In keeping with my 20th-anniversary-of-house-ownership musings, today's New York Times "Home" section prompted winsome memories of our transition from a one-bedroom newlywed flat in a Park Slope brownstone to the vast recesses of the CrazyStable. The "Room to Improve" column, a Q and A, starts with this cri de coeur: "My fiancé and I are moving from a small apartment to a huge house. Help!"
"Not to worry," counsels the Times' decorating maven. "Turning a big house into a comfortable home is as simple as making good choices when combining texture, color and size. Begin with a theme."
Wow, yeah, absolutely. You can see my still-20-something self here, in what is now our kitchen, just awhirl with possibilities. A theme, a theme. Pea-soup green? Exposed BX cable? Or perhaps filth-encrusted radiators reflected in broken mirrors? So many choices for a neophyte mansion-dweller!
According to a Wired magazine dude quoted in the Times, our first order of business should have been to "define the concept" and "come up with a unified visual language." When we moved our clutch of Door Store laminate bookshelves, beige corduroy couch, and painted-pine family castoffs to the cavernous CrazyStable, I think our best-defined concept was "squatting." (Hey, our couch met the Times' recommendation to use "neutral uphostered pieces to help warm up a space and make it more comfortable." At least until the cats, in a protracted state of cabin fever, ripped it to shreds that winter.)
There we huddled in more than 3,000 square feet of squalid frontier. Whole rooms, and one entire floor, stood virtually empty except for their lonely sink-and-towel-bar "detail" left over from boarding-house days. We holed up in two rooms in the second floor ("bedroom" and "living room"), and lived without kitchen or bathroom (just a toilet and sink) from October to nearly Christmas of that first memorable autumn, stopping on our way home after work to shower in my Mom's Manhattan apartment. We shut the doors to our "safe rooms" to keep the cats from roaming free (see the holes in the walls? The electricians left them everywhere after upgrading the wiring, holes big enough to swallow cats, although I believe the technical name for them is "squirrel holes." Not that we didn't have those, too.) We lived all together, the cats, their litter, their food, and us, and ventured out into the gloom to use the loo and wash up. At the time, I worked down the street from the infamous Prince George Hotel, a warehouse for the homeless; as I'd pass its chaotic lobby, I'd look up at the milk cartons stored by resourceful mothers on the windowsills, and wonder if I could bring myself to do it. I missed milk, those two months; and after eating nothing but deli take-out and fast food until we got the downstairs kitchenette working, I gained a new and lasting empathy for the dietary shortcomings of the urban poor.
But back to décor. In the Times, an architect from Greenwich, Conn. suggests "tempering your house's size with furnishings of a commensurate scale"--for example, with a "whimsical" $4,000 nine-foot version of a desk lamp, which broods over the tubular chair in their photo like an escapee from a Pixar short. We could've used that sucker. After the electricians left, we remembered--oops, we had no lighting fixtures to go with the new boxes and outlets. Suddenly the high-ceilinged rooms and hallways were plunged from bare-bulb-lit splendor into blackness. For awhile, we raised and lowered a worklight up and down the stairwell for our nighttime excursions from the "safe rooms"--it felt like descending a mine shaft.
As for furnishings, we had little time or energy to worry as to how we'd fill those 14-odd rooms. Half the first floor was earmarked for my mother within the year; there were plenty of packing crates and construction materials to scatter among the rest. I stepped up my scavenging, acquiring useful tables and other items from stoop sales and garbage, and set them about. Most of our tchotchkes would stay in storage for years; we didn't unpack our china until 1991, still wrapped in its 1986 newspaper.
And eventually, we did manage to fill a surprising amount of square footage with some sort of furnishings, although not the "complete collections" endorsed by the Times (such as a 10-piece ensemble with a $5,600 couch, "which incorporates chenille and bamboo"--whoa, the kitties would love that). Instead, like a tide-washed pirates' cove, we absorbed several shipwrecks' worth of old stuff from various deceased relatives. My folks, Spouse's parents, my friend, several aunts and uncles...all left us flotsam and jetsam, which now creates a sort of collage of lost but fondly remembered households. Aunt Louie's crooked pine bookcase...Aunt Rosemary's credenza (complete with Uncle Charlie's botched refinishing job, now further sullied by juice from a rotting pumpkin)...Daddy's childhood bookcase, Merian's nightstand. With a few more bits from Ikea along the way (mostly for Child), it will have to do; I have a feeling that the "complete collection" phase of our décor-acquiring life has slipped away. My grand theme now is "comfy stuff that cats can destroy with impunity," along with "items that evoke people and places we love," from Child's cartoons to Aunt Louie's Indian temple gong and our Archie McPhee rubber lizards. And it's good to know that, after 20 years, we still have "room to improve."