(A note on everything: I was trying to describe this blog to someone recently, and ended up confessing that the person I sound like here is very little like the Real Life Me sounds. This post is no exception, and apparently sounds so far from the Real Life Me that I felt the need to write a preface to it. I enjoy writing like this, in twists and memories and purple prose, but it sometimes feels so foreign to my own personality when I read it back that I feel like I should be typing these things while dressed as Kate Bush in the "Wuthering Heights" video. All bug-eyed and mystical, making gestures to the sky and typing away furiously in a velvet cushioned room with scarves draped over the lamps. I don't know how long I've been in the habit of being this other Zan, the billowy philosophical one, but that's what I think writing is: slipping on the costume that feels most comfortable and being content in being someone else for a moment. Whether that someone else is you, 100% you, or, for whatever reason, a billowy Kate Bush. This, apparently, is Kate Bush writing about home design. And NOW you want to read it...)
It begins, as always, with nostalgia. A yearning to replicate spaces from other people's lives. Spaces from the nether-reaches of my youth, an approximation of what I thought adult life should look like. All oriental rugs and tweed couches, something made of porcelain, wooden candlesticks and pewter serving dishes. Even the fictitious spaces imagined in well-loved books. Old habit.
I'm condemned to forever attempt to fill my world with replicas of the everyday items owned by people I love, like calling ghosts at a seance with a lock of hair.
When we moved into this house, even the impeccably designed space of the woman who lived here before us haunted the corners of rooms that still stand bare or burdened with unpacked boxes. Other people's spaces always seemed better than ours. I feared nailing a thing to the wall without longterm consideration. How, with so many ghosts, were we to make it our own?
* * *
Leslie Williamson is a photographer of other people's spaces. I stumbled across her book, Handcrafted Modern, on a search for the cozy wood interiors I'd known from my grandparents's house that overlooked the ravine. Leslie's photographs of the homes of furniture designers and makers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Wharton Esherick, and John Kapel represented the sleek warmth of wood and earth and pottery I loved and wanted to be a part of our own home.
It was John Kapel's cerulean floor tiles and straight-backed chair in particular that got my heart beating faster. I wanted to replicate his living room, tile by tile and slat by slat, down to the hulking brown velvet couch I saw in the background of another view I found when I went seeking out more pictures of his space. I wanted that bookend, those tiles, that chair, the tall thin books that lean; I wanted that hulk of a brown velvet couch.
For a moment. Then we got our real couch delivered, a Bartlett pear colored piece of sleekness with buttons at the back and round tapered legs carried down our stone steps on the shoulders of giants, placed dantily against the east wall, and I wonder how I could have ever considered a hulking brown velvet thing in a place like this.
* * *
A specific style is hard to pin down. I want our home decor to match the sound of the train in the distance. I want our walls to be the color of the waving maple trees. I would like rugs that reflect the rackety-tackety of thunderstorms on the roof. A lamp that looks like Joni Mitchell's Hejira sounds. Bedding made of an autumn circa 1982, throw pillows stuffed with the restless sleep of Christmas Eves.
Where's the quiet little store for things like these?
* * *
I admit to reading design blogs now and again for inspiration, or more often for confirmation that my design sense needs help. Or, more appropriately, confirmation that others have a better sense of what I like than even I do. I page through Reference Library, trying to comprehend the beauty of hand-shapen bits of pottery, and then trawl the internet for vintage kitchenalia on auction sites, and when I lose out there, for newer milk pitchers by Edith Heath. I suddenly start to fear that I won't be able to do this, make a home look the way it should. The way it does in all those magazines.
And then suddenly, it does. The cerulean tiles nudge me to the edge of my imagination, and suddenly the house we ended up living in starts to take shape, even amongst our own old things. Here, where the August mornings can drop below my 54-degree threshhold of comfort, blankets become decoration when they end up draped over a chair in every room. Here, that walnut table he grew up with—the one that came over on a cargo ship from England—fits nicely in its very own room. My recent and accidental fondness for Couroc of Monterey begins to dot table tops and walls each time I bring a new one home from the antique mall; the old green office chairs we bought from a woman on Craigslist who laughed in her outgoing voicemail message happily settle into a corner. The hand-thrown Japanese mug I grabbed on a whim at the Goodwill when my mother said are you sure defiantly tucks itself into the cupboards. I still dream of cerulean tiles*, but even I can see that, here, in this room at least, the brown ones make more sense. As does the Bartlett pear couch and the old long john that traveled across the sea.
Attempting to replicate the spaces of others, I stop and look around and realize that—here, look, there's something starting to resemble a space of our own.
*And how many times have I considered seeking out John Kapel's email address and asking him where precisely he got them. And, while I'm at it, asking if he does pro bono furniture making. Sigh.
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.