I recently had the opportunity to visit with a local woman who has been in the process of decorating a new house she had built on prime lake-side property.
The house was a lovely, contemporary building, with surprises like a small bridge between wings and windows instead of walls, facing a glittering lake. The finish work was pristine: vertical grain fir trim with tight joints, ceramic tile flooring, cabinets that were both functional and sleek, and seamlessly textured walls that were professionally painted. The rooms were surprisingly well proportioned for a large house, they were easily inhabitable, human sized, with a couple small enclosures that reminded me of animal dens: cozy nesting rooms that became private work/creative spaces, with space enough for just one. The majority of the woodwork and furniture in the house was custom made by local woodworkers who know their trade well; well enough to sign their work. There was no reason for this house to feel as suffocating as it did, except for all the owner’s decisions that together conspired to create a dark and uninviting space.
She was clearly an art lover and maker; there were watercolors, etchings, and lithographs scattered around the house, on walls, behind chairs, and in the garage, there was a sewing room stacked high with fabric and thread, and a floor loom in the TV room. She had a flair for upholstery fabric, and good taste in handmade craft, so why did her house look like the people were guests in a house owned by furniture?
Proportion and color.
Well-made woodcraft is never painted. Woodgrain is part of the maker’s artistry, and most domestic and exotic woods exhibit some warm shade of brown. The house was already finished with clear VG fir – which oxidizes an orange brown, the stairs were white oak – that looks golden brown, and the doors and some furniture were cherry – which is characteristically reddish brown. There is no rule against mixing types of wood in a house that size. The problem came with the choices in wall color: the floor was a warm, subtle texture beige, most of the walls were a light tan, and the accent wall was a darker version that balanced perfectly between brown and green. On top of that, the fireplace chimney was a darker, greener shade of Venetian plaster, with a large black frame around the fire-glass. The owner told me she loves dark earthy colors, so she decided to use them all around the house. She seemed happy with the color choices. The only problem she faced was decorating the accent wall with artwork, so she asked for my help with that. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help myself and tried to explain color theory to her.
As a contrast, I know an old house in town that was significantly reskinned in its 100 year history, with a nearly brand-new kitchen, a stone façade, a log built sunroom/den filled with orchids, an attic writing retreat, new cherry trim on the main floor, and old mahogany veneer on doors upstairs. It’s almost as if you can go back in time by going up the stairs.
The front door leads to a room used as a garage, filled with kayaks and coats. The kitchen is white and black with a reddish linoleum floor and custom woodwork. The living room is furnished with mismatched old and new furniture; wing-back chairs, leather, wicker, and fabric upholstery, old split and peeling oak table on top of a red Afghan rug. Clear and stained pine cabinets stand against the white stone wall that used to be the exterior of the house, under a shed roof supported by log walls. If there were a more mismatched room in the world, I’d like to see it. The rest of the house is all teal high-pile rug, mahogany veneer and floral wallpaper, with all white skin in the girl’s room, and all blue and dark brown skin in the boy’s.
Despite the eclectic gathering of things in this house, the spirit of the inhabitants is cohesive and readily recognizable. They inhabit this place by collecting traces of their lives. The space most used and needed is the most up to date, the space most lived-in carries the history of decades-long collections, and the spaces less visited are still bearing old skin. Their preference to function and preservation rather than aesthetic and consumption is visible in every corner, a consistent reminder that space is a function of need, a very personal and customized need.
This house is filled with charm, history, and personal touches, and it is inhabited by people who enjoy traveling, creative pursuits, and healthy living.
I can understand why new houses need a bit of a push to help them transform into welcoming inhabitable spaces. Most owners just require a basic understanding of the needs space can fulfill, and the realization that space, color, proportion, need, desire, and memory all play an equal role in turning a house into a home.