Putting Style into Your Home
Setting the Style in Your Home
What is Style?
A sense of style is as intangible and amorphous a thing as having a good eye for colour, a fine sense of scale and proportion or a sensitive ear for music.
Then again, the word ‘style’ has so many connotations — quite apart from its alliance with that equally nebulous attribute, ‘good taste’. When we talk about someone having style or taste we mean that they have a particular and sometimes memorable way of arranging things, of putting things together — whether they be clothes and accessories or furniture and possessions.
There are, of course, the so-called ‘national’ styles. These have been particularly well documented over the last couple of decades in numerous books with titles such as English Style, English Country Style, American Country, American South West, French Style, French Country, Italian Style, Caribbean Style and Japanese Style. Then there are ‘period’ styles, named for a particular age — Renaissance, Restoration, Régence, Directoire, Federal, Empire — or for a monarch or monarchs — Louis XIV, XV, XVI in France, or the Stuarts, William and Mary, Queen Anne, Georgian and Victorian in Britain.
Then again there are general terms that conjure up in one’s mind particular styles of furniture and decoration: the Baroque, with its elaborate wood carving; the Rococo, with its curves and shells (rocaille); the Neoclassic, with its simple classical forms; Art Nouveau, with its sinuous configurations; the Bauhaus, with its stark ‘shock of the new’. Finally, there are styles named for particular furniture designers (Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton), loosely geographical terms (Country Style and Urban Style), and popular turns of phrase (Art Deco, International Style, Eclectic, Hi-Tech and Minimalism).
Finding a Style
All in all, the question of what overall style you should choose — or of putting a name to some half-formed mental picture of a room or rooms — can become as intimidating as that of selecting colour schemes to put together for your home. It is easy to say ‘Find the style which suits you best and with which you are most comfortable’, but putting this into practice is a far more difficult task.
Again, just as in choosing colours, there are certain criteria to follow. As usual, learn to really look, take note of what pleases you, and try to analyse why. Think about why a particular room gives you pleasure. Look through books and magazines. Look at room settings in stores and museums. Take more notice of theatre sets and the backgrounds in movies and television programmes. Think about what sort of architecture pleases you most. Old houses in general, or clean modern lines? Quirky, idiosyncratic designs or traditional?
Some people look hard for that indefinable thing, ‘charm’ — which, while they cannot adequately describe it, they can recognize as soon as they see: it may be something as simple as a good growth of wisteria around a porch, arched stone windows, a fireplace in most if not all rooms, or a general meandering higgledy-piggledy quality that immediately gives them a feeling of genuine pleasure.
In general, unless you are sure of your decorating prowess, if a building already has some distinctive style or ‘feel’ you should make a point of being sensitive to it. This does not mean that you should furnish it exactly to period: that could look stuffy and lifeless, however beautiful and however much money and knowledge you might have to carry such an exercise through to its best potential.
Rather it is that you should try to be sympathetic to the synthesis of architectural coherence and fineness of proportion that define the relevant period. In the case of a Georgian or Federal house — indeed, with any building you live in, whatever its architectural detail — a sense of style is really an attitude of mind, a sympathy with the overall ‘feel’ of the surroundings and a sensitivity both to what is fitting for those surroundings and to your family’s needs.
Clearly finance will affect your stylistic choices, as will the furnishings you already possess, whether they are from former homes, gifts or items you have inherited.
Obviously, there are certain common-sense factors to consider as well. For example, country houses look best when they are obviously geared to country living and the outdoor life. Floors, for instance, seem more fittingly rural when they are of wood, brick, stone or quarry tile, or covered with coin or rush matting, than if they have fitted carpets (except perhaps on stairs or in bathrooms and powder rooms). And, although a country look or ‘feel’ has a certain charm in a town house, a sophisticated urban look is far from appealing in the country.
Again, beach and summer houses do not look appropriate or suitably relaxed when they are too carefully furnished and decorated: they should be casual and slightly shabby, and full of familiar heterogenous objects. This is not, of course, to say that they cannot be pretty. But the whole idea of such houses is to make people feel relaxed, comfortable and carefree.
When you first walk into a new home there is usually a certain ‘something’ about each room that helps to set the style you will wish to employ. If, for example, a room is heavily beamed and low-ceilinged, you are likely to opt for a comfortable, warm-coloured eclectic ambience rather than a roomful of clean-lined modern furniture —although some people, quite sure of themselves and their tastes, might be tempted to do exactly the opposite to the obvious approach and make the furnishings stark and simple.
Another room might be well proportioned but dark. In such a case you would have the choice of exploiting the lack of light to make the room warm and cosy or resorting to artifice, making the place look much brighter through the use of light but warm colours (apricot, buttery yellow, pale terracotta, old rose, etc.) and plenty of artfully concealed lighting — at the top of windows under a valance or pelmet (cornice), behind plants and large pieces of upholstery, or even, skilfully, at the top of sun blinds outside the windows so that the sun appears to be shining through.
You might have a room with a wall of windows and a marvellous view for you to exploit (use spare furniture and simple lines in order not to distract attention from the view outside) or, conversely, you might be confronted by a room that is boxy and characterless, in which case you can dress up the walls, try to make the windows more interesting, and add various touches of character of your own devising — from mouldings to a cleverly painted floor or exotic furnishings.
The point is that, whatever the nature of a room, you should look for any clue that might help you determine the appropriate style of decoration. This clue might lie within the room itself but, if the room says nothing to you, it may be possible to find it among your own possessions.
Putting style into a home is, in fact, much like solving a puzzle in which you have to get the maximum number of words out of a collection of letters. Ultimately, it is all a question of juggling with possibilities.