Friday, December 28, 2018

Reader Question: How do you make a house distinctive, and what are the common mistakes made by people who have tried but failed?


A reader question: 
Season’s Greetings!  First off, I have so enjoyed your blog since finding it this past summer.  Thank you for taking the time to create and maintain it; your effort shows.  
I have some questions for the community.  
What makes a home distinctly SWNE?  What differentiates it from a poser’s?  Which items are passed down and which ones are bought new?  What about color schemes, fabrics, and patterns?  Artwork?  Ducks?  Threadbare Persian rugs?  In regards to rugs, are these always passed down or are they ever purchased “used”?  In Paul Fussell’s book, Class, he provides a list of items potentially found in a living room.  Some items add points whereas others result in a subtraction.  The higher the end points, the higher the occupant’s “class.”  How fascinating!  
What home items are indicative of a higher social standing?
Thanks again for all you do.

41 comments:

  1. I would venture to say that if one has to read a book on higher social class and standing, one doesn't have it (born to it) to begin with. However, there's no harm in emulating it. Just be sure that whatever you do is honest and don't create legacy stories about what you may purchase second hand.

    In my case, I grew up around it but not within my own home as a kid. I always liked older things and much of what I bought as I established my own first apartments and homes was second hand as I felt more comfortable with it (books, art, furniture, accessories, etc.). Subtlety in all things. I have some things that belonged to both sets of grandparents and even a couple of things from great and great-great grandparents but almost nothing of my mother or father's as I never much cared for their taste in things.

    I don't know who the author of this book is but I suspect it would be an interesting read. Is he someone who comes from old money or simply an observer of it? Regardless, interesting topic and I hope to see many comments.

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    1. Paul Fussell’s book was dreadful. It was a book written by someone who clearly did not understand the world. Some facts were accurate but the analysis was off.

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  2. Anyone who seeks "higher social standing" must understand that it cannot be bought like items from an auction catalog. Even billionaires and former Presidents can't achieve it they lack the necessary manners, style, good taste, and high standards of personal behaviour. The current President and his three immediate predecessors are classic examples. They seek that they deserve high social standing as they were elected to high office. However, their excessive vanity, narcissism and hubris will always that they will be regarded as local class parvenus.

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    1. Ken, I fundamentally agree with your comment that money doesn't necessarily confer high social class, but it is misleading to not recognize the important role that personal finances plays in this sphere. George Harrison of the Beatles once said that after his success, he was finally able to afford good taste. The downside for Harrison was the unwanted fame that came with that success. Although you did not comment on this, I would add that the Fussell book is widely misunderstood; it is a satire, not a guidebook for living. And even if one takes it literally, Fussell's "X-way" out of social class pressures as described at the end of the book would require financial independence.

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    2. What happens when you achieve "higher social standing?" Is this like enlightenment? Do you suddenly understand the universe and all that is in it?

      It sounds like vanity, narcissism, and hubris disappear as you seek high social standing. I didn't know that.

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  3. I think people should just be who they uniquely are and decorate accordingly.

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    1. Agree... Live how you are most comfortable and surround yourself with people and things that give you joy.

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    2. So totally true. As Emerson so aptly noted: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. If you like old things, books, etc.let your house reflect those choices. If not, simply be who you are and what you like. The most important thing is that your house "rings true" to who you are and what you hold dear. Confidence is the hallmark of the preppy experience. Don't try to be who you are not. You don't need to be.

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    3. Perhaps we'd like to be better than we are.

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  4. All interesting points, but what is more interesting is thinking about the home of someone who was born into class as opposed to someone who has read books (like the OPH) in a vain attempt to achieve it. What are the subtle or not so subtle differences? I would say that pieces in the former are highly functional, economical(passed down), and exude a toned down sophistication. I’m reminded of the difference between northern and southern prep here.

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  5. My view: There is a set of basic values often attributed to WASPs, but not exclusive to them. Concepts like tradition, honor, service, family, hard work, humility, integrity, loyalty, and stewardship can belong to all of us, no matter our backgrounds. The most authentic choices in life (from one's profession to home decor) are those made based on our personal ethic. I agree, be who you are. Someone who would scoff at you because your rug is not "old" enough is likely not a true friend, anyway.

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  6. This person asked a question and revealed herself only as one who sought advice. Several of the responses betrayed a snobbishness I found embarrassing. The look obviously appeals to her and she sought only advice as to its pursuit. Her choices will be no less authentic.
    .

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    1. To Anon 10:22
      I had the very same reaction and share your thoughts. Elizabeth

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    2. I agree with Anon 10:22 and the reply. It was just a question; someone looking for advice, that's all. And I agree with another comment below...lots of books, comfy chairs, no need to try and be fancy. I would say more cozy and comfortable rather than new and trying to follow a certain theme. Many people are living on interest and dividends from their sometimes large nest egg and don't feel the need to replace something if it's still functional.

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    3. Another nod to Anon 10:22.

      As a recent home buyer myself, and one starting with zero inherited furniture, I'm amazed at how difficult it is to actually find quality, functional, timeless, non-ostentatious pieces that will work well with the style of my home. With the exception of mid-century modern pieces from the likes of DWR (which just don't jive with my home), I don't much care for any of the stuff available at the usual, large furniture chains. A lot of it can be garish, and is most certainly not "SWNE" style.

      Thus far, it looks like I'll be having quite a few pieces custom made and upholstered from producers in North Carolina and Vermont. This will include a couple of wingback reading chairs, a simple dining room table, and maybe select others. I wish there was a store or two that just sold quality, shaker style pieces.

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    4. I agree with Anon 10:22.

      Anon 11:54 - I went through a similar experience when we bought our house 10 years ago. Quality products are hard to find in the big furniture houses. We had luck with auctions and estate sales.

      Original poster - I understand the heart of your question. There are rooms that can be so comfortable, or bring us joy for another reason, we look for ways to recreate them in our own homes. Next time you find yourself in such a space, try to take note of why it appealed to you. If you can create your version of such a space in your own home, with your personal interests, it will be authentic.

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    1. Books, lot and lots of books. Good reading lamps and comfy chairs.

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  8. Good for you 10:22 pm Anonymous - I too am somewhat taken aback by the tone of some of the above replies. Not at all typical of our little SWNE family.

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  9. To answer this question directly, the SWNE sensibility is mostly harmony with nature and harmony with oneself. Back in the day, people used all natural materials: wool, cotton, silk, linen, leather, porcelain, crystal, silver, pewter, marble, wood, brass, etc. Most everything was handmade, with the more affluent items reflecting superior quality and craftsmanship. People didn't throw things out, they passed them down, but at some point, they were NEW. Since there was no TV, radio, or computer, NE folks passed their free time reading, doing needlework, fine arts and crafts, playing musical instruments, and hunting game, fish and fowl. Their decor reflected these lifestyles: the library with the leather-bound books, the decoys, the embroidered pillows, some paintings, the piano, etc. Color choices reflected the natural dyes and pigments available. Artwork should above all reflect proportion and harmony. If your own lifestyle does not include these elements, why would you want to imitate someone else's life? If you simply appreciate the look of everything, there are still furniture companies that make high-quality English styles, like Henkel-Harris of Winchester VA, and Stickley (their Classics line) and you can buy plenty of old items through antique store or on eBay, Etsy, Facebook Marketplace, and Craigslist. As the older generation dies off, the younger ones want "modern" decor and great classics are literally being dumped at estate sales and on-line. The whole East Coast from Maine to Virginia, and sometimes farther south, is your targeted area. The West Coast has nothing to offer... So think about who you are and how you want to be represented in your home. Will the look of antiques give you pleasure and hold memories for you? Do they say anything about you as a person? You should love everything you have in your home, and not just hope a visitor will think you are someone other than who you are.

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  10. I particularly love collecting rugs. I used to hunt for them at estate sales; always preferring uneven tribal patterns. I like that ours come from several different countries. Now, we pick up a used rug every year at an antiques sale we attend. We always find the same 3 experienced vendors there. I try to choose the most appealing rug that is in our color scheme, but sometimes a rug is just too finely executed to pass up. These days, we only buy rugs that have been washed and that is important because I don't want to lug home any hidden moth larvae. Wool on cotton vs. wool on wool is not that important (to me). We find the smaller sizes (8ft on down) and runners to be very useful, affordable, and decorative. I have learned from experience that a tightly woven rug that has lost it's fringe can hold up quite well if the seller has cast stitches to prevent unraveling and if I don't put it in a heavily used walkway. I myself would not purchase a rug with threadbare areas, and the one I inherited is folded in a drawer. We have bought rugs with tears that have stayed securely mended.

    We've done some rug shopping while traveling overseas, but it seems like a lot of artifice goes into making the rugs look like they are still died and woven the old way and I don't like the look so much. We like a mixture of pile and flat-weaves, the smaller flat-weaves being very durable. I don't think kids should have to wait to inherit rugs. Giving them away frees up a new spot(!).

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    1. I too collect rugs ( and shoes!) and I'm ashamed to admit that I have several beautiful wool rugs in storage ( and shoes!) that I fear selling or giving away because it's so difficult to find such quality today. A friend's father passed last year and she contacted me about taking the family's Persian rugs because I always commented on how beautiful they were every time I visited. I had to turn down the offer because I won't put anymore in storage but it was truly a difficult decision. Elizabeth

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  11. Live with what makes you happy. Don’t follow fads.
    Oh, and probably no velvet “paintings” of Elvis.

    MaryAnne

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    1. Agree, but I do value my James Dean poster and memorabilia that I fondly display.

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    2. In our house, we have The Beatles and Rosetta Tharpe.

      Here's an old Yankee tip for those velvet paintings: spray with Scotch Guard to protect them. We've been doing this since the 70's. It's how we kept the paintings from damage during all those wild parties.

      Aiken

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  12. I grew up in suburban NJ and was surrounded by Mid-Century Modern. My mother made the mistake of bringing home Architectural Digest magazines from the library. Perusing them, I would wonder why our house did not even remotely resemble the pages of the magazines! When I grew up, I was very drawn to the Habitat/Conran look (English pine and floral fabrics) so in my first real home I copied that (as best I could on a budget). Later on when the kids were grown up and gone to college, my taste got more formal. Now I collect paintings (sadly no Cecelia Beaux or John Singer Sargents) but if you really look, you can find all sorts of nice things. Now I need a house with taller walls!

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  13. This thread reminds me of a scene in a movie. I don't recall which movie, and I may not have it exactly right, but it went something like this:

    A houseguest at a house in New England is shown the bedroom she would occupy. It contains a bed, a Windsor chair, and a rug. Surveying the room, the houseguest comments "what a wonderful room. I could DO something with THIS."

    Her Yankee host responds "I HAVE done something with it."

    Happy New Year.

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  14. In light of the openhearted and entirely valid curiosity expressed by the reader who took the time to write in about SWNE interiors, the ersatz snobbishness expressed in some of these comments would be fairly depressing if it wasn't so reminiscent of people who've spent their lives reading aspirational lifestyle magazines without ever understanding how any of it works. The unsolicited treatises on social class included in the comments have a certain "Nellie Oleson in Walnut Grove" quality to them—or, to put it in language our British visitors will understand, like an episode of "Keeping Up Appearances" with all the kindness and humour leached away.

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  15. At the end of the day (literally) what goes on your floors and walls should be things that you WANT to see there, and that give you comfort. To me, it's a matter of going out and taking a look, without regard to current trends or guides to "good taste".

    Even if I had a portrait of great X 5 granddad Giles Pinkney Floyd, I think I'd still give my own photo of Half Dome at sunset pride of place.

    I think that what a person has chosen of their own volition makes a "look" that will be attractive to others as well. Also think Fussell's book was tongue-in-cheek.

    NCJack

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    1. Personal photos and paintings are much more meaningful.

      My father took a photo of my grandfather and me on his boat. We were out at the "Cow & Calf," a fishing spot in Long Island Sound off the Connecticut shore. I was about 10 or 11. We are at the back of the boat and my grandfather is helping me fix a line.

      That photo is in my home office. Whenever I pause and look at that photo a flood of memories arise. We were very close, my grandfather and me.

      Yes, we have old paintings, including one painted in the 1800s of an ancestor named Philetus, but no one knew him. Besides, he looks mean and I'm told he didn't fish.

      Aiken

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    2. Your posts always make me smile, Aiken!

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  16. I so enjoy these reader community dialogs. I can't help but propose another reader community question: what was your "best" gift of the holiday? Just curious!

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    1. Time with family! Never enough, but always valued!

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    2. Agreed. When I turned 50, I asked my family members not to buy anything for me but, instead, to send me a card telling me how they would like to spend time with me during the following year. It was my favorite birthday!

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  17. The focus on 'things' is misplaced. It's character above all that counts. Those who aren't financially secure can have it as much as anyone. The rich may highly value discretion, privacy and living an understated life, but others less fortunately situated often aren't allowed it or can afford it.

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  18. I think a visit to your local Ethan Allen will give you plenty of inspiration.

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  19. One decor idea I always admired in others’ homes, and have now included in my own, is a family photo wall. Old and new photos mixed together, but particularly shots of the family children as they grow, all printed in black and white and framed to coordinate (but not “match”). I love looking at this wall in my home now and sharing in the memories it conjures, particularly when larger groups of extended family are gathered. Our wall includes great-great-grands and our own children. I don’t know if that qualifies as “distinctive” but it adds to the sense of a family home. My favourite picture in ours was one taken of my son as a toddler, years ago, walking across our farm fields with freshly baled hay scattered across the background. It reminds me so much of the links between our history and our future.

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  20. Quality + frugality, if I may venture an opinion. Anonymous at 10:22 expresses a kindly note. Michael Rowe raises a chorus. Many thanks to all for the commentary.

    I found that seeking quality first limited my quantity. My premise has been simple: I have neither the time nor the money for cheap goods. I have a number of family pieces that I treasure and use - all from more than a few generations previous. If one's lucky enough to live in certain areas, one can find terrific pieces at thrift. Unless one's purchasing at the top of a market, full retail is a bit rich and rather unnecessary. Not completely certain this is "SWNE style." However, I've enjoyed this blog for some time and followed several of its recommendations.

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