Senses of Living® Décor

September 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall


Be forewarned: if you spend your life reading fashion magazines, and trying to keep up with the latest trends in everything, this column will either annoy you, or send you into apoplectic or catatonic shock. Not that I'm overly concerned, because if you fit into either of these categories, you will be a better person when you finish reading this column.

My anti-trend mindset derives from several sources. The first came during my formative years in the 1970s when I was a huge fan of the Swedish pop group ABBA, but none of my peers nor many of the American public shared my perspective; today, it is no longer uncool to admit one enjoys the music of ABBA, not only for its peppiness and happiness (have you seen the international success of the musical, "Mamma Mia"?), but also for its musical complexity and vocal requirements (per such hip artists as Elvis Costello and Bono). Then, in the 1980s I saw a particular "what's hot/what's not" list that informed me that indoor plants were "not hot," that they (and macramé hangers) were too 1970s; already embarking on an international career in evolutionary biology, I KNEW indoor plants were good for you, and therefore, were immune to trends (or at least, they should be!), and that was the last time I paid attention to a "what's hot/what's not" list. Finally, I totally gave up trying to be trendy when I started dealing with clothes fashion in the 1990s. In academia, "fashion sense" is as alien a concept as "balanced life" (for you non-academics, that is VERY alien); when I entered the business world, I believed my personal style was weak, so I conducted extensive research via books, magazines and television (I WAS an academic, after all; research is what we do!). I realized my personal style was perfectly acceptable when a single issue of GQ magazine featured the following current fashions: pleated pants AND unpleated pants; cuffed pants and uncuffed pants; flared pant legs and straight pant legs; button down shirt collars and loose shirt collars; wide ties and narrow ties … the list goes on.

I came to realize that what was important in all cases (clothing, décor, music, etc.) was that our surroundings bring us comfort (physical and emotional/spiritual nourishment; though it is simplistic and out-of-context, "if it feels good, do it" seems a somewhat relevant euphemism) and enrichment (including developing your own personal, unique sense of style!). THAT will always be my motivation when I am consulting on décor for others, or designing and decorating my own personal environment.

I have chosen this topic right now because I am so tired of television designers insisting that perfectly functional decors must be trashed because they are not contemporary, or in some way, "imperfect." This problem can be easily solved by one simple explanation: "This room is decorated in a retro (or casual chic) style." Pure, simple, and accurate, as EVERYTHING from the past can be considered "retro," and imperfections are key to "casual chic" (or Rachel Ashwell's "shabby chic") style.

Maybe some of my tolerance of less-than-ideal décor comes from the fact that I have rented most of my life, and so in those cases I have been relatively constrained by lease as to what I can do. For example, in graduate school I rented a great apartment that had a very 1950s gray and pink bathroom. This scheme was definitely not to my taste in the 1980s, but I didn't have the option of replacing or painting over the offending tiles. I didn't mind the gray, but I just did not like the pink, so I introduced deep blue towels, a shower curtain, a trashcan and other accoutrement so that the pink was hardly noticeable (and the effect of the blue additions against the light gray tile/porcelain features was cutting edge!). I shudder to think what design magazines would say about my solution!

Then there is the plethora of Formica countertops I have dealt with over the years. Most of the time it was scratched, chipped, and incredibly ugly. In these cases, I was able to make the rest of whatever room they occupied so attractive that attention was drawn away from the offending counters (like bathrooms that are laden with plants and seashells, wall décor and a few candles for ambience). I can assure you that many current designers would accuse me of "collegiate décor" as if it were something bad! (In fact, my solarium is surrounded by windows, under which I have built continuous board and brick shelving; very "collegiate" to some, but also very cutting edge (even trendy!) as I write this in 2004!)

Because I have seen (and experienced) how livable I can make a room, apartment or home without major rehabbing, I have continued to employ a variety of techniques that save time, effort, money and natural resources. This latter point, saving natural resources, is a significant motivator in everything I do. Change merely for the sake of change not only wastes natural resources (it has been said in some circles that "the least amount of change yields the greatest amount of good" from an environmental perspective), but also it is symptomatic of a psychological need based on the incorrect assumption that we can heal ourselves superficially rather than doing the work to truly heal psychologically. Think about it!

Here is a general overview of earth-friendly décor ideas that avoid any concern for fashion or trends. By no means exhaustive, at least this list will encourage you to think twice before paying attention to anyone's opinion of what is in or out (don't get me started on the color trends touted by pseudo-scientific organizations that claim to have scientific data regarding the psychology of color, but none of these data are published in peer-reviewed journals).

Concealment: This is the tactic that I used in my graduate school bathroom. I was able to conceal much of the offending pink in that bathroom by concealing it with accessories (in this case, towels and a shower curtain). Wall hangings and pictures can conceal offending paint, cracks or other flaws. Rugs can conceal ugly, damaged flooring. Furniture of all sizes, shapes and functions conceals a variety of unsavory features.

Distraction: I used this tactic for handling ugly counters, but it can be used in any room. The theory is to appoint a room so tastefully that attention is drawn to the pleasing features and away from the less-than-pleasing features. Some designers would argue that an unattractive feature will "stick out like a sore thumb," but this simply isn't true from a psychological perspective. We are naturally drawn to what pleases us, not to what offends us. Use bright colors and interesting shapes in your room to create a stimulating environment where you will focus on activity rather than analyzing flaws. Use quieter colors and simple shapes to create a calming environment where your relaxation will be more important than any isolated imperfection. If you still fixate on the so-called "problem" area, you have issues that are "bigger" than not liking your décor.

Refinishing: Sometimes, painting or staining can be a simple solution. A new color or finish will easily draw one's attention away from any unsightly feature. I used this distractive approach when I had a truly ugly kitchen during my undergraduate years. The doors, cabinets, table and chairs were all scratched and chipped by previous occupants. The paint was off-white (maybe it was originally true white, but no longer!), and the walls were paneled with synthetic wood paneling. After getting permission to paint (and even receiving free paint!), I employed a bit of creativity to add some zip and contemporaneousness to my kitchen, making it a much more pleasant room in which to study.

Sometimes Concealment and Refinishing intersect when dealing with minor flaws. If a countertop has been damaged so that the wood shows through, there are kits available to fill in the damaged area with an appearance resembling the rest of the countertop; the same is true for damaged porcelain sinks. If a dark wooden feature is scratched (if you have cats, you know what I mean!) or chipped, revealing the lighter colored natural wood, you can use English Leather or some true wood stain to camouflage the damage. If paint is chipped, use that time-tested technique known as "touch up."

Distraction: Using a variety of décor items to enhance a dull or damaged room will distract your attention (and the attention of visitors) away from the poor "bones" of the room and allow emphasize to be placed on more beautiful aspects of the room. For instance, after using "Refinishing" to enhance my undergraduate kitchen, I further distracted visitors' attention using a bright tablecloth, some art on the walls, a window full of plants and various other objets d'art. Distraction is a great tool to add to your decorating repertoire.

Reusing/Recycling/Freecycling: OK, I admit it. Sometimes décor features are simply too inappropriate to be allowed to remain in place (drop ceilings come to mind). They need to be completely removed. Once removed, you have a variety of options. You can rehabilitate them (do it yourself, or have a carpenter, or furniture maker, or plumber, or contractor help you), or you can obtain new items. Be sure to recycle the item at an appropriate place, or offer them to others who can rehabilitate them via the growing network known as Freecycling (www.freecycle.org). One person's trash is another person's treasure, and this is certainly the case with Freecycle. Don't consider any materials to be expendable. One writer on a simple living e-list described a large accumulation of building supplies left by the previous owners of his current house; the previous owners had intended to remove all of the materials to a dumpster, but the new owner asked to keep them, and over the years has saved lots of dollars and natural resources by reusing these leftover supplies. I have a badly distorted metal storage shelf that I've just replaced in one of my offices; I'm going to bend the older unit back into shape, and use it to organize items in my storage locker where appearances are of no consequence. Once you realize that resources are finite, and anything/everything should be reused to some extent, your impact on the planet will be considerably lessened.

I bet, given this framework, you can come up with some of your own ideas to make any aspect of your home more attractive and more life enhancing while being earth-friendly and environmentally sound. That's what taking charge of your life is all about. That's what creating your own sense of style and décor is all about. That's what ignoring fashion and trends is all about. It's about empowering yourself!

And THAT is what GOD-DESS is all about. Using every tool available to empower yourself to have the best life you can, while impacting the earth in the least way. THAT is leading a balanced life of your own choosing, rather than following the dictates of fashionistas and psychotic decorators! I welcome your perspectives or questions at 773.508.9208 or email me.