Saturday, June 19, 2010

The House is a Big Story

I've always had a fascination with houses and architecture. As a young girl, I remember walking with my parents through any number of neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and Old Town Alexandria, staring up at elegant brownstones and wondering, “What does the inside look like? Who lives there? What do they do? How do they live?”

While going to acting school and living in Greenwhich Village in NYC in the late ‘70s, I was also exposed to a wide variety of people and their living spaces—studios, artist’s lofts, old townhouses, duplexes, basement efficiencies, and even once the elegant Fifth Avenue apartment of my roommate’s great aunt (an eye-opener for a 19-year-old suburban girl). My curiosity about homes has not faded with time, and I have found that many people hold this same fascination.

There is a special book that I love reading again and again because it covers, in a unique way, the process people go through when talking about their own homes and living spaces.  The book, written by well-known British author Stafford Cliff, is titled Home: 50 Tastemakers Describe What It Is, Where It Is, What It Means (Artisan Books, 2007). I consider it one of my go-to books when I am searching for inspiration. It is a fascinating collection of essays by 50 people from all walks of life and their relationships to the places they call home. Cliff has written more than 60 books on the subject of interiors, architecture, design, lifestyle and food. For this collection, he contacted people from all walks of life and asked them, “What does home mean to you?”

What sets this compilation apart from your everyday “home interior book” is its focus on the creative and personal insights that designers, architects, writers, chefs, actors, journalists and even an Olympics sports figure apply in the creation of their own home environment. We get a revealing, two-to three-page autobiographical look at people’s emotional connections and experiences, which in turn have influenced the creation of the places they call “home.” There are also 123 lovely, color photographs that add to the exploratory aspect of each person’s personal space.

Several of the names in this book may not be immediately recognizable as they are mostly well-known within their fields of expertise, but many are familiar personalities such as Donatella Versace, Tommy Hilfiger, Lulu Guinness and Michael Graves

Donatella Versace states in her essay that she feels “totally at ease” within her house, and goes on to say that “culture, feeling, color” are the three elements that summarize her and her interiors. She always chooses “vivid colors” and rich, textured objects such as huge Chinese vases that she has scattered about her home and also painted in trompe l’oiel on her dining room walls. These vases seem to float “suspended between dream and reality.” She says her preferences for fashion and home décor need to possess this dreamlike quality.

It also makes sense that fashion designers are also fashion-conscious about the home. Tommy Hilfiger says, “Wherever I go, I’m always looking at houses and the way people live.” He embraces change in fashion just the way he embraces change in his home décor: “The pendulum swings back and forth in fashion and it’s the same for me in home too.”

Lulu Guinness, a fabulous purse and accessories designer, writes in her essay on how her travels as a young girl and her desire to be different were always at the forefront of her decisions about home decor: “When I finally got my own apartment, I had dreams of what it would be like. I knew that when I got something, it had to be different. I always wanted everything to be different from everyone else. On every level, every level. A very, very tiring thing to be.” Her essay focuses on her inner creativity and how it was the driving force in what kind of home she wanted for herself and her family.

Michael Graves, famous both for his architecture and his product designs for Alessi and Target (his famous tea kettle has become iconic), speaks eloquently about how he developed his eye for design when living in Rome, Italy, and studying the history of architecture. He ultimately found that knowing more about the past made it easier to design for the present. He was heavily influenced by Italian buildings and artifacts and now fills his home with beautiful objects from his travels. Graves writes, “If you allow your mind to comprehend that about everything you see (though you obviously discard some things), you end up holding on to certain ideas for life.” In speaking about his house, he summarizes what many people have found to be true. “The house is filled with things that give me inspiration: books, artifacts, paintings, drawings, objects I’ve designed. The whole house is a big story.”

This book is ultimately a revealing and insightful exploration and may cause you to take a closer look at your own home environment and ponder how it came to be and what it really means. I highly recommend it.

References: is a great resource for finding home interior books, including all 60 books by Stafford Cliff.

Recently published books by Stafford Cliff:

The Way We Live With Color (Rizzoli, 2010, $17.98).

Enjoy a good read!

Joanie M Ballard

No comments:

Post a Comment