Senses of Living® Décor

January-February 2007
© 2007 by Bret S. Beall


A little knowledge is a scary thing, but it's better than no knowledge. When asked about my ability to speak other languages, I always reply, "I know enough of a lot of languages to truly embarrass myself."

Sometimes doing your own decor can be embarrassing, too, when you aren't sure what to do or how to begin. You want to surround yourself with a pleasant, life-enhancing environment. There are myriad ways to do this, but you've decided that you want your décor to feature quality pieces. So, you go shopping, and you think you've bought something valuable, but it turns out to be a reproduction, or even worse, just shlock. This is where a little knowledge can be very helpful, and where a lot of knowledge can be even more helpful.

Two Kinds Of Knowledge

I'm specifically talking about TWO kinds of knowledge. The first is knowledge of the material world, of design and antiques and things outside of yourself … knowledge that can be gained by reading and memorizing. The other kind is knowledge of the self: knowing YOUR self. Being aware of WHY you are attracted to something, WHY you want to spend your hard-earned money on something, WHY you want to bring this "thing" into your home, your sanctuary.

Both of these kinds of knowledge can be acquired together, simultaneously. The process is ongoing; you will never get to a point where you think, "Oh, I know everything there is to know about this subject" (the reverse is true for everyone but the most arrogant and self-absorbed: the more we learn, the more we realize we don't know). The same is true for gaining self-knowledge: you will NEVER know everything there is to know about yourself, but you'll be amazed how each addition to self-knowledge enhances your life. The value of acquiring both of these kinds of knowledge relative to home decor is that they will empower you to make decor decisions without spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for others' knowledge (though sometimes hiring an expert or specialist is part of the learning process), to have the confidence and self-awareness to move forward, or to hold off until the right option or choice appears.

Paleontology and Design

One of the consistently "hot" (though you KNOW how I hate that word) decor themes is "nature." Given my paleontological education, this is an area where I have a huge amount of unique knowledge and experience. I can visit thrift shops, or antique malls, and see a wide range of natural history objects (shells, mounted insects, fossils, minerals, antlers, bones, etc.), and know their value, their condition, their history, and more. I know what each items is "supposed" to look like, so I can easily identify damaged pieces or fakes or even illegal objects. If a client wants to use "natural" items in their décor, it is doubtful that they can obtain my level of knowledge in this area, but they can gain a general level of knowledge, and they can focus on buying what they like, at a good price, rather than trying to invest in something potentially valuable. Take this to heart: buy what you like!


Once one gets into collecting art and decorative items from particular cultures, more education is needed. For example, I collect "Native American art," but it is important to know that "Native American" is not a single monolithic concept; each tribe has its own style (though they may be related), and a collector must treat them individually. My interest began with some really cool arrowheads from southern Missouri, and some obsidian arrowhead flakes from California. In 1992, I returned to northern California after a 25 year absence, and during that trip purchased some Californian Native items; in hindsight, they are interesting items, but not particularly valuable; subsequently, I've added some better California Native pieces to my collection (and décor) that are both esthetically interesting and more valuable.

In 1993, I visited the Pacific Northwest for the first time, Seattle in particular, and that was where I fell in love with the Native art of that region. I bought a number of prints that currently adorn the entry hallway of my home; I knew enough about art and prints to know what to buy, and then only bought what appealed to me esthetically. Subsequently, I've made numerous trips back to the region, where I bought more prints, plus Native baskets and other items that again in hindsight were more kitsch than craft. But, my true coup occurred when I visited Vancouver, British Columbia. I purchased some well-designed yet affordable Native items, but my mouth dropped when I walked into a bookstore and saw some OLD stone artifacts. They were asking US$500 for the lot of three, but that was a LOT of money. I left the store, and bee lined to a bookstore to research them. I discovered that the lot of three together could be worth as much as US$50,000, so I returned to the store, handed over my credit card, and prayed that the charge would go through; it did. I now owned two fascinating fishing weights (carved like an octopus and an insect, and a frog-shaped tobacco mortar, and I loved them; they probably dated from the turn of the millennium (ie, about 1000 years old). The items' destiny? A donation to a museum, where their value (archeological) could truly be appreciated.

I've made recent trips to Toronto, where I added to my collection of Ojibwa art (prints and carvings) that make a nice display. I even added to my Ojibwa collection on a return trip to Seattle, where I found a framed print for $10. I've made similar additions during trips to other regions; you'd be surprised how bargains can be found when people donate unappreciated gifts from friends to thrift stores hundreds of miles from the items' sources. Again, the key is to get education about what is good and what isn't, and to only buy those things that truly please you, rather than buying as an investment.

Orientalia? Asiana? You Know What I Mean!

At a relatively early age, I developed a liking for pan-Asian art and began adding that genre to my bedroom, and then my home quite early. In my eagerness and enthusiasm, I picked up a lot of stuff that may have fallen into the collectible category of "Orientalia," or "Asiana," but which in hindsight was more schlock than anything. I've purged a lot of those early acquisitions, and subsequently added some good pieces that really please me. I don't buy anything that doesn't please me esthetically.

When I moved into the current Casa Beall, I knew that I wanted to have two rooms with Asian themes, and that I wanted oriental rugs on the floor. I also knew that I didn't want to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on rugs, but that I wanted the "look" of genuine oriental rugs. A yard sale yielded the perfect blue and red patterned (yet synthetic and slightly damaged) rug for my blue- and Far Eastern-themed bedroom for $10. Another yard sale yielded a very attractive red, yellow, cream and black patterned oriental rug for $15, but it was half the size that I needed for my dining room, which has a southern Asian (India, Pakistan and SE Asian) theme. Imagine my pleasure when visiting a thrift store a few days later to find a different but very similarly patterned and colored rug of almost exactly the same size for $20; the two rugs sit side-by-side under my dining room table, and create exactly the effect I wanted. In each case, I knew I was buying imitations, but they created the ambience I intended. I bought what I wanted, without concern for resale value or investment.

South Pacific

I forget how I got interested in Oceanic art (the art of Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Borneo, and the varied Pacific Islands), but I think it started when I began studying their spiritual traditions. Once I understood what much of the art was representing, I came to appreciate it not only for its spiritual message, but also for its sheer originality of design. I think it also coincided with the chance purchase of an antique New Guinea mask for a few dollars, and my newly created need for additional Oceanic pieces to create an appropriate display vignette. My travels around the US allowed me to visit lots of resale shops, and eventually I built up quite a collection of Oceanic art. I also made acquisitions through eBay. These pieces create quite an impact in my living room/solarium.


Most recently I've been adding to my collection of modern/organic/biomorphic tableware designs, in keeping with the design philosophy associated with my company, Global Organic Designs. This is a very collectible category, and if you choose to collect "name" designers, you can end up spending a lot of money. Here, I have adopted a very simple philosophy: "Collect the Design, Not the Designer." I care about the shape, not who made it. I know that particular designers have a higher probability of producing organic/biomorphic designs. I also know that not everyone knows the collectibility of some of these designs. So, I haunt thrift stores and antique markets looking for deals. Two recent examples: I was visiting a local antique mall, and saw a really cool white gravy boat and underplate (remember, I want all of my food in either white or black dishes). It was curvy and swoopy and really organic; it was also unmarked, but looked like the work of a designer whose work I collect. The booth was having a 20% off sale, so I went ahead, made my purchase for less than $15, trusting both my knowledge and my edict to "Collect the Design, Not the Designer," got home, and after a bit of research, found that "my" designer had indeed crated that gravy boat and underplate. That same weekend, I was visiting a Salvation Army thrift store, and found four very rare large glasses by another famous designer ... at only 70 cents each. Knowledge helped me grab them at that bargain price.

This is the take home message. Develop your own "vision." Determine what you like, and WHY you like it. Explicitly identify the themes you are using in your home, and research what is "good" and what isn't. Buy what you like, not what you think might be valuable.

This isn't a difficult message, but sometimes you have so much going on in your life that you just can't invest time in educating yourself. THAT is when you bring in a professional. I'm one of those professionals who can help you with your décor decisions, so give me a ring at 773.508.9208 or email me. You, too, can have a beautiful, life-enhancing home environment.