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Learning Style, Page Two

My first real immersion into decorating coincided with the purchase of our next house, a significantly larger Victorian farmhouse. I learned how to sew, paint, mix paints using color tints like raw umber and burnt sienna, upholster, refinish furniture, none of it very well, but that didn't really matter as things were always moving, changing, evolving. I was so enthusiastic about the endless possibilities I now knew existed that I tried them all: the blue room became the red room before turning yellow. The fabrics changed along with them. Lacking furniture, framed art work or accessories, my early decorating efforts relied on color and pattern in endless rotation.

Behind closed doors I was manic. The calm I had felt early morning while driving the nursery school car pool quickly dissipated after the drop off. I'd run to the paint store, change clothes and apply yet another layer of paintthe perfect color wash up, stow away supplies, change my clothes back, pick up the car pool members and have lunch for children playing at the house that day. When our children were in school full time I had more time to indulge my passion and inexplicably there was nothing that seemed daunting.

It went something like this: I rush to the piano, the centerpiece of the front parlor in the redoh, that's right, it's now blueroom. I play until I feel sedated by the running notes, the shifting tonalities and even the thunderous chords from a composer that could not hear. I have a few minutes left before a session driving children to yet another activity and wonderas I always doif the piano would look better on the other side of the newly blue room. I start the piano wrestleslowly, slowly. The rug interferes with a smooth glide but finally it's placed. I grab a cigarette to observe it in its new position. It could be goodbut maybe it needs a nudgejust an inch or two further back in the corner.

Climbing under the piano I tug on its backside until a small crackling sound thunders in my ear. This time it's not Beethoven; rather the sound of a collapsing leg. The listing piano is saved from total collapse by the wall. Yikes, the thought of the piano crashing onto the floor which had no subfloormy husband's words ringing in my ear. I had just enough wiggle room to escape. A telephone call away was a young, strong neighbor who came to my rescue; we moved the piano back to its original destination! I was only a few minutes late for my next destination.

Paint on the floor, broken legssmall inconveniences as I tried to bend time looking for the elusively perfect decorating solution. I confined my frenzy to certain targeted locations; in this house it was the front parlor. I may actually have shrunk the size of the room by repeated applications of paint! What had started life as a Victorian parlor before becoming a music room had ultimately become a TV room. I rationalized the changes as evolving family needs, not entirely untrue. The other truth, however, was that this room would be my chosen laboratory. I would spend hours reconfiguring before moving everything back to its "dj vu all over again" original location. I only felt I had the room right when we decided to sell the house, some 20 years later. Had we stayed in that house I'm rather confident that the search for perfection would have continued.

Everything about my approach at that time was geared toward the quick fix, the maximum effect for minimal money. Bargain sources and my willingness to rework everything and anything fueled my restless quest. The hunt would realize fruition weekly as a friend and I scoured tag sales with astounding success if success can be measured in pounds. We bought draperies and lamps and accessories to excess and always a chair or two desperate for a fresh skin and tables upon tables to be refinished. It was absurdly fun. Every week the possibilities were infinite; the mistakes many but not costly.

I needed to experiment (a euphemism for my missteps) to find my own sense of style and all the time it was right before me. It was a philosophy articulated in rooms not language. I was seeing rooms through my mother and, quite frankly, shamelessly copying her style. I was the knockoff, differing in color tones and limited budget but my house was filled with "look-a-likes." I had watched for years, as my mother would weave together the decorating craft with the personal expression of the client. It all started with a point of view and that would be folded into a master plan.

Ultimately my own point of view was also right before me, using as a core our ever-mounting art collection. However, there would be no decorating around a single painting or even a group of paintings; this was a mobile collection to be sold, exhibited and replaced. The background would have to be neutral, as would the furniture. Jolts of color would be reserved for pillows, chair seats. Contrast would come from dark stained floors and mahogany or painted furniture.

There are obviously many more elements to consider such as furniture placement and scale. Now, with eyes wide open, those elements seemed fairly intuitive. I had begun to see the benefits of symmetry and asymmetry in keeping a room grounded but vibrant. The hardest of all disciplines has been to resist the unneeded bargain and to keep scaling back on the accessories clutter.

Victorian houses were all I knew. So our next house was quite a change, a Mediterranean Villa (according to the real estate listing) complete with stucco walls, many small casement windows, arched doorways and a stone fireplace. Surprisingly almost everything translated quite well to this new venue of neutrality and sparseness to highlight the art.

We have moved again to a Cape but style is style and it comes with us. I now pay for good workmanship with reupholstering furniture or having certain pieces slipcovered in a nod to practicality for our growing family. Professional workmanship discourages the flavor of the month approach. I also have inherited a few good pieces from my mother, which eliminates the need to search for less promising furnishings. And I've become even sparer in my approach as I try to make our little house think big .

Having a house of my own and the benefit of my mother's mentoring enabled the transition from eyes half closed to eyes which are never at rest. I'm not entirely sure I'm grateful for this transition, which is so costly of time and money. I am very sure, however, that I no longer have a choice in the matter. A passion was set in motion which now has its own life.

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