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Haute Decor on a Dime

Haute Decor on a Dime
BEAR ESSENTIALS It is better to have a sparse home filled with a few things one really likes than a home filled with useless rubbish. Photo by Christian Chensvold

Tips for budget interior decorating

I’d just finished introducing a coworker to the pleasure of dancing in formal dress at one of the Gaskell’s Balls held at the Scottish Rites Temple on Lake Merritt. At the stroke of midnight we walked back to her Deco-era apartment building with only the most platonic of intentions. She was cute as a bug’s ear, as my grandpa would say, but we were certainly not compatible. For starters, there was the matter of home decor. At that time I was an advocate of late Victorian clutter, while she was an arch minimalist. As she turned the key and welcomed me inside, I immediately thought of Gertrude Stein’s celebrated quip in reference to the city of Oakland: “There’s no there there.”

She was known around the office for being—how shall we put it?—a little high strung. A graphic designer who’d just graduated art school, she was one of those people who use the word “aesthetic” compulsively, which has given me a lifelong aversion to the term—notice how I only used it with quotation marks? She was also depressive by nature, and so it really wasn’t surprising to discover that Miss Postmodern Aesthetic Highbrow lived in an almost entirely empty apartment. It was the year 2000, and she had already gladly accepted an arid futuristic utopia/dystopia. I wouldn’t be surprised if by now she’s living in a pod.

The main room featured only an industrial desk topped with a Mac computer that served as the stereo for playing melancholy Britpop, and an 18th-century-styled chaise lounge, lest a visitor conclude the minimalist scheme hadn’t been arrived at by anything other than laborious deliberations. The walls were rental-unit white without a single picture, and the bedroom door left ajar revealed a mounted mattress with no headboard, plain white comforter and a few items of clothing strewn about. For me it was a soulless and nihilistic living environment, suggestive of an inner emptiness, confusion or angst.

I’ve always been the opposite: too many interests, too many ideas straining for realization. If the personality is structured like a great temple, mine has too many rooms. Think of the movie Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell, the vivacious archetypal “wine aunt” who changes her apartment from one extreme to the other throughout the film, indicative of a drama queen with ample Leo energy in the Fourth House, which rules over the home.

Over the years and on a freelance writer’s budget—sometimes broke, sometimes flush—I’ve tried to emulate Belle Epoque Paris, an Art Deco gentleman’s pad whose press release would announce “Bertie Wooster meets Ralph Lauren,” and even a swingin’ ’60s James Bond supervillain’s lair. I enjoyed pondering home and office environs so much I even founded a website for men called MasculineInteriors.com, which I sold for the equivalent of a nice dining room set—as if I’ve ever had a dining room—and which the owner seems to have done nothing with but render it a kind of digital public storage unit filled with somebody else’s stuff.

But my homes only really started to feel like home when—older and wiser, the former being inevitable, the latter hard-earned—I stopped trying to scream some aspect of myself that was trying to come out, as well as nixing the urge to approach decor as if it were a math equation requiring the most rational and task-oriented part of the brain. This area is not the wellspring of wellbeing, of the soul’s sense of beauty and what it needs for a happy home, and when I recently moved back to California after a decade in New York, starting from scratch once again, I downshifted my mind out of its usual manic new-project mode and let the deeper, subconscious energies create a humble dwelling at a slow-and-steady analog pace.

So here are a few things I’ve learned after decades of being a tireless tinkerer with my apartments, and wiping the slate clean more than once:

First off, I think of my home decor as a kind of wardrobe that surrounds my body but is nevertheless attached to it. As with clothing, the best way to become immediately better dressed is to edit, which means purge everything that isn’t “perfect.” Distracted by outside influences and passing caprices, we tend to accumulate things that upon reflection we don’t really like. To find out whether an object truly belongs in my life, I touch it, close my eyes and ask myself if I “love” it. If the answer doesn’t make my whole body vibrate with warmth, as if I were arm-in-arm with my best friend, then I get rid of it. It is better to have a sparse home filled with a few things one really likes than a home filled with useless rubbish. Also, there’s a huge difference between a home filled modestly with items cherished by the heart, and a home that doesn’t need anything edited because nothing was ever put in it in the first place … which suggests the person inhabiliting the dwelling either cannot find their heart, or doesn’t know what it’s trying to say. 

Next, for those on a budget, consider the notion of “shabby chic,” the ’90s trend for thrifted furniture artfully painted to look vaguely like it came from a French country cottage. This approach can emphasize the chic just as much as the shabby. I’m always surprised by how good a $15 piece of furniture turns out with a coat of paint and a couple of dollars worth of new hardware. It’s also immensely satisfying, and the apex of achievements is the successful restoration of a scavenged piece left on the sidewalk, which is the home furnishings equivalent of finding a stray dog.

Finally, we come to the art on the walls, crucial for providing the soul with the nourishing images it needs. And as our inner state is always in flux, since all the universe is in a state of perpetual motion, it may be necessary to regularly change the pictures on our walls. Sometimes we may feel drawn to bold and colorful pictures, other times black-and-white photography; sometimes images of action, other times images of tranquility. And since the odds of stumbling across such perfect images is exceedingly rare, and custom-framing even small prints can be quite expensive, try this trick. Find images on the web, and have them printed on 11-by-17-inch paper for a dollar. Then mount them in frames sourced from thrift stores or garage sales; the worst-case scenario only requires the purchase of a custom-sized matting board. Get into the zone, and it’s easy to collect enough frames and images to allow for swapping them out at any time.

There’s a curious linguistic gem that goes by the name “abulia,” which is defined as the inability to act or make a decision. Those postmodern minimalist types who think they’ve reached some sort of style apex are more accurately stuck at the bottom of the mountain, suffering from paralysis by analysis and having gotten absolutely nowhere. And as the truest actions we make are those that come not from reactions to external circumstances, but from the core of our own being, I urge us all to take action by becoming the king or queen of our own home. Let us banish all that which serves no purpose, while welcoming in our own personal pageantry, since, as the old saying goes, our home should be our castle.

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