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Learning Style 

by Jean Hubbell Asher

 For years I have been wrestling with a very basic question. Is style endemic or can it be trained? Is it within us ready to appear or something that needs to be shaped and refined? Those are hard questions to answer. I see style as being taste but with edginess, an attitude, an expression of self that says 'this is my house.'

I look back to my own visual wasteland and am astonished that decorating became my work. There was not a shred of evidence to suggest early on that this might be an appropriate career for me. When a young girl, I had little interest in my surroundings and even now I can't remember the color of the bedroom where I spent my first 12 years. I draw a blank about any details of the house except for the pull-down attic stairs, which I found a bit frightening, and the white stone exterior complete with white picket fence. The exterior of the house represented entry to the neighborhood where my friends were. That was worth remembering. .

When I was 12 years old we moved to a wonderful brick Georgian house where my family lived for the next 50 years. My bedroom was octagonal, a beautiful room with windows on three sides overlooking an orchard. That memory is revisionist; I never noticed. Where did I do my homework? Did I have a desk? Did I have a reading chair? I can't recall.

Actually I can't remember a single piece of furniture in the house except for the piano in the living room and the telephone on the chest in the hall. I can't conjure up a single wall color. Coupled with my indifference to my surroundings was the chaos that permeated my room. Every surface was spilling over with rejected outfits, clothes that did not project whatever image I was trying to create at that particular moment. The chaos concerned everyone but me. I didn't choose to be oblivious; it just didn't seem important. Massive disorder and visual blinders on my part paired to make an ominous beginning for a decorator-in- training.

Fast Forward: I've graduated from college, taken a secretarial job in New York City, met and married a struggling, if not starving, artist. Together we find a fifth floor walkup apartment in Brooklyn from which I commute daily to my job in midtown Manhattan. My dowry had not included the domestic arts but being married and having a place of my own was the first defining moment in my visual awakening.

The apartment was small. There were really only two decorating decisions to be made: furniture selection with limited funds and furniture placement. Assuming my new wifely role, I went confidently to select our furniture. My choices were dictated by price, my goal was to find as much as possible with the available monies. The first mistake on my part was quantity over quality. My next mistake was the actual selection, a pair of electric blue quite large Danish Modern chairs and an Early American sofa in olive green and gold, complete with wings and ruffled skirt. I sensed a problem with the color selection but I thought I had a solution: three bath mats in electric blue, olive and green. The other decision regarding furniture placement was made simple because there was only one wall large enough to accommodate this unusual assemblage. Lastly, there was the bridge table with four folding chairs slated for the dining area. The only significance of this revelation is that, finally, I had begun to notice the things around me.

What to do with this slightly elevated sensibility? I went often to department stores contemplating purchases that were difficult to justify when money for groceries was hard to find. I had already destroyed the budget with those folding chairs and the dining chairs from Woolworth's. Actually I thought that money (or lack thereof) was the missing ingredient for a divinely attractive apartment. The problem was more basic; I was still clueless.

Then there was the other youthful hangover, total disorder. Even that had begun to nudge my sensibilities but we had no chests of drawers, no cleaning supplies and seemingly no aptitude for these chores. It is very hard for me to conjure up the image of one (or, actually, both of us) so domestically challenged; this image, however, was the reality of marriage year in the first year.

When my husband started getting some free lance work we were ready to leave Brooklyn for Manhattan. With our increased income we found a grand apartment in the then not so desirable Upper West Side. It had a big living room with high ceilings, deep moldings, a beautiful fireplace, an alcove (which became the studio) and a bedroom just large enough to accommodate a bed. I was beginning to not only notice but to actually value my surroundings. Two years prior 'found' money represented an opportunity to buy a new sweater. Something for the apartment, however, now supplanted personal adornment.

'Found money' allowed the purchase of slipcovers for the Early American sofa and the Danish Modern chairs. It had taken just a lunch hour to buy that furniture but now weeks passed before we could decide on a color scheme for the slipcovers. During this time, my husband continued to build his portfolio, producing a fair amount of artwork for our own decorative use. A very large painting of a nude hung over the sofa and various other frameless images were propped up randomly. My decorating efforts fell quite short of the apartment's potential although good architecture enhanced my efforts.

Our stay in New York was short lived. My husband had landed an art job in Connecticut and I found a teaching jobbriefly. My second visual awakening was actually a convergence of two happenings: the termination of a fledgling teaching career by Connecticut state law as I had become pregnant and my mother's need for a day-a-week secretary to help with her new career as a decorator.

My mother had become an extremely accomplished decorator which was no surprise to anyone who knew her. Everything about her was beauty, grace and style. Unlike myself she had spent much of her childhood subliminally preparing for her future avocation. She described hours on end redecorating in her head the quite drab house where she grew up.

 We bought our first house, a small Victorian farmhouse, and had three babies in rapid succession. In between births, however, the typing went on. I was even beginning to talk in the highly arcane language of decorators. Simply ordering a fabric had its own protocol: check stock, put on reserve with a CFA, PO #, Ref #, sidemark, etc., etc. Along with my new language, I was also being exposed to the actual tools of the decorating trade as my mother sketched out floor plans, worked from blueprints and made fabric selections. She articulated instructions for workrooms with details I had never contemplated such as ogee molding edges or a particular finishing welt for upholstery. Then there were the field trips we undertook to New York showrooms, antiques stores and custom workrooms. Those planning sessions and field trips were the underpinnings of my life long obsession and with my surroundings. This, then, was the beginning of a career.

Learning Style, Page Two>>

©2003 Jean Hubbell Asher for SeniorWomenWeb
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