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The Modern Estate
Lost in Translation
By Matthew Patrick Smyth

Can the delightful décor of someone else’s living room be successfully translated to your home? Probably not.

InteriorDesign_MainImage.jpgHeading into a cocktail party, decorators know what they’re in for. Like doctors and investment bankers, they are routinely buttonholed by other guests eager to ask specific questions. “What would you do with this room? What color would you paint it?” someone will say. Or, “What do you think of... ?” Basically, the questions all come down to, “Something’s off here, and I don’t know why!”

I try to be diplomatic in my answers. I have been in many houses whose décor has all the elements that should make it successful, but somehow it just misses. I’m not the sort of decorator who goes into someone’s home and mentally picks it apart. If I’m not asked about the décor, I can turn off my analytical mind and simply enjoy the conversation of my hosts and their guests. I believe it’s none of my business how they live, and with what. I’m a “pro-choice” decorator: I am not here to convert the world to my point of view.

But when I take on a project, I usually tell clients that successful décor is inevitably linked to comfort and suitability. We need to feel comfortable with what we live with. If our surroundings don’t make sense to us, how can we expect our family and guests to find them pleasing?

My favorite rooms have a particular combination of virtues: They are warm, beautiful, appropriate, comfortable, and friendly. The good news is that homeowners and decorators can achieve this ideal if, as they make their choices, they keep it in focus.

I have a client in Westport who has a charming house that everyone loves to come to. Many of her guests store up mental notes on what she has done. In fact, after my client had her last child, a friend of hers came to visit bearing a baby gift, a camera... and her contractor! She had come to see the baby and, it turned out, to photograph the baby’s room we had just decorated; her contractor was there to get the exact measurement of the moldings, wainscoting, cabinet details, etc.

This was certainly flattering. But can my client’s nursery be translated to her friend’s home? Probably not, because her friend could not match the elements that made it so special. What set it off were the details: the vintage books my client had enjoyed as a child; the antique silhouettes of children that she had carefully crafted and framed; the old (1870) painted-pine child’s rocker she’d found in an antiques shop.

The other rooms in the house also reflect my client’s attention to detail. They are arranged to accommodate her family’s interests. There are places to read, watch TV, work on a puzzle, work on the computer. The accessories are chosen for their visual and tactile quality. Every item was selected because it inspired or amused my client, not just to fill a space. If asked, she can gladly tell her guests where, how, and when she found a particular item, why she was attracted to it, and even, perhaps, how she carried it home. She had fun with the decorating process; her selections reflect her own personality. The colors she loves are front and center. Her Anglo-Irish background is clearly evident—not as a theme, but as a springboard for the selection of items she admires.

Because she enjoys her home, her guests pick up on her enthusiasm and feel comfortable being there. This is an attribute that cannot be copied from a photograph or simply measured and installed. What the friend who came to photograph the nursery may not realize is that the room evolved into what it is today. You can copy the architecture and track down the exact fabric and trim used, but the personal touch is what separates this décor from the standard fare.

When I work on a project with new clients, I ask about their interests: What do they like to do with their time at home? What makes them feel good? What activities are their children involved with? It’s all right to take ideas from friends, show houses, and magazines, as long as it’s just to start the process, not to define the final product. My client’s popular baby’s-room design may have started with a photograph of an interesting, wainscoted room, but if we came across the photo today, we might not even recognize in it the bare bones of the room my client brought into being by joyfully exercising her personal taste.
Stecks
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