Monday, March 28, 2011

The Artfully Disheveled Home or "Undecorating"

The Rise of the Personal

In interior design today, the ideal is lived-in, unfussy, creative imperfection. Call it 'undecorating'

Photograph by The Selby
The apartment of decorator Jacques Grange from the website 'The Selby' illustrates the undecorating trend.
Perhaps now is the time to undecorate, and by that I mean it's time to embrace the new design trend of undecorating. In her book, "Undecorate: The No-Rules Approach to Interior Design," Christiane Lemieux, the founder of the innovative fabric and furniture company DwellStudio, documents a widespread new trend in interior design, which is to say the lack of it, or rather the profusion of do-it-yourself style: "Perfection," she writes, "is overrated." The ideal the book puts forth is of unfussy, lived-in, creative, imperfect homes; it's a postcard taped to a vanity mirror, or two children scootering across a loft's exquisite floorboards, or cheap blue vases from Chinatown wired into lamps. The premise here is cleverness over money, taste over expense, personality over hired expertise, idiosyncrasy over polish; it's a welcome development, reflective of a recession-fueled revelation that money is not the same as beauty. ("Undecorate" features a foreword by Deborah Needleman, the Wall Street Journal editor who oversees this section.)

The origins of the "undecorating" movement lie in the rise, in the past decade, of blogs like "Apartment Therapy" and "Design Sponge," and the creation of shelter magazines like Domino and in Italy, "Apartamento," that began disseminating informal, accessible, personal design to the stylish amateur. The internet provided new access to anyone even moderately interested in design, or even just bored at work, to a whole realm of design ideas, no decorator required. The emphasis is on freshness, on individuality, on places one would really want to live in, and not just look at. Its values are reflected in websites like "The Selby," which celebrates extremely personal style, and in other new books like "Details" by Lili Diallo, or "Summers in France," by Kathryn Ireland.

The profusion of "undecorating" has some connection to the economic times, the idea, suddenly, that lavish is not entirely cool. It is not coincidence, surely, that in a world in which President Obama tells Wall Street guys that they should be ashamed of their bonuses, that the ideals of do-it-yourself, and cheap, eccentric, idiosyncratic expressions of personality should be in the ascendant. Ms. Lemieux says that this particular mode of creativity is, on some level, a response to an interior decorator being out of the question for many. "In figuring things out yourself," she says, "including what you can afford, you make interesting decisions that wouldn't be made if money were no object—the imperfections, the real life demands are what inspires us."

There are people within the decorating world who are suspicious of the idea of "undecorating." Kevin Sharkey, executive editorial director of decorating at Martha Stewart Living, for one, says, "I don't like the word. It conjures up a negative feeling." Yet, he adds, "if there is a trend, we probably initiated it." Ms. Lemieux believes Ms. Stewart had a role in the shift toward the do-it-yourself underpinning of "undecorating" and casts this new movement as more Martha deconstructed or Martha on the fly, or maybe, one might add, Martha minus the turning of tea towels into curtains.
Those who are averagely interested in their surroundings will find something liberating in this new modus vivendi.
Photograph by The Selby
The trend toward informal, idiosyncratic decorating is exemplified in designer Inès de la Fressange's Paris apartment, photographed by Todd Selby. 

It's true that many of the people featured in these gorgeous, glossy new books are "stylists," or "prop stylists," or otherwise employed in fashion. Gazing at their done-over barns and railroad apartments in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, one gets the definite sense that their "undecorated" spaces are a bit more decorated than our own undecorated spaces, and one secretly suspects that one's own life may not yield up the time to stumble across handpainted Chinoiserie wallpaper by the storied French firm de Gournay or antique Etruscan pottery brought back from a trip to Beirut. However, this book does make one reconsider one's own home, and see the accidental splash of color, the bike helmet perched on a coffee table book, the bewildering collection of Ganesh statues, say, the giant clamshells on the mantel, in a different light. The idea of an accidental aesthetic, of the things that you pull together for private reasons, gives you a new perspective, and liberates you from the more rigid dictates of good taste. Take the orange striped Moroccan rug you bought after a break up out of a sudden desire for color and warmth and an exotic new something, along with the forest-green Art Deco couches, which some might say clash in both color and style. Instead, according to these principles, they now give your living room a certain undecorated panache; they are expressive of a moment, a private history. The fantasy of the undecorated house is Tuesday morning as it is actually lived, not as we would like other people to imagine it; it is the idea of energy, of chaos, of motion, of mess (well, mess within very circumscribed and aesthetically pleasing limits: children lying in a pile of books, artfully unmade beds, one piece of clothing strewn across a couch).

This "democratic" impulse in design, of course, is not entirely new. Periodically there is a design revolution that imagines itself in opposition to the formal, overly polished aesthetic of the previous generation. Take for instance Roger Fry's Omega studio, founded in London in 1913, where Bloomsbury artists designed fabrics and furniture in venetian reds, salmons and lemon yellows, to reflect the fresh air of the changing times, in direct rebellion against the formal antiques and heavy draperies of Victorian interiors. One of the newspapers of the day called the studio's creations "immoral furniture," and that immorality was an early glimmer of the impulse to "undecorate."

The cynical among us might imagine that if the movement toward "undecorating" truly takes off, this will simply mean enormous amounts of effort poured into looking effortless; that a whole new breed of undecorators will be spawned, who will scour Parisian flea markets to unearth that perfect, quirky, idiosyncratic expression of their client's innermost self—and, in fact, there already are some hard at work doing just that. The cynical might even argue we are simply creating a new rigorous set of standards—Eclectic! Personal! Quirky! Casual!—for the average individual to live up to. But even those hardened cynics will have to admit that they would rather go to a dinner party at one of the splashy, inviting, inventive houses featured in "Undecorate" than step into one of the daunting interiors on the cover of Architectural Digest, where you are very likely to be quizzed on obscure Renaissance artists and will almost definitely spill red wine on the impeccable expanse of white couch.

A friend turned me on to this article from The Style Section of The Wall Street Journal this past weekend.  I thought you might enjoy it as much as we did!

Congratulations to Nita from Mod Vintage Life, the winner of the Joss & Main $100 e-spree Giveaway.   Have fun Nita!

The newest treasure just listed at 
is sure to bring a smile to your face!


Kathysue said...

Hmmmm?!Very interesting and thought provoking!! Kathysue

cjsullivan133 said...

I love it. I am so into this. Thanks for posting the article. "Undecorating" has it's funny side, as to "un" anything, is to say undo. So it still lends to decorating and I think this has been going on for awhile. I like how the article points out the "accidental aesthetic". We who love design know nothing comes by accident, but it's nice to make it look that way. Relaxed, whimsical and a bit of this and bit of that! xoxo

Beach House Living said...

No decorating here at all. Ahead of the game? said...

Love this article, thanks for sharing it. Economics always plays a role in design, and this trend will come and go, but there is no mistake in my mind that the "undecorated" images will be just as staged as the traditionally designed when publicized to highlight a point. Totally thought provoking and I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks again, Carol

for the love of a house said...

thank you so much for your lovely, lovely comment!

interesting article, but undecorating-decorating makes my head hurt!! sometimes it seems people try sooo hard to buy just the right thing or look, when if they just bought what spoke to them and what they loved a "look" wouldn't matter and they would be happy living with loved objects! I'm hoping the author was just looking for a new topic;)


Blondie's Journal said...

Underdecorating is definitely one of my virtues! And I mean that by i have what I love and what I feel is useful...I just don't have the room in my home for more. The book sounds fascinating!


Ann said...

Nice article...
and now I know the term to use...
I am definitely Underdecorating ♥

French-Kissed said...

Thanks for sharing this contrary to my work, yet embraces my personal decorating philosophy...just minus the clutter. I guess what I am most against is trends and cookie cutter looks. That's why I love what you do in your have such wonderful taste and a free spirit that brings objects together in a delightful and almost magical mix. Case in point...your Christmas decor this last year!!!


Blooming Rose Musings said...

I love this article. I totally agree with Jermaine and I am also against cookie cutter looks. I love walking into a room that represents the person and not a trend. Every time you have shown us your home it speaks of your wonderful personality...I think that's magic and oh so welcoming to people who visit.

Hamptontoes said...

Interesting article in my favorite newspaper, the WSJ! The most important thing about a home is that is speak of those that reside within, whether that look is attained by the help of a profession or a homeowner is not important to is the feeling that a home captures the essence of it's dwellers that I love! (Another reason why I am not a follower or fan of trends!)


I love this article. Obviously when we see photos in magazines...they aren't really "underdecorated" but possibly "overstyled". And as much as I like a room that is not perfect....when "undecorating" goes wrong...well lets just say that is where the "hot mess" term comes from! Thanks for sharing this.

cjsullivan133 said...

There is a bit of this article on S.F. gIrl by the Bay's blog today!
I can picture so many of your treasures filling a house with the Modern Vintage style. I always love the light in all these photo's.. Light makes a world of difference.