This commemoration, recognized during the third week of August, reminds us of the importance of our friends. I have the best friends in the world. They are generous, supportive, and sharing, as well as intelligent, kind, talented and highly-skilled. Always be grateful for your friends!

Once again, many dates in August are anniversaries of independence days, flag days, and other patriotic events: August 1 (Independence Day, Benin; National Day, Switzerland), August 2 (Anniversary of Uprising, Macedonia), August 3 (Independence Day, Niger), August 4 (Independence Day, Burkina Faso), August 5 (Independence Day, Jamaica; Flag Day, Japan), August 6 (Independence Day, Bolivia; Independence Day, Central African Republic), August 7 (Independence Day, Cote d'Ivoire), August 9 (Flag Day, Gabon; Independence Day, Singapore), August 10 (Independence Day, Ecuador), August 11 (Independence Day, Chad), August 13 (Independence Day, Central African Republic), August 14 (Independence Day, Congo; Allegiance Day, Morocco; Independence Day, Pakistan), August 15 (Independence Day, India; Liberation Day, South Korea), August 17 (Independence Day, Gabon; Independence Day, Indonesia), August 19 (Independence Day, Afghanistan), August 23 (Liberation Day, Laos; Liberation Day, Romania), August 24 (Independence Day, Ukraine).

Now, in compiling the following list, I discovered an abundance of what I shall categorize as “super-silly” holidays. They are self-explanatory; I’ve refrained from commenting unless it is REALLY important. And what is REALLY important is to treat every day like a holiday! Do it!

August 1: Friendship Day; National Raspberry Cream Pie (see July’s Senses of Living® column for a discussion of Lammas/Lughnasadh celebrations).

August 2: National Ice Cream Sandwich Day; National Mustard Day (first Saturday in August) and anniversary of enactment by Congress of the first income tax (1861). Last year I organized a trip to southern Wisconsin to include a trip to Mt. Horeb’s Mustard Museum to coincide with National Mustard Day! You can’t have too many condiments! If you are in the Mt. Horeb area, visit them at 100 West Main St. (it’s free), or visit www.mustardweb.com or call 800.438.6878/608.437.3986 to order some of their hundreds of delicious varieties (or call me if you want to plan your own trip through southern Wisconsin, especially if you like Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture).

August 3: National Watermelon Day; National Family Day (First Sunday of August).

August 4: Twins Day Festival; Friendship Day (see also August 1); Champagne Day; Chocolate Chip Day.

August 5: Sister’s Day.

August 6: Wiggle Your Toes Day; Peace Day; Root Beer Float Day.

August 7: Sea Serpent Day, Raspberries and Cream Day.

August 8: Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor's Porch Night; Bonza Bottler Day (this is a wild excuse just to celebrate, as it commemorates the date every month when the day and the date are the same number [May 5, June 6, July 7, etc.]); Dollar Day, the anniversary of the US dollar’s creation.

August 9: National Polka Festival.

August 10: Lazy Day; S’Mores Day.

August 11: Presidential Joke Day (I won’t go there).

August 12: Middle Child's Day.

August 13: Blame Someone Else Day; Left-Handers Day, an international recognition declared in 1976 by Lefthanders International. My long-time pal Lynne is a southpaw, and she has regaled me with horror stories of her childhood when misguided teachers were convinced that lefthandedness was an abnormality rather than one aspect of human natural variation. Maybe that’s why most lefthanders I know are so comfortable accepting homosexuality and other aspects of human variability as natural and normal. August 13 is also “New” Obon Day, the Japanese version of Samhain or Dia de los Muertos in Celtic and Mexican cultures, respectively; August 16 is “Old” Obon Day. Some will celebrate Obon Day in July, or in other parts of August. The point is to be reverential to one’s ancestors. Respect their wisdom.

August 14: National Creamsicle Day; Marshmallow toasting Day.

August 15: National Relaxation Day; National Failures Day; anniversary of Crisco’s development.

August 16: Bratwurst Festival; National Homeless Animals’ Day (third Saturday of August).

August 17: National Thrift Shop Day could have been started by me! My entire home is designed and decorated using thrift shop (and yard sale) finds from all over America. This reminds me the importance of the 4 R’s of earth-friendly living: Recycle, Reduce, Reuse and Refuse. Although “refusing” has the lightest environmental impact, reusing is a close second, and that is what thrift shopping is all about (as well as supporting the charities that often sponsor thrift/resale shops).

August 18: Bad Poetry Day.

August 19: Potato Day.

August 20: National Radio Day; National Lemonade Day.

August 21: National Spumoni Day.

August 22: Be An Angel Day.

August 23: National Spongecake Day.

August 24: Knife Day.

August 25: Kiss-And-Make-Up Day.

August 26: National Cherry Popsicle Day; Women’s Equality Day (anniversary of women getting the right to vote via Amendment 19, approved in 1920).

August 27: Petroleum Day.

August 28: World Sauntering Day; Dream Day; National Cherry Turnover Day

August 29: More Herbs, Less Salt Day (this has to date from the 1970s, and I have WAY more alternatives to increasing flavor than just adding herbs! Amateurs!)

August 30: National Toasted Marshmallow Day (but see August 14); Rock & Roll Day; Tomatina Day (on the last Wednesday of August, in the town of Bunol, Spain, between the hours of 11am and 1pm, during the week set aside to honor the Virgin Mary and Bunol’s patron saint, San Luis Bertran, a tomato-based food fight takes place, purportedly; go figure!).

August 31: National Trail Mix Day

Whether you have big celebrations, or little celebrations, or a combination of both, I encourage you to celebrate the joys of life daily. Every day I encounter less-than-joyous people, and I think how wonderful it would be if these people would start celebrating National Smile Week, and never stop.