Minimalism teaches us to make use of space


Q: I love my wife, but we certainly don't agree on our interior decorating ideas. I grew up in a home filled with antiques. My parents were great collectors. Looking back, I realize that they didn't have anything precious - we were allowed to play in the living room - but the collection was imaginative and interesting. Alice, my wife, is much more particular about what comes in our front door, so our house is kind of bare. This is her territory, but I can't help thinking that less really is, well, less. Do you have an opinion about today's move to "minimalism?"

A: I do, and most often it agrees with yours. I like rooms filled with things. But they must be personal things, the accretion of an involved, active life. Things are what give a room its individuality. Without things, we'd be left with the necessities only, a sofa, a couple of chairs, a bed - the minimal survival furnishings.


But wait: there's a flip side to this picture, the side your wife comes down on, and she's not alone. The minimalism movement has taught us to appreciate an increasingly endangered commodity: space. Space to breathe in. Space to stretch out in. Space to face ourselves in, without the distraction of things.

You and I like such distractions. Your wife - and many top professional designers - prefer to be alone, so to speak. Gary Hager, to name one example, grew up in a country house filled with antiques. But he also grew up to cherish space - "orderly, tightly edited space" that lends a classic calm to the rooms he has designed. You can see Hager's tight editing in the entry hall we show here. So spare and simple at first glance, its sum is much greater than the parts. That illusory checkered pattern on the walls, for example, took more than 20 colors of paint and glazes to achieve. The furnishings themselves are totally spare to the eye, but rich in history and inspiration. The torchier is derived from a classic design by Giacometti; the drawing and chair are both by Austrian art deco architect and designer, Josef Hoffmann.

Hager has said that his major design influence was Jean-Michel Frank, the French master of materials who worked in Paris in the l930s and is enjoying a renaissance among followers today.

Frank used the most elegant, the most time-intensive and expensive materials, such as shagreen (shark and stingray skin) and laboriously applied marquetry of straw. His rich and famous clients clamored for his one-of-a-kinds. And one was enough to achieve the "timeless monumentality" Frank - and Hager and maybe now your wife Alice - were striving for.

Q: I have a very important question. I'm a high-end custom paperhanger (for 22 years) and I need to know, is wallpaper ever coming back? I'm starving here.

A: Promise not to shoot the messenger? Then I will give you my best opinion: wallpaper is no longer for the masses. After enjoying a heyday in Victorian homes, where as many as five patterns might be used on the walls and ceiling, wallpaper was shamed out of sight in the mid-20th century by the International School of Architecture's insistence on plain, white walls.

That's after centuries of use in the world's best-dressed rooms - no less a tastemaker than Thomas Jefferson ordered his custom-printed wallpapers from France and waited within bare walls for them to arrive by boat several years later. Then Mies van der Rohe and his like decided that wallpaper was /bourgeois and kitschy. It was also too expensive to buy in the first place, then too costly to have installed by a top-notch professional like you.

In my opinion, the wallpaper industry - which has an illustrious and colorful history tracing back to the French kings of the 1300s - has shot itself in the foot. Instead of touting the elegance and color wallpapers can bring into a room, the paper industry in America at least has promoted the "ease" of do-it-yourself products. (I've done-it-myself many times over, and I still sympathize with those old "I Love Lucy" reruns where she and Ethel end up papering each other to the wall.)

To add exhaustion to the equation, the American wallpaper industry also insists that walls be stripped and scrubbed clean before new paper is installed. They must have never looked into an English country cottage where, I swear, the ancient walls are held up only by those successive layers of papers.

I personally adore wallpaper. I have it in all but two rooms in my own home. But the wallpaper industry, you included, needs to show the decorating public that wallpaper is truly interesting, colorful and - surprise - a wise investment because it can be washed, and doesn't craze, crack or chip like paint. Otherwise, you may have to give up your day job.

Rose Bennett Gilbert is the co-author of "Hampton Style" and associate editor of Country Decorating Ideas. Please send your questions to her at Copley News Service, P.O. Box 120190, San Diego, CA 92112-0190, or online at

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