Sunday, October 21, 2007

Day 7.1: Meditation on Magazines.

It's been a slow awakening.

In my mid-twenties I began to realise that I had no idea what good taste was. Up until that point I'd decorated with packing boxes and bits of old fabric. Candles. Prints of beautiful artwork. I had a desk, a chair to read in, two lamps, a table, four chairs, and a futon bed with a headboard and foot board. My dresser was a bunch of milk crates on the floor. So was my bedside table. Shelving was made out of boards on blocks. I had one set of curtains only--in the tiny bedroom (not even wide enough for the double bed. I had to angle it.) Yes, they were "made" out of a pretty patterned towel and thumbtacks. The best thing in that apartment though was the peg board I'd spray painted fire engine yellow and put in the kitchen to hold every single thing except the cutlery, glasses and plates. (I did have two tiny drawers in the kitchen and one overhead cabinet.) I didn't know it was a Julia Child thing. I hadn't even heard of Julia Child.

But, while writing my Master's thesis in that beautiful light filled and bare apartment, I decided I needed an education of another sort: I needed to know how to decorate. And so what did I do? I started buying the only magazine then around. Yes. Architectural Digest.

But my real education began when I purchased a dollhouse. Yes, a dollhouse. I wanted to know "what style" it was, in "what period" I should decorate it. I'd seen the Thorne Rooms in Chicago, and I wanted to get it right. So, with the meagre library at my disposal in the dinky Ontario town I lived in, I began researching.

I had so much fun, I decided to study residential design. But then I got pregnant and I got married and I realised the program I'd started wouldn't help me do what I wanted. And even if I did luck out and was able to find a niche helping people live well on small budgets, it would require long hard hours away from this other new thing I was creating: my family. I didn't want to take my time away from my new husband and my new son.

But then I began to notice something: more and more magazines devoted to interior design were starting to pop up like weeds. Something called HGTV came on the air. I counted on being able to continue my education by watching TV, looking at and reading magazines. I did my best. I started dreaming of bumping out the kitchen, then, tearing down a wall or two to enlarge the kitchen, then, building a decent entryway. Pulling out our bank statement, the husband put a kibosh on every plan and scheme. So, I shifted focus to decorative stuff: recovering the sofa, making curtains, recovering lampshades: all inspired by and instructed by magazines. I amassed a collection.

This is some of it AFTER the cure last year. Appalling.

I did learn a lot: both from the courses I took and the magazines I read and re-read. There was talk of "creating a focal point" in a room, and even of what it should be, but there was no discussion of how that was to be done. What makes things stand out and be noticed? What makes things disappear? That's what I needed to know, but I didn't really know I needed to know that until I took pictures of my own space for the Cure last year. The pictures showed me things my eyes glossed over. The pictures didn't show me things I loved and focused on with my own eyes while standing in the room. And so, as I cut out pictures for my style tray last year, I began to analyse what I saw more closely. What colours were there? How were they used? In what proportions? But no one told me why. Why did I notice this and not that? Again, the magazine was mute. What did I like? I wasn't finding anything I really liked. Oh, a colour scheme here, a rug, there. But there was no "look" that really appealed to me, my lifestyle and my budget factored in. And more and more the magazines began to become useless to me.

An instructor in one of my classes made a comment once about ads: "You can't really decorate from an ad," she said. "They're not a examples of good interior design," she said.
This puzzled me. "Why?" I asked her.
"Well, they're ads," was all she could say. (No, not one of the better instructors in the program, this woman).

Thanks to Wende in Phoenix, I now know why.

And as I began to understand that, I also began to look at the editorial spreads differently. Wall colours, even when the mags list them are sort of useless: my light is different from their light. Furniture layout is of some help, except my room isn't quite laid out like that. Camera lenses distort things, anyway. These materials are gorgeous but forever out of our price range. And so it goes.

For a long time, I was just angry with my husband. If we could just bump out this wall, afford that shelving and cabinetry, that sofa, those pillows, our life would be so much better. Decorating is my "artistic expression" why wasn't he allowing me to express myself? So, I brought home tea towels and oven mitts and chafed.

The magazines weren't just becoming useless, they were starting to sow the seeds of envy and dissatisfaction. The harvest wasn't pretty. And so they became my escape, my refuge, my fantasy.

Strangely enough, I believe it's The Cure and the communities at AT which are reducing my addiction to magazines. How on earth, you may wonder, does a decorating and design blog help? It helps because it is real.

The homes are real. Oh, surely most have tidied up before taking their photos and, true, there is a sort of design bias to the places featured, but mostly, it's all real. It's not lint-free. The photos aren't professionally lit and staged with pillows and flowers brought in specially for the shoot. So this is how people with taste, with a sense of design really live. This is how people with fugly furniture fix it. And so I'm inspired to do the best I can with what I have. I'll probably always dream of that bump out in the kitchen, but, I begin to appreciate the space I have (while trying to increase it by decreasing the clutter and Quieting Loud Furniture).

Last week, barely able to look at them, I emptied my shelf of this:

and got this:

I think I can do better.


smallcitybeth said...

This is fantastic food for thought. I'm going to need to read it several times over the next few days, and really think about it and digest it -- not about the magazines themselves, mostly about the thoughts and the questions you raise. Thank you.

drwende said...

*blushes at being referred to*

When I was smallish, I wanted to go to design school and be a decorator, and the main reason I didn't was pretty much what you cite for not finishing -- being a designer ends up being about creating high-end "looks" rather than about solving ordinary home problems. For "looks," I'd rather just do my dollhouses, where no one is harmed if the room goes for appearance over function.

Great food-for-thought post!

curing what ails me said...

My name is Melinda and I am a magazine junkie....I too have stacks, baskets and boxes full of design magazines. I too read and re-read them, and then read them again. I too have spent years searching for the elusive in those glossy pages. I too escape into their perfectly accessorized, well-lit, super-clean environments. Over the past 2 cures, I have divested most of my magazine collection and eliminated nearly all of my subscriptions. Bye, bye Martha, Cottage Living, Metropolitan Home, H&G, Dwell. (but I kept my is my secret little treat) I still sometimes look at magazines during the tribe's weekly trip to the library (they have a fantastic collection), but I no longer feel the need to own all those perfect, glossy spaces, and like you, I'm feeling more satisfaction with my own.

Mella DelPantano said...

You know, this is so interesting. Like Beth, I've been digesting it. It's so easy to start aspiring to the nonexistent - isn't that the big problem resulting from media ingestion? Whether you're a self-flagellating Martha Stewart junkie or a 20-something Cosmo subscriber buying way too many expensive shoes or Madame Bovary committing suicide over romance novels. Life runs so much better when we can find a way to make happiness compatible with reality. I can't claim to be exceptionally good at that.

I started to write here about how my way of reading design media and looking at photos has evolved, but realized it would be too long, and that I'm curious about others' experiences, so I'll probably write my own post about it.

phillippa_j said...

That was a great read, Alana. Thanks. :-)

Becca said...

Wow. Written very well. I could have written a lot of the same things as you. When I was a teenager I started wondering what made certain homes "beautiful" and others not. Thats when I started my magazine addiction. Thankfully now I don't have any subscriptions and only a handful that I've kept around. And yeah, that feels good!

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