Title: Country Houses of Sweden
Authors: Barbara and Rene Stoeltie
I’ve been traveling to speak and sell books — and staying with kind people who take me in, because I don’t like hotels* and I figure that it’s win-win — they save the money for the group that has kindly invited (and paid) for me — and hotels are so expensive! — and I get to sleep in a real place. This way I make new friends, or rather, just feel like I have old friends I’m catching up with. Happens every time! It’s the best.
Of course, the conversation turns to the many things on our minds, and beauty is a topic that keeps coming up. Just as you train your tongue to appreciate tastes in food — just as you seek out beautiful music so you can discern good from bad — you need to train your eye to see what is beautiful.
Last week I had linked to this Roger Scruton interview (and I keep pronouncing his name wrong, including on tape, how embarrassing. I think in fact it does not rhyme with crouton, but I can’t help myself). And I pulled out this quote and will do so again here:
There are two kinds of beauty: the individual, expressive and revealing gesture, and ordinary harmony and fittingness. In everyday life it is the second kind of beauty that is important, and it is exemplified in home-building, gardening and the design of squares, houses and streets. It is important because it expresses and amplifies the human desire for settlement, for an environment in which things fit together and people too. It is an instrument of peace.
… because I think it pertains specifically to us, the makers of our homes. Men and women have a duty to make even the ordinary things beautiful!
This post is already going to be way too long and way too digressive for a Library Project offering, but don’t even get me started on how 70 years ago, even the railings of the bridges (our town has many little bridges over the tributaries that run through it) were thoughtfully designed. But when they inconsiderately decay (as everything must!) and are replaced in our (oh so superior) time, the only consideration is their cheapness. Thus the byways in our charming but unpretentious town are starting to look like access roads in commercial installations.
Anyway, a not insignificant factor in training your taste is the investment that furniture and textiles represent, even those that are not brand new. So you want a good sofa, a good rug… and of course you want to make good decisions when you are changing something in your home — for instance, kitchen cabinets or the bathroom.
It seems to me that the best way to do this is to look at pictures in a systematic way.
However, there are pictures that amount to decorating porn! Things that aren’t real or that make you desire what you can’t have. Why waste time on that? Like real porn, it just makes you dissatisfied with your actual life (real porn has other implications but we’re being metaphorical here).
For good pictures that will help, I do think that Pinterest is invaluable — to help you to find what you like and what will truly be useful in developing your own taste in beauty.
To get the most out of Pinterest and not just waste your time, I have a few ideas.
1. Create boards for the specific issues you have. Examples: Small bathrooms. Narrow foyer. Stone fireplace. Brick walk. Bunk beds. Homeschool room. Kitchen islands. When Rosie was painting her kitchen and asking me for advice, I created the board “Brown Countertops Color Scheme” in case you are wondering why I have that there. The fact is, the kind of granite she has there is both rather permanent — it’s the one thing she really wasn’t going to change! — and somewhat demanding — it’s a strong color! But it’s nice. So let’s find out what others have done with theirs. I just have the three pins, but I think they were helpful. The gray she chose for the lower cabinets is very much like the one in that last pin, which isn’t too surprising, because the granite is very much like hers, as I remember — more than any other pin I looked at.
2. Create boards for specific styles you like. Swedish country. Irish cottage. Colonial (real). Craftsman. Midcentury. (Those happen to be some of the styles I like, or, in the case of midcentury, find useful for figuring out what to do with yard-sale finds. But of course, think about your own preferences.)
3. Do searches for specific styles and solutions (along the lines of the boards you’ve created). Then follow boards that have a good representation of your favorites. That way your feed will update with more ideas.
4. After you have a bunch of things pinned, look through them and try to identify the specific thing in the picture that really gets you. Is it a color or color scheme — or just a degree of color? Is it one particular detail that you love, like a rough-hewn tabletop or a sisal rug? Really analyze what made you pin it — especially as it relates to the others. If you start to see that you really love the contrast between white and black, well then, there you go!
5. Wait a bit before you make final decisions. As you continue on this process, you will realize that at first you were taken in by things that weren’t quite authentic or that are fine but not for you. It’s hard to separate taste from current style or fashion. When “country” was a decorating style, atrocious things happened that we weren’t even aware of! Can you say ubiquitous stenciled geese?? But when you cross-check with the actual historic styles, you start to discern what’s enduring. And honestly, it’s fine to make mistakes. As Scruton/Crouton says later in that interview,
But the second kind of beauty has less to do with perfection than with serenity: it is a way of reconciling us to our own imperfection, and helping us to live with the real while still loving the ideal.
Decorating books can be so helpful. There are some books that you look through once. I tend to think that it’s because the styles are too generic and limited to what manufacturers of the moment can offer. They are not worth buying, at least not new.
Why not go to the library and take out a bunch of books from the library and see which ones you’d like to take out again? Those are the ones you could maybe own.
For me, Country Houses of Sweden is one that I love looking at again and again for inspiration. For one thing, it has my favorite painter/decorator, Carl Larsson, and his home. Even the more formal houses, though, have a quality that is so important for homey-ness — they aren’t “decorated” so much as layered over time, achieving their elegance organically. It didn’t happen all at once, you can tell. The colors are timeless. The styles aren’t aggressive.
Most of the examples of Swedish country decorating, though, are down-to-earth and don’t represent any particular outlay of money — certainly not in the context of going to Crate & Barrel and ordering up a new houseful of furniture!
But the reason I often pull out this book is this one photo:
I could write a million words and every post about making do and seeing the beauty in the ordinary, but this one picture of the door with its little handmade bolt and that twisted piece of wood that was polished into a handle — be still my heart!
If you want to enjoy Carl Larsson’s home through his own eyes, you will also love A Home: Paintings from a Bygone Age. You will see how his wife’s woven textiles add to the warmth. What a lovely place. I hope I can go there to Lilla Hyttnas someday!
*Pro-tip for the next time you know you will be in a hotel, because it did happen once so far on this book tour. Bring clothespins! Had I had clothespins, I could have eliminated the gap where the “blackout” curtains did not meet. I could then have actually slept, rather than writhing and squeezing my eyes as tight as I could, vainly trying to avoid the glaringly harsh illumination in the room from the spotlight on the roof of the portico below, which was pointed directly at my window. Updated to add: Dear Karen in the comments points out that the clips on the hangers that are undoubtedly in the closet can be used to keep the curtains closed. Ah, if I had only realized at the time!