Design for the People

Remember that grumpy old man who lived in your neighborhood and glared at you every time you darkened the sidewalk in front of his house? Or that librarian who reluctantly handed you books after checking them out, her face conveying her distaste for you, her certainty that you would be late in returning the books? (She was right in my case).

A surprising number of people working in various service industries seem to feel this way about their customers or clients or overlords (or whatever you call the people who make it possible for you to pay your bills). Not to say that some clients don’t deserve a certain amount of contempt. I remember a scene from Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat (Schnabel being the very definition of contemptuous) where the upscale couple visits Basquiat’s studio to consider buying a painting, but, they say to Basquiat, could he add a little more brown to the painting? To match their couch?

Of course we can all sit and snicker at the clueless bourgeoisie from the comfort of our own brown couches, at least when it comes to art. or Art, I should say. And standards seem clear when it comes to art — the artist is pre-eminent — but when it comes to the room the art hangs in, the line between art and function becomes so blurry it’s hard to tell just who is in charge here. The client paying the cash, or the designer with the creative vision? No matter how one-of-a-kind the design for a room may be (and a really great room is always one-of-a-kind), the imperative that a room be, above all else, functional, makes any sort of claim that Art trumps Necessity seem false.

Every once in a while a designer collaborates with a client (or is given carte blanche) to create a concept room — something so highminded that human beings are only asked to inhabit the room long enough to intellectualize it, not actually live their lives there. But this is a rare and fragile occurrence, usually underwritten by some serious money, as demonstrated by a living museum installation like Daphne Guinness. But for the rest of us (and that category is pretty much defined by everybody but Daphne Guinness), we hire decorators to create rooms that are not only beautiful, but functional and, even, dare I say, comfortable. Not Lay-Z-Boy comfortable, but comfortable nonetheless. And what a client counts on in a decorator is to accomplish all of this at a level of taste that the client alone cannot demonstrate.

Until it mercifully ended in 2008, I used to sometimes watch the show Trading Spaces. For a time the show was wildly popular, but with each successive season I was hard-pressed to understand why, as I have rarely seen a show with more contempt for its participants. Initially, the show seemed built around helping homeowners of tract houses on all those endless squares of green grass all over America transcend their painfully generic interiors through the services of real designers — professionals who knew how to create a good-looking and functional room, and do this on a 1,000-dollar budget no less. And it was kind of touching to watch, at the end of each show, how homeowners squealed like happy pigs to see their living room or bedroom or whatever transformed into something right out of a Pottery Barn catalog, which was a pretty good return on the investment. Then Trading Spaces brought in a designer named Hildi. She was another thing altogether, with her superior wardrobe and unfeigned disinterest in these no-names she was supposed to be helping. Hildi would come up with the most outrageously stupid ideas for rooms, ideas that wouldn’t even rate inclusion in an art school portfolio,– all of them executed for under 1,000 dollars. Which is just about enough money to pick up a couch from IKEA and a few buckets of paint but not enough to do anything very well, especially something ridiculous, like create your own version of woven grasscloth by gluing loose pieces of straw to the walls of your living room. Worse, Hildi would have the humiliated homeowners out there pasting the animal bedding to the walls themselves, as if to underscore just how stupid she thought these people were. She also used corrugated cardboard in one episode, covering an entire room with the stuff. In another she screwed all the furniture to the ceiling, even gluing the glassware to the tabletop, which of course succumbed to the law of gravity even before the show ended. No doubt the homeowners were made to sweep up the glass.

A beach cabana room! In your house! With sand! by Hildi-the-Decorator.

Many examples of Hildi’s ambition exist, but they are too mind-numbing to recount here. The point is: interior design — even for the sake of a lowbrow television show — needs to serve the people who inhabit interiors. It is a service, something you do for people when they cannot do it for themselves, when they turn to a professional for help.

And when a client sits down on a lovely couch and reaches for a drink, placed close by on an attractive table of just the perfect height with the lamp at just the perfect distance with just enough wattage for atmosphere and reading alike, you are giving that client a wonderful gift. And there is no shame in that, and, some would say, no higher art.

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