Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ironic design: Unexpected moves that work

From page HS4 | June 06, 2014 |

The other day the word “irony” floated across my frontal lobe while I paged through a stack of home decor books.

Whenever I think of this word, I flash on my ninth-grade English teacher, who had the best definition of irony I have ever heard. “Irony,” Miss Crisco said, “is the opposite of what you expect to happen.”

So there I was, with several review copies of design books that a publicist had sent me, and, frankly, one bad attitude. I’ve seen hundreds of these books over the years, so when faced with a new crop I feel as jaded as a bookie. And then … the unexpected happened.

See, I had particularly low hopes for “Think Home: Everything you need to plan and create your perfect home,” by Judith Wilson, a London-based interiors journalist, partly because of the book’s lofty, over-promising title. (Even though I know from experience that authors do not have the last word on book titles.)

I expected the predictable — a book featuring pages of beautiful if unattainable, stylized home interiors surrounded by a confection of instantly forgettable words. But as I leafed through with my so-tell-me-something-new mindset, a double thunderbolt of irony struck me. Not only was the book the opposite of what I expected, but also it was unexpected because the design advice was unexpected. (Miss Crisco: Is there such a thing as ironic irony?)

Pages were filled with counterintuitive moves that shouldn’t work but did. While I had heard the bulk of Wilson’s guiding lights heard before, I liked best the many occasions when she turned conventional decorating advice on its finial and offered ironic design. Here’s are some examples:

  • Just add acid. One page features a vintage sofa upholstered in muted celery-green silk against a wall papered in the last color I would have expected — the dominant color is acid lime. Two acid lime pillows rest on the muted celery seat. Pairing a subdued classic color with its electric companion — think faded rose against hot pink — gives a room a modern jolt. “It shouldn’t work but it does,” Wilson writes.
  • Keep large rooms spare. And furnish small rooms heavily, says Wilson. “Often generously proportioned rooms look best when they are quite sparsely furnished,” she said. “However, in a compact space, you’ll be rewarded by scaling up not down.” In small spaces, choose large motifs over tiny patterns, put in two chairs not one, and unapologetically paint walls in rich, dark shades
  • Be inconsistent. All your décor choices don’t have to be the same quality. Add luxury in creative little bursts in show-off places, then balance those moves with budget-cutter options, says Wilson. For instance put a gorgeous marble slab on top of less-expensive painted cabinets.
  • Let the walls do the talking. Most rooms have neutral walls and get what pizzazz they have from colorful furnishings. Wilson invites readers to flip that. Put an intense color on the walls — think taxi cab yellow or deep turquoise — then have the furnishings be neutral  shades of black, grey, cream and white.
  • Transition spaces need love, too. Most people decorate rooms, but Wilson also focuses on the spaces in between. Abandoned corners, landings, the angled space under a sloping ceiling or the stairs are all moments to be exploited. Start by putting down an area rug in the space to visually declare it, and build from there.
  • Big patterns can be backgrounds.  Contrary to what most decorators think, the bigger the pattern and the more of it you use, the less it overwhelms and the more it feels like a background. “Hold your nerve,” Wilson writes, “and realize that pattern is an ally.”
  • Live first, decorate second. Many people decorate their homes then live in them. Reverse that, says Wilson. Move in, see where family members go at night, when and what for. Watch your family’s patterns.  Now see if you can re-jigger the flow of your house and furnish it in a way that encourages connection in shared spaces.
  • Art walls don’t have to be white. Though white is the default color for gallery walls, so color doesn’t compete with art, try black or charcoal walls instead. It’s wonderfully unexpected, as is this book.

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through





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