Why Do We Decorate?
We Designers tend to get asked the same questions all the time: what are the new colours, the latest trends, the worst booboos in design?
Recently, though, a fellow student in my Art history class buttonholed me during the tea break, fixed me with a very intense gaze and asked me, “Why do we decorate?”
Clearly, I should know the answer to this one. And yet I paused for a full two minutes, grasping for an intelligent answer.
Why, in a world where whole families are being herded out of their homes and into refugee camps, do we decorate? How important can it be to paint, paper, furnish and accessorize our individual dwellings when disasters, natural and otherwise, fill our front pages?
If I were having a midlife crisis, I could be thinking my profession is a frivolous waste of time; that I’ve squandered my life by not becoming a medecin sans frontiers when I grow up.
I’ve come to feel that decorating our homes is first of all an act of creation, and an important one. It’s our attempt to bring a sense of order to our lives in the midst of the obvious chaos of the world; our little effort to tame at least that part of the picture over which we do have control.
In doing so we demonstrate to our children some good and powerful lessons. Such as: the importance of leaving things in better shape than you found them, the fact that almost anything can be altered for the better, that planning is paramount, that sweat and ingenuity can outperform credit cards, that pride comes from accomplishment, that visual things matter, and that most things take about twice as much time as you’d anticipated.
If it all ended at creating our own personal sanctuaries, though, something else would be missing, and that is the act of sharing our space with others.
I’m always saying, “This is such a great party house” as I go through people’s homes in my consulting work – to me, one of the best compliments a house can be given.
This too could be seen as frivolous, I suppose. But wait a minute. When you go through your photo albums, there’s the family around the dining room table while Gramma blows out her 80 candles; there’s the family again, suspended in mid-air above the pool, holding the hands of five cousins you see but once a year. Here’s the picture of the neighbourhood Christmas party, the garage sale fundraiser for cancer, the monthly book club meeting.
Surely all this is important, too. The real sin would be to have the house, decorate it to death, and then never allow it to be the base for any of your great times.
If you can’t use it to promote joy, togetherness and celebration, then what good is it? Believe me, there are lots of houses where the only tracks on the carpet are those left by the vacuum cleaner.
I have a friend who reminds me often that what we’re doing in these fleeting years while our children are growing, is ‘making memories’. And not necessarily of family trips to Europe, which most of us cannot afford.
She means the homey memories of putting up the Christmas decorations (everything always in the same place, every year), of hunting for eggs from the Easter Bunny, (in all the same hiding places, every year), of cuddling in a big chair to read a book or brush out one another’s hair, or lighting all the candles and having a bath together.
The day your big bed arrived and the crib went into the new baby’s nursery. And those wonderful weekends when the cousins came to stay and there are beds on foamies all over the office floor; the fridge is overflowing with goodies and the adults stay up too late, lingering at the dining room table or laughing around the fireplace while the kids play flashlight tag in the dusky yard. In the morning: buttermilk pancakes.
For this you don’t need $100-a-yard fabric on the sofa (better you don’t, actually). You need something much more reality-based: a home that can be lived in. A house where you can invite people in and make them comfortable. Where your kids can welcome their buds in to play and giggle and fantasize. Where there’s a footstool for every chair, a lamp for every table, a basket to pile the newspapers in when you’ve read them.
These days when it’s so darn difficult to get four couples free on the same night (I recently spent a month on the phone trying to arrange such a dinner) it’s more important than ever that we keep making a priority of hospitality and congeniality. That we keep the sense of celebration in our family lives.
Whether the walls are purple or tan, I always remember that the walls are only backgrounds for the people who will live in the rooms, for the evidence of their passions and collections, and for the faces of their friends.
So don’t give me the perfectionist’s line: “We’re waiting til it’s all finished before we have anyone over”. Life is short. Family, friends and community are precious.
And if you believe in the collective unconscious, surely it’s a good thing to promote the love of beauty and laughter in our corner of the world, simply because we can.