Photo courtesy Flickr
Home makeovers are like a more rigid and expensive version of personal makeovers. A fast pass through existing inventory, some blush, a couple of changes, and voila! A new version of the same old thing, made lively by more personal attention than usual. When my son was little, I read that the most stimulating learning comes from a change in a familiar environment, and it didn’t take me long to conclude that change was the point rather than a particular style.
Today’s lab house appeared to have been decorated in the early Seventies by someone who had read Sir Terence Conran’s House Book, the go to source if you’re ever designing a set for a high school play about swinging London. A very good guide to the fundamentals it is, too.
The host was waving her arms at a lime green wall and cone-shaped orange lampshade-a design classic. To be sure, the style ain’t current, but the thought of sweeping everything away made me worry about the carbon footprint of each purchase, and about spending the capital of an aging household.
The years between vintage and current are dangerous ones. Five years one way or the other can tip a stale interior back into favor, at least with certain age groups. In my life, lime green is screaming hot at the moment among younger adults. In fact, BBC news this morning showed soccer legend Pele’s paintings that are on display for the World Cup competition in South Africa. Pele’s palette is exactly that of the lab house. The clear prismatic primary colors of Conran’s period rooms anticipate the shared global vision of telecommunicated images. Watch televison news and keep an eye on which colors attract the camera operator and attract your attention.
Some of the most innovative late Twentieth century rooms came out of Los Angeles when real estate prices were rocketing. It appears that house payments soaked up all the income of the owners of the small tract houses I saw in a glossy shelter volume from the public library. They had furnished with Fiesta ware, classic chrome dinette sets, and the spectrum of furniture known as shabby chic. Whatever the realities of the decision-making, those LA interiors were the most stimulating ones I had seen since I started stealing ideas from fellow dorm residents back in the day.
Here are some suggestions for working with an existing interior. First, one traditional strategy is to get it right the first time and then live with it the rest of your life. This explains why old ladies’ houses look the way they do, and this approach might very well serve the owner of the lab house, if she has the courage of her convictions. Norma Skurka’s New York Times Book of Interior Design and Decoration is a good guide to the classics. Second, think Shaker: use up what you have already. Third, let time work for you. One of my aunts had a way of choosing things that looked cobby and aggressive when they were new but mellowed into amazingly insightful form after about twenty years.
Even if you hate the sight of something, it can be chopped. Furious upholstery can be sprayed with bleach and left in the sun for a while. That has an immediate calming effect. Unwelcome wood finishes respond to a light coat of shoe polish. Crayons, markers, and gold wax are also useful for modifying finishes. High thread-count cotton drop cloths from the independent hardware chain make good loose covers and curtains. Hot wash and hot dry them to avoid surprises down the road. Hot glue secures loose covers in seconds and can be reversed with an iron. It’s an easy way to reupholster, too.
Find out what you’ve got before you go at it or throw it away, since original finishes maintain value. President Franklin Roosevelt’s mother, Sarah, maintained that “if it’s good enough to buy in the first place, it’s good enough to keep”. Old glossy shelter magazines will give you perspective. A sound upholstered piece that’s heavy for its size is probably framed in hardwood, neither cheap nor easy to come by these days. If you really hate something and plan to ditch it, there’s nothing to lose by playing with it, except a few hours’ time. Interior design books from the late Forties are full of economical tricks with upholstery, like refreshing just the seat with a contrasting fabric. Diana Phipps’ Affordable Splendor lays out good strategies for spending the least and getting the most.
The style of a sound, stable table hardly matters, since it can easily be covered with a floor-length cloth. A department store bedding department will carry a heavy cotton spread in several muted, versatile colors from a familiar name. This piece is marketed as a cotton blanket. If it works for you, buy several for back-up. I find them versatile. The cotton drop cloth will work on a table, too, and it can be painted with acrylics or latex wall paint. Hem with hot-melt glue. For meals, cover the long cloth with a smaller one. I like to put a waterproof layer between them.
A battered tabletop is an asset, since the piece can be used as a work surface. An intact tabletop can be protected with masonite or plywood cut to fit, with a soft layer between the two surfaces. A temporary worktop doesn't have to cover the entire table. Inexpensive plastic fast clamps will hold the worktop in place. A table that’s short of leaves can be extended with plywood cut to fit, perhaps the protective top. Simply waxing the legs of an old table is often enough to salvage it for the time being. Add teflon sliding castors to old furniture to protect old glue joints.
A sea sponge and bucket of paint can take the curse off unwelcome wall color. Noodle around in an obscure area to get things to your liking. Strong existing wall color is an asset in a broken color scheme. Mis-mixed paint is a popular bargain and can be colored with acrylics. Sponging is very forgiving. The library will have deep resources about using paint to set the style of a room.
Today’s room had figured curtains that looked like the last motel room I rented. The palette was fresh and clear, though, rather than muddy and utilitarian. If the motif had any appeal, it would be interesting to wash the curtains with a jar of instant tea to see if they would gain depth and interest. Excise a small patch from a hem to test the dye. Figured furnishings commit a room to one statement: plain or textured walls, floor, and windows are more versatile. Specific visuals on short-lived things like pillow covers leave a scheme more flexible.
Modifying textiles and wall color leaves little to do to bring a room up to date. Lighting and small accessories set the tone. Sometimes, simply washing the light bulbs and dusting a shade makes a radical difference. Basic housekeeping, too, like washing windows and detailing a floor can take years off a room and often makes remodeling unnecessary. I find that if I keep a room current with how I’m using it, the style hardly matters. Like driftwood, my inventory has jostled against itself long enough to have lost its hostile protrusions and faded into harmony.
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