Snow White was a little bit bored.
So she went online, and she found minimalism.
The minimalists were happy — so happy, oh yes.
For they knew the secret: the secret of less.
Snow White watched, listened, and began to think.
Perhaps she and the dwarves needed fewer things, not more.
Clean surfaces, open spaces, more room, and more time. What’s not to like?
Snow White began.
The verb was “to declutter” and the time was now.
Sometimes it was easy, and sometimes it was tough, but it was always on her mind.
Tough decisions and lots of trips to donate bag after bag and box after box.
It took lots and lots of time, but it was a challenge, and challenges offer change.
She looked to YouTubers for inspiration.
So many before her had emptied closets and rooms and attics and garages.
Snow White continued.
She was amazed at how much there was to remove.
How had they accumulated so much?
She made good progress and had no regrets.
She decluttered the just-in-case, the spent-too-much, and the gifts-from-whomever.
She decluttered her hair-crimping iron and the foot bath massager.
She even tackled memorabilia.
Snow White reached new levels.
Yet the minimalists challenged her to reconsider all horizontal surfaces.
These were just places for clutter to gather.
She said adieu to the coffee table.
A week later, all the end tables were gone, as were the bedside stands.
The dressers were next; the room would look bigger.
And what really is the point of a headboard? Hasta la vista, baby!
Snow White checked in with the elites, the experts in Not Having.
She surveyed the videos.
“12 Things You Can Declutter Today”
“44 Things I Never Buy”
“30 Things You Can Live Without”
“I Got Rid of Almost All of My Clothes”
There was nothing new. She had done it all. Even her digital world was in order.
But Snow White, who now went simply by “Snow,” still wasn’t satisfied.
Nirvana had not, as yet, arrived.
Satisfaction was annoyingly elusive.
She wanted more.
She wanted more nothingness.
Truth be told, she resented their need to own anything.
And she resented the dust that fell on her clean surfaces.
Snow sat on the floor eating her oatmeal.
When she was done, she stood up and went to the sink.
(She had considering removing their kitchen sink, but remodelling was pricey.)
She washed out her bowl, and she washed out her spoon.
She looked at her spoon.
Her reflection was there —
But she was upside down.
I sit at my table eating my oatmeal.
Oatmeal with raisins, brown sugar, and milk.
“Wedgwood England 1759 Bone China” says the bowl.
“Retroneu 18/8 Korea” says the spoon.
(My spoon was never silver.)
I stand to put my bowl in the dishwasher, handy thing.
The telephone rings.
I listen to the story, the familiar lament:
Minimalism promised so much through having so little
Happiness, freedom, time, energy, experiences (and control, to be honest)
Having decluttered from top to bottom
Having embraced the hotel aesthetic
Easy to clean, nothing to steal
There was just something missing
Ah, I say,
Nothingness isn’t everything
It’s not what you have in your home that counts
It’s what you have in you that counts
What’s in your heart?
What do you want?
If your heart wants what’s right, be at peace
Don’t worry about having too much or too little
Don’t worry about keeping pace with the minimalists
You don’t need their decor, their Grinch-was-here style
White on gray or beige on beige
The fiddle-leaf fig plant and the inevitable “pop of colour”
IKEA again and again
Give it a pass; fads always fade
Snow is quiet
Just wondering then
If you don’t mind my asking
What kind of style do you like?
Ah, I say,
Funny you should ask
I think that a simple place to start in discussing interior design is with the subject of colour. Minimalism is not realistic about colour, in the sense that typically it is afraid of it. In a minimalist interior, you will see a lot of white (or sometimes pale grey or beige), and this doesn’t vary from room to room. As you walk through the house, the rooms will generally follow the same colour pattern, for the sake of what they call ‘flow.’ One rule, commonly implemented, is the 60-30-10 rule, which says that 60% of your interior should be one colour, 30% should be a second colour, and then 10% should be a third. This is a recipe for boredom in very short order. I don’t think it suits how people are wired. Think of the place we all consider beautiful and peaceful: the outdoors. God does not follow this rule. In even one flower, you will find so many colours! At first glance, a patch of grass might seem to be one colour, but the moment you pause to consider it, you will be able to feast your eyes on endless shades. We love the sky because it changes colour. People actually love colour. We love contrast and we love variations. Colour soothes us and surprises us. Almost everything in nature contains a multiplicity of colours, and that’s one of the reasons we find it beautiful. Life on earth is colourful, and if you’ve seen the photos of outer space, the colours out there are amazing too. And of course, people come in different colours too, and all are lovely.
So, in the same way, a home should be somewhat colourful inside. Pastel colours are quite easy to work with, in the sense that they won’t draw too much attention to themselves. Having said that, more intense colours can work well too, especially greens and blues. I think that people are able to tolerate greens and blues in larger doses than the warmer colours such as yellow and orange; we are accustomed to the greens and blues in nature. Nevertheless, every colour can be used successfully in a room if it is done intelligently. I can imagine a beautiful marigold orangey-yellow dining room with matching chairs. I can imagine a lilac breakfast room with white-trimmed windows framing a view of blue sky and sea. Add some lilacs with smooth green leaves in a blue and white vase, and it’s just heavenly. Wallpaper can also be used in a very pleasing way, provided that it has a traditional design. There are so many possibilities, and in the past, it was quite common to give each room its own mood by assigning it its own colour. I really endorse this approach; the variation in colours from room to room makes even the smallest of homes very interesting.
And turning to textiles, here we have an opportunity to add pleasing shapes and designs. Think of nature here too: leaves and flowers feature endless variations and combinations. And fabric does not take up more space if it has a design on it. We need window coverings anyway, so use this opportunity to choose something you like. There is no need to be timid. Nowadays, people are so afraid of making a mistake, so afraid of committing to a look. Without even thinking about different options, they install blinds or plain white curtains. The blinds are simply a series of vertical or horizontal lines in plastic or sometimes wood. I don’t abhor blinds, but they do not add any physical or psychological warmth. By contrast, drapery adds coziness and enhances the mood. What about Roman blinds? These are made of fabric but do not take up much space at all. And there are so many beautiful designs. What do you like? You can choose something understated and folksy to create a cottage feeling, or you can choose something more luxurious. I have my favourites. For patterns, I like toile and I also like flowers-and-leaves-on-a-vine motif. I also don’t mind stripes, and gingham has its place. Drapery is also an opportunity to add textures in a sophisticated and subtle way. Fabric can be embroidered or you can add fringes or tassels if you like. The minimalist designers praise texture. (This is because they have deprived themselves, for the most part, of colour, and they are trying to distinguish white from white or beige from beige.) I think it’s nice to have both — to have both colour and texture.
Similarly, the fabric on sofas, chairs, and cushions should be beautiful too. I recommend conservative, understated patterns on larger pieces of furniture. In all fabrics, harsh geometric patterns should be avoided, because they run counter to what we find beautiful in nature. The goal is to find the pleasing shapes and designs that we, as a human race, have discovered. We are at a point in history when we have access to so many time-tested designs. Avoid the styles that came in like a flash and then were discarded just as quickly. With the technology we have today, we can find and pay homage to the best art that we have found. I say “art,” because of course there are many types of art. Textiles are a huge area of human endeavour, and it is good for us to honour what we have learned and what we have been able to achieve. We don’t have to set all of this aside. Consider all of the artistic and culturally-rich designs that are found in textiles. These things can be incorporated into our homes in various ways. I like the idea of a woollen plaid blanket. Think of the sheep grazing on the hillside, and the expertise involved in preparing and using this wool. I like tweed too. I like braided wool rugs. I would love to have a Romanian wool rug, but Persian rugs can be nice too. I like silk and velvet because of the saturation of the colour. I like the look of woven baskets, and a jute rug is said to be very durable. And what about all the rest? There are so many types of textiles that are so amazing and rich in tradition. We can surround ourselves with the amazing things that humans have learned to make using the materials of our world. Why would we turn our back on all of that? A throw pillow with a needlepoint design is a celebration of human artistry, ingenuity, and patience. By contrast, the modern minimalist decorator’s mass-produced shag rug from a minimum-wage factory is not really a celebration of anything. It’s just a fad which will fade, again.
In terms of tables, chairs, coffee tables, end tables, armoires, desks, bed headboards and footboards, and other furniture which is typically made of wood, I would say the same thing. We can appreciate what tradition gives us: the beauty of wood combined with the talent of people — the people who have learned to shape the materials and skillfully fit it together. These wooden pieces of furniture are often handsome and sturdy. They have a presence and a weight to them. The carvings can be very beautiful and intricate. Even when they are old, they are still beautiful. In Venice, you will find many old pieces of furniture because it is difficult to get furniture in and out. The furniture retains its character and quality over decades. It doesn’t look like it’s departing anytime soon. Contrast this with the cheaply-made furniture that is so common nowadays. It won’t last, because it isn’t meant to. It is ‘fast furniture’ — it looks only good enough to make you buy it. It is usually lacking in personality. If you are on a budget, I think it would be better to buy second-hand furniture made of genuine wood. And you don’t have to do what all the YouTubers do, which is sand it and paint it white. You can leave it as is. Regarding Scandinavian design, I understand the aesthetic of clean lines, but I would caution against going down a really modernistic road in terms of furniture in general. Things get really twisted and experimental. I don’t think that a piece of furniture should ‘challenge’ you. I think it should serve you and be comfortable. You might say that beauty is utterly subjective, but I would disagree. There are some elements that are universal and undeniable, such as symmetry. Furniture should be symmetrical and balanced-looking, for one thing. It also shouldn’t be made of industrial materials, such as metal tubing. Plastic is also unattractive. A clear lucite chair may be interesting on some level, but don’t bring it into your home. Marble, on the other hand, is a traditional material, and can be used successfully. I say that it can be used successfully, because it is sometimes used to excess, as a way of showing off. There is a point where marble can get out of hand.
Flooring is something which cannot usually be changed on a whim, but once again, what is natural is generally the most appealing. Hardwood might have an edge over marble, stone and tile, being warmer underfoot. I tend to like ornate carpet in larger spaces like hotel lobbies. I also like carpet on stairs, but you know that already.
Lighting is an area which is much abused by the modern designer. Every outlandish shape is being tried out, but I suppose this is nothing new; since the 50s, lighting has come in a wide array of unappealing styles. Yet after all of this, we can all agree that nothing holds a candle to the peaceful and calming glow of a single candle. That is beauty, and it is a perfect illustration of the truth that we all know beauty when we see it. But I digress. What I would recommend for the modern household is a traditionally-shaped lamp with a fabric shade shaped like a bell. A drum-shaped lamp shade would be my second choice. Such a lamp does not draw too much attention to itself. It simply says, “Hello, I am a lamp,” and it doesn’t even speak until spoken to. I like chandeliers too, and wall sconces are a real treat.
Fireplaces are nice, provided that they are nicely presented. Nowadays, they are usually incorporated into a home because of their traditional associations; they aren’t really needed for warmth or cooking because we have found other ways to warm our homes and cook. They are mainly about style, which is fine. So it makes sense to have them styled in a traditional way: surrounded by rock or marble or tile and framed by a mantle. One thing I dislike is a fireplace with a niche carved out of it where the chimney would be in a log-burning fireplace. The niche is presumably a place for homeowners to put a television set, or maybe a decorative object. It always looks silly, and I would advise closing it to make the wall just continue vertically above the mantle.
I feel that the goal in interior design and decorating is to answer our basic needs for our dwelling in beautiful ways. I suppose I agree with a lot of what William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, said (though I think that having everything handmade isn’t particularly workable right now). In other words, you will need a kitchen table, so I say buy one made of solid wood, and don’t be afraid if it has some shape to it. You will need window-coverings, so I say buy drapes instead of blinds. If you are too frightened to buy drapes, then what about simple white lace? In Ireland, lace hangs in window after window and it’s really lovely.
Once you have satisfied the basic needs, then carefully add additional ornamentation. Let me emphasize the word ‘carefully.’ Choose from a wide range of possibilities, but exercise restraint, or else your home will look cluttered. In particular, keep your kitchen counters as bare as you possibly can. If you use your kitchen for cooking, it is a place that gets wet and greasy. I keep all of my appliances in closed cupboards. I reject the open shelving trend, which allows dust and grease to settle onto your dishes. I keep my knives and all utensils in drawers. You want to be able to wipe down your kitchen easily. I would say the same for the bathroom as well.
But even in other spaces, it is not good to go crazy with the embellishments. If you have too many items on every surface, you will find it difficult to keep things clean. In life we have only a limited amount of time we can dedicate to cleaning. I don’t like to see a house that looks like dust is hiding in every nook and cranny. Secondly, surfaces with too many objects can easily look bad. I dislike the look of collections; even if they are inexpensive, like seashells, they look like someone has gone too far. I don’t terribly mind the look of several small photographs arranged on a table, but even in that case, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to have fewer. Thirdly, having too many decorative objects makes a home into a museum; one risks knocking over this or that at every turn, and it feels risky to have children moving through the space. For these reasons, I would be highly selective in these non-essential things.
However, I would add them, and I encourage you to go in a different direction than suggested by the minimalists. You see, although the minimalists do not generally specify, in words, their guidelines for ornamentation, there is most definitely a ‘look’ that is being promoted. And this is very widespread. I would say most modern decorators, including those responsible for the images we see in magazines or on popular television shows on HGTV, are taking a very minimalist approach. The decorations that they do use are often monochrome and in the same general colour tones as the rest of the room. So, for example, they might add some straw-coloured accents using baskets or dried leaves or lanterns. If they add a vase, it will be a single solid colour and probably in a neutral tone, unless it is being used as the one permitted colour, in which case, the throw pillows will match the vase. If they add a frame, it will probably be very rectangular and plain. Often it is black, though nowadays white is often used. So I would argue that minimalism is not only about having fewer things; it is also about having things which are themselves minimalistic in appearance. It’s a very narrow road, actually, and I think that it is not very forgiving. If you were to try to introduce, say, a glossy aquamarine lamp into a modern minimalist-style room, you would find that it becomes a ‘statement piece,’ and you would have to decide whether your accent colour is now aquamarine (in which case you are now going to need an aquamarine throw and matching abstract art), whereas you would have been able to add such a lamp into many other types of decorating schemes without causing a stir. To return to my race analogy, a non-white person won’t stand out (for race reasons) at a multicultural gathering, but will definitely stand out at an all-white gathering.
So, to continue, I would definitely add artwork to some walls. You don’t have to rush this part, because it may take you a while to find what you like, but choose something. Artwork is quite important, in the sense that it is one of the first things that anyone notices upon entering a room (or even seeing it from a distance). If you choose badly — for example, if you add a large piece of abstract art — then you may easily wreck the entire look of the room, to the point that it is unpleasant to be in the room. (As I mentioned in an earlier post, if you are unsure of whether a piece of art is ridiculous or not, show it to a jury of young children. They will tell you the truth.) Abstract art tends to be pretentious, suggesting that there is a deeper meaning discernible by only the chosen few. I prefer realism, provided that the subject is pleasing. Original oils or watercolours are nice, and can be found second-hand for almost any price. Don’t be afraid of the ornate gilt frames which older pieces will have; they won’t bite. Plain black frames are always harsh, and frameless pictures don’t belong on walls. An alternative to hanging original art is to nicely frame some botanical prints and arrange them in a neat group of two, three or four. Older maps can also be framed or found already framed, and they are attractive. I suppose you can see my style here. I lean heavily towards art that looks intelligent. I don’t like a mess. I don’t want art that looks like it was painted by Lucy the Elephant — no offence to Lucy. I don’t even like art featuring larger-than-life, super-close-up flowers. It’s too flashy and in-your-face. Let’s keep everything tasteful. Avoid all the geometric garishness of chevrons, zigzags, and large polka dots. These post-modern things are the attention-seekers of the decorating world, and you will regret them later. At the other extreme, I would avoid taxidermy, antlers, and animal prints. As for mirrors, these can work well to add brightness to a room, but moderation is key. You don’t want your house to look obsessed with itself. As for portraits, I always prefer them on horizontal surfaces rather than vertical, though I don’t mind portrait paintings or photo portraits in stairwells. There’s something less ostentatious about the space in stairwells that allows for portraits. The absolute worst is what we have seen with monarchs and other wealthy individuals through history — that life-sized or oversized portrait hung prominently in their own home. Definitely, someone was obsessed with himself.
Moving on to other types of decoration, there are some items which are practical, in the sense that they serve a purpose, yet also pretty. In my home, I have a crystal candelabra. I admired it for weeks and weeks, and finally bought it. In terms of home decoration, I would recommend something like that because it introduces another material (crystal) and another line of human craftsmanship. And one piece is enough. I wouldn’t suggest getting a pile of crystal and making a display of it. Move on to another type of material and another type of skill. You could add a vase which is hand-painted, and you could occasionally put flowers in it. It doesn’t have to be an antique vase costing thousands (I think that would be silly, actually); there are so many types of pottery out there. Porcelain has an interesting history, but it could be something else. Choose any culture — almost all of them will have some version of pottery. But of course, don’t buy them all. Choose one item and live with it for a while. You might never want to part with it, or you might stumble across something else that takes your breath away. That’s when you can donate the first item. As you add items, think about the materials. A brass paperweight introduces another texture and colour and type of endeavour. A small orchid in a terracotta pot does too.
There are so many types of things. I like a wooden clock on the mantle and a chandelier over a dining room table, because I am drawn to the styles and ornamentation found in the western European tradition, yet at the same time, some of my furniture is in Chinese rosewood. There can be a mix, and perhaps that is ideal. As a matter of fact, the English style often did incorporate something Asian (often it was flower pots). What do you like? Maybe you will have a Swedish table runner or tiles from the Netherlands. Maybe you will add a Thai silk wall-hanging. How about a Peruvian wall mirror?
The point is to have fun with it and to look for beauty in the handicrafts of the world. Let your home hold a tiny sampling of what people can do, of what people have learned to do. Your home is your place while you live out your earthly life. Don’t strip it bare as if you are planning to rent it out as an AirBnB next week. It’s your space. You can have nice things. You can have decorations that take a stand. If you want to paint your room blue, then do. The decor doesn’t have to cater to a prospective buyer. It doesn’t have to look like an IKEA showroom. We must end this nonsense where everyone is copying what everyone else is doing (growing succulents, for instance) for fear of having something that looks different. The homes on HGTV all look the same! (No, I still don’t watch TV; the dentist’s office has a drop-down television.) Your home should be able to grow, and by that I mean that you should be able to add little touches to it once in a while without feeling that you have destroyed its look. On that note, here is a test for your home decor. Let’s call it a rose test. If a bouquet of roses, even the ‘standard’ or ‘typical’ dozen red roses, would look out of place in the room, then your room is too cold. You can cut the stems down to make a short arrangement, Martha Stewart style, but it must be red roses for this test. Don’t ask for a test of white orchids, blue hydrangeas, an air plant, or a cactus in a macrame hanger. Can that universal symbol of beauty, the red rose, be added to your room in a casual, oh-how-nice-you-stopped-by kind of way?
Let home be a place that welcomes you with beauty and warmth. Make it cozy, interesting, and yet fresh. Make your home look recognizably like your home, not like a house that’s been staged for a quick sale. Make it a home for the people you love.
Below are some photographs I found of rooms that I liked. I don’t have a Pinterest account, so this is the closest it gets. I found these photographs by looking at House & Garden’s list of the 100 best interior designers for 2019. I rejected most designers on that list; their styles were too minimalist or too weird or too excessive. When I was done, I was left with these: Leveson Design, McWhirter Morris, McCall Design, Max Rollitt, and Edward Bulmer Interior Design. And there were five other designers who seemed really good, but I just couldn’t find enough photos online of their work (Woody Clark, Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, Joanna Plant, David Mlinaric, and Colin Orchard.)