The Human Habitat: The Real World of Interiors

The twilight struggle between Life and Design surely counts as one of the great long-running stories of the century now ending. This clash of terms has given us battles drenched in both tragedy and farce, on fronts as different as the Iron Curtain and the curtain wall, Soviet collective farms and Corbusian villas, American urban-renewal projects and, if I may add a somewhat less famous skirmish to the list, the redecoration of my parents’ apartment in the early 1970′s. It was during this episode, which took place when I was 15, that I first understood how easily our dreams of a more perfect order can founder on the shoals of everyday life.

In my family’s case, the dream of a more perfect order was supplied by a man named William Machado, the interior decorator my mother chose from the pages of a home-design magazine to redo the dated and gloomy Manhattan co-op my family had moved into the year before, making the big step up from our ranch house on Long Island. In memory, Machado looks exactly like Jerome Robbins, with the same scrupulously clipped salt-and-pepper beard, the erect dancer’s bearing and an austere, somewhat formal manner not at all in keeping with the times. It was always an occasion when he came by to present his color schemes and fabric swatches, my mother according him the deference due a maestro, while my father grumpily eyed his watch and mentally patted his wallet.

The summer of the renovation, my parents removed the whole family to the beach for the duration, and it was there that one of the unsolved mysteries of my childhood unfolded—one that, in retrospect, should have served as fair warning to us all that living under (or up to) Machado’s design was not going to be easy. It concerned Binker, our English bulldog. Bought on sale from a pet store by my father, Binker was in every respect a horrible creature. She attacked children without provocation. With a snorty flick of her great, bejowled head, Binker could fling a ropy lariat of drool 20 feet, and if that didn’t empty the room, her staggering smell would finish the job. We surmised that Binker’s digestive and respiratory tracts had somehow been crossed, for her breath seemed to come from someplace other than a lung. Binker also suffered from eczema and incontinence, though the latter condition may have represented nothing more than an extreme manifestation of her laziness. Either way, Binker’s existence, which might be said to represent the antithesis of good design, posed a mortal challenge to Machado’s work in progress, and as the renovation progressed, my parents could often be heard fretting about the dog’s future in the new apartment.

Then the mysterious thing happened. One morning a few days before we were due to move back into the finished apartment, Binker quietly and conveniently expired in her sleep. It would never have occurred to me to suspect foul play—Binker was getting on in years—except that my father made such a big show of taking her to the animal hospital for an autopsy. He returned brandishing an official-looking document declaring that Binker had died, and I quote, of “natural causes.”

When I saw the new apartment, I knew right away that Binker was better off having departed this world for what could only be a more imperfect one. All our old stuff was gone, and the living room had been transformed into a meticulously composed tableau, a spacious, tranquil room, done in shades of wheat and sand and clay, that occupied an existential plane somewhere between high-tech and Zen. I remember thinking that it looked just like a magazine, and wondered if the new living room was going to get the sort of velvet-rope treatment I’d run into at some kids’ houses. There was one friend’s place I must have been over a thousand times before even setting (unshod) foot in the living room, a plushly carpeted Danish Moderne space as blue and airless as the sea.

A few days after we moved in, Machado himself showed up to put the finishing touches on his masterwork. He spent an entire day arranging the wall of books in the living room, until he had satisfied himself that he had achieved the ideal composition of upright Modern Library volumes alternating with great slabs of art books stacked on their sides, and here and there the occasional jaunty leaner canted at a precise 60 degrees off plumb. Books whose spine color or typography he judged unesthetic were exiled to the bedrooms, along with all our paperbacks. To give the whole wall the proper amount of compositional air, he left spaces between the book clusters for a collection of considered objects—a pair of kachina dolls, a carved Inuit stone and various pre-Columbian tchotchkes. Some of this stuff I recognized as my mother’s, but a lot of it I’d never seen before.

I had to admit that the bookshelves were beautiful, as much a work of art as half the volumes perched on them, yet they soon became a symbol of the vague oppression Machado’s design had visited on our daily lives. Though to their credit (and peril), my parents never ruled the new living room off-limits to minors, Machado’s bookshelves quickly emerged as a source of family tension. My mother informed us that each time we removed a book from the Wall, we were to leave a little slip of paper in its place so the book could be returned to its designated spot. As you might expect, this regime didn’t survive very long, and in short order several of the Modern Librarys were found lying down, and a few of the leaners began looking less casual than sloshed.

The creep of entropy took its psychological toll on my mother, but her fidelity to Machado’s art never quite exceeded her devotion to her children (a proposition we sought daily to test), because she continued to let us take out books. What we didn’t know then was that she had made a graph-paper sketch of Machado’s tableau, recording each book’s precise address and the cosine of every leaner, and after we went to bed she would set to work putting the Wall right again, holding the picture perfect for one more day.

I realize now that my mother’s sketch of Machado’s bookshelf arrangement was her way of defending his design against the inevitable frictions of time and habitation—arguably the Achilles’ heel of 20th-century design. Ever since the modernists, whose rise happened to coincide with the advent of architectural photography, much of the energy of interior design has been directed toward that single pristine moment my mother was struggling to preserve: the day the finished but not yet inhabited house gets its picture taken, freezing it in time. This is the moment memorialized in the magazine layout, the still point on which designers’ careers turn. After that, it’s downhill. “Very few of the houses,” Frank Lloyd Wright once complained, were “anything but painful to me after the clients moved in and, helplessly, dragged the horrors of the old order along after them.”

A designer’s “horrors” are nothing other than the client’s favorite stuff—the furniture, pictures, curios, books, mementos and keepsakes accumulated over a life. We prize these things not necessarily for their beauty, and certainly not for the harmonious way they fit together, but because they tell a story about us, individuals with a particular history that, over time, gets written on the walls of our homes. The problem is, that story is not necessarily the same one a designer wants to tell. He doesn’t want his work of art haunted by our past or, for that matter, left open to the imprint of our futures.

All art aspires to the condition of timelessness, but what, in a house, is time? It is simply us, going about our lives, taking books off the shelf and putting them back wrong, adding a souvenir from a vacation to the mantle, taping a report card to the fridge, leaving crescent moons of coffee on the new butcher block. (Did I mention the new kitchen counters? For years my mother would apply a nightly poultice of Bon Ami to the butcher block, hoping to bleach out the traces of the day.) As inevitably as weathering, the process of inhabiting a space leaves the marks of time all over it, and so constitutes a declension from the designer’s ideal.

It was the modernists who first came up with a solution to this design problem, a way to keep our stuff and all the other traces of habitation out of the picture. They would insist on designing their interiors down to the very last detail, not only the bookshelves and cabinets (“Farewell the chests of yesteryear,” Le Corbusier had declared) but also the furniture (built in wherever possible) and window treatments, and even in some cases the light fixtures and teapots and ashtrays. This way they could control everything in the picture. And some didn’t stop there: Wright went so far as to design new clothes for one client, the better to insure that her presence in his rooms wouldn’t spoil their color schemes. The wonder is that there are clients who actually like the idea of having their lives professionally designed. Architects get asked to arrange not only their clients’ books but also the toothbrushes in their bathrooms and even the groceries in their pantry. I’ve seen blueprints prepared for the express purpose of showing a client where to put her olive oil.

Not many of us would ever think to have a designer pre-position our salad oils, and yet we’re avid to look at the homes of the kind of people who do—that is, the scrupulously styled rooms splashed across the spreads of shelter books like House & Garden and Metropolitan Home. At least, I know I am, even after having spent part of my childhood trying to live within the confines of such a magazine spread. We look, even though we understand no one really lives like that, even when we know a not-very-bookish stylist has handpicked the bedside reading, that the ottoman was brought in to bestow a credit on an advertiser and that the Phalaenopsis has already gone back to the orchid-rental guy.

Yet there’s a powerful fantasy on offer here, and it’s not just a fantasy of wealth, though surely that comes into it. For me, at least, it’s a daydream of a more ordered and coherent existence (not to mention a really good housekeeper). In this other life, the wave of clutter and information threatening to break over us has somehow been tamed. Notice how rarely a TV or computer or even a magazine disturbs the peace of these rooms; indeed, the images themselves implicitly deny the existence—the pressures—of the very world that produced them. Also, the harmonious tableaux bespeak an equally harmonious marriage, a meeting of the minds on how two people, or a family, can live happily together. (Never mind that few interludes can ruin a marriage quicker than the building of one of these places.) So, yes, these rooms ask us to suspend our disbelief, and we do, accepting these frozen signs of habitation for the flowing, tangled thing itself.

The picture in the magazine also gratifies our voyeurism, for how often do we get to peer into the kitchens or bedrooms of perfect strangers? Yet we seldom get to see how other people inhabit their houses, which is to say, live their private, at-home lives. Shelter magazines offer only the thinnest sampling of the myriad forms domestic life can take. Even today, when “good design” is no harder to find than the nearest Crate & Barrel, most of us continue to make our places according to our own idiosyncratic lights. We’ll buy one of those from there, borrow this idea or that from Martha Stewart or the people next door, but mostly we’re happy to let life’s accidents and passing fancies shape and reshape our interiors. We might start out with a picture, but we usually end up with a story.

I’m thinking of a couple of rooms I’ve been in recently, rooms in which the crosscurrents of personal history have exerted a stronger pressure than design or even good taste. The first is a woodsy New England home decorated in what might best be called Amateur Natural Historian. Wasps’ nests balloon from tree branches crisscrossing the ceiling; a snake’s skeleton stretches out along the mantle; cactuses thick as phone poles tower in the kitchen; a stuffed barn owl supervises the dinner table. Then, in central Florida, a soaring white church of a living room presided over by a floor-to-ceiling hutch displaying, exclusively, a collection of hand-painted Walt Disney plates, each of them tenderly held in a circle of halogen. One more: the handmade house of a friend who died recently, where, on the mantle, his daughters have composed a modest shrine consisting of his first novel, his pocketknife, a family portrait from a sunny time, a guitar pick and a shell from his hunting rifle. The real world of interiors is a far stranger and more wonderful place than any designer or magazine editor can conceive.

The pages that follow—documenting the insides of homes from Cleveland to Taipei, Brooklyn to Bangkok—offer abundant, even extravagant proof of this proposition. Taken together, they tell a story of how we go about inhabiting the places we live in, how we make them our own. And though this process is inevitably inflected by the particularities of culture and class, certain elements of the story seem the same just about everywhere.

One is the importance of our stuff—Wright’s “horrors”—in making, and marking, our places. A novelist could tease entire lives from the contents of a bachelorette’s bathroom, or from the boxed dowry items carefully set aside in an Indian farmer’s living room, or even from the ghostly marks of furniture pressed into the carpet of an unoccupied house foreclosed on by the bank. Indeed, the emptiest rooms make the point most eloquently—that, far from being inanimate or mute, our things breathe life into a room. Matter matters.

Particular as we like to think our places are, they seem to pass through predictable phases, not unlike our bodies, and on the walls of our rooms you can read the ages of man. Singles have a specific way of organizing the traffic jam of an apartment share, and the newlywed couple’s tentative stabs at interior decoration will tend toward the generic, taking care not to insist on anything too distinctive just yet—except, of course, images of the newlyweds themselves. Later on our places grow emphatic: think of the richly inhabited, overripe rooms of people who have lived in the same place for 50 years, or the brutally edited last quarters of elderly people who have had to decamp to nursing homes. To peer into such rooms is to realize that what we call “a sense of place” has very little to do with design or space, but is really a function of time.

It was House & Garden that eventually came to photograph our apartment, though in the end my mother wouldn’t let them run the pictures. The magazine’s stylist had insisted on hanging paintings on the walls and plopping a rented ficus tree on the coffee table in the living room. Machado himself was willing, but my mother refused to go along; if she wasn’t going to let her children alter the room’s composition, then she certainly wasn’t about to let a magazine.

But over time, the press of life got the better of the design. After my grandfather died, my grandmother—in her 90′s and not well—came to live with us. Machado’s living room, where she spent her last afternoons, was gradually transformed by her nurse into a kind of hospital day room, with lots of mismatched chairs for her visitors and a big rented TV on casters. The summer of my freshman year in college, I lived in the apartment with a friend, and we put burns in the butcher block no amount of Bon Ami could erase, though I scoured them till my wrists ached. Books began to migrate more freely in and out of the living room, and new objects gradually infiltrated the Wall, until the whole thing had pretty much relaxed into an unphotogenic normalcy. By then my mother had relaxed, too, and now she’ll smile when reminded of her graph-paper sketch.

But the final insult to the design was inflicted by my father, who one dad got the bright idea of bringing home another pet store special—this time a Maltese, a breed he reasoned would be better suited to life in a Manhattan co-op than a bulldog. But though Chauncey may have looked the part, he proved only slightly less awful than his predecessor. He was a macho little mop of a dog who left a white wake of fur and insisted daily on marking every right angle in the apartment, and it wasn’t long before it became the sort of place where old Bink might have felt at home.

Looking at the apartment today, a quarter-century after the renovation, it doesn’t feel very much like Machado’s creation anymore. No, now it seems very much my family’s creation, if that’s the right word for something shaped by so little intention. The perfect picture has faded almost past recognition, but in its place there’s this story—of one marriage, four childhoods, now a bunch of grandchildren. The last time I was over I noticed that one of my sister’s horse-show trophies had found its way onto the Wall, next to my ratty high-school copy of “The Catcher in the Rye.” And though the apartment these days can sometimes feel like a museum of my teen years, with my father’s original cast album of “The Me Nobody Knows” still on the turntable, one of my wife’s paintings recently won a spot on the mantle in the living room, so it’s not as though time has stopped here. Le Corbusier, whose own design strove so heroically to escape the press of time, nevertheless knew how it had to end. “Life,” he said, “always has the last word.