The Design of Things

human endeavor + the natural world

What really lasts: Enduring decor


“What really lasts.” This is the theme of my favorite issue of House Beautiful, published in January, 2008, and it’s amazing to me that every picture in its pages has, in fact, lasted in its appeal. One of the core tenets of sustainability is durability, a quality in short supply these days. I’ve noticed a kind of liquidation quality to décor magazines over the last two years – garish color, insanely competing patterns and textures, weird 1970s and ‘80s references utilizing far too many finish materials that rely on mining, all within homes that are too new and (still, when will it end?) far too large.

This issue inspired my own home though I copied none of it exactly. Not all of it reflects my own personal taste – I don’t love rolled arm sofas; I wouldn’t choose Chinoiserie; some of it is too preppy for me. But the threads that run through it show us exactly what lasts.

In each feature the rooms are furnished comfortably, easily functional without large spaces to traverse between rooms or among pieces. There are balances of sizing – normal-scaled sofas and chairs in a relatively low-ceilinged living room are dominated by wall-sized oil paintings from the hunt. There is a balance of color —  airy neutrals are interrupted by an oversized brown check on the armchairs;  tall walls painted in the airy  pale green of Benjamin Moore’s “Nantucket Breeze” are offset by long orange silk drapes, the color echoed in the striped upholstery of French dining chairs. Color is present but threaded through these palettes, allowing light to dominate.

In each layout the quality and location of the light is clear, whether it’s the cooler grey bright light filtering through the windows of an antique Newport, RI cottage, or the open, warm weight of the air in New Orleans. The home signals and responds to its surroundings, in a way that is both immediate and timeless. None feels “decorated” – that imposition of ideas that might not relate to the home’s geography or quality of life outside.


You can feel these houses. The soft hush of the home in Atlanta, pastels warmed by dark wood. The airy high ceilinged gorgeousness of the New Orleans townhouse, filled with antiques but made fresh with white trim and bare touches of gold. The cozy breeziness of the Newport cottage, all the way up to the toile covered tiny bedroom at the top of the stairs. You can be their guest. You would love to visit and stay, year after year after year.




dirt is the new Champagne


Champagne, once the color of tastefully wealthy, has now been replaced by a dirt brown in most car lineups these days. Brown cars are turning up in Volkswagens to Volvos, Toyota and Honda SUVs, even BMWs. It’s not a seventies brown, more cocoa than orange. It seems reserved for the higher end and/or stylish models. This is now the color of the tastefully earthy – and earthy may be a safer way to feel wealthy post- post-recession.

Real dirt, meanwhile, is the new gold, though we’re not valuing it that way just yet. We need earth. We need it rich and filled with microbial life and sequestering carbon, just outside our back door and in our farm fields and along our rivers. But around the world and in our own backyards, we’re letting soil go. We’re scooping it with bulldozers to widen highways, scraping it out to build subdivisions near rivers where they will eventually flood, and growing lawns that have no root life, fertilizing the hell out of them for good measure.

Contaminated soil in China will eventually affect food production there. American industrial farming continues to pour excess nitrogen into the soil to boost crop production – most recently evidenced by the toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie, fouling Toledo’s drinking water. (This after a story in Modern Farmer several years ago about farming operations around the lake coordinating to reduce their fertilizer use.) And our suburbs and cities are becoming sterile environments, devoid of the soil-based microbial life that keeps us healthy.

I think the new brown cars are meant to show a kind of Great Recession humility. No more Champagne uncorked — at least not on the highway. I think they’re kind of pretty. But they can’t replace the real thing. We still shouldn’t pave over, dig up, and “fertilize” the best soils in the world, and then park on top of them.


Color in doses, in Martinique



Color is love, isn’t it? We use it to create a mood, to be welcoming, to refer to an era we love, to express joy and comfort. My husband Kevin and I were just in the West Indies (You’ll be hearing about that through several more blogs!) so of course we have been enjoying color for ten days. But because we were in Martinique, which is really France – vraiment — the use of color there was subtle, gorgeous, true to nature, and that much more arresting.

Everywhere we went, the predominant materials in the interiors were natural: Wood, dried palms and banana leaves, stone. The “island of flowers” appeared mostly green, with bursts of cardinal red in a spiky tropical bloom, the flash of metallic blue-bottle green on the wings of an almost black hummingbird, a glimpse of the yellow breast of the tiny Bananaquit, or Sucrier, a busy, buzzing bird in the trees overhead.

The use of color in our hotels, in restaurants, and outside was the same. Colorful houses were washed in pale pastels. Wooden boats painted in jewel-toned stripes floated in the dark blue waters of the harbors. A simple café might have tables dressed in oilcloths with flowers or the native madras plaid pattern in yellow, orange, and green.

The effect was elegant, celebratory, and gentle – leaving plenty of room to absorb the natural beauty all around.



Start practicing real politics

“Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.”

I found this quote typed on a card in a sweet shop near me called Nesting, where they specialize in selling charming oddities — like quotes typed on a card. It was being sold for a dollar, and so I plunked that down and took the card home.

In politics, the art of perception is to pay attention, deeply, to what the other person might want and where what they want is shared with you. In strategy, artful persons develop a vision of what they want to achieve and perceive how others might find it acceptable to come along with them.

Artless politics is the drive, drive, driving of a point without any sense of how to bring others along — which means, in the end, you probably won’t.

Liberal and conservative heroes have been both perceptive and strategic, and so they have passed large pieces of legislation, made shifts in U.S. foreign policy, and made the previously unthought-of accepted and expected – from clean air and water laws to restarting relations with previous enemies to ending decades-long civil wars to accommodating people with disabilities. These are just a few examples.

Much of what passes for politics right now is not artful. Politicians considered “darlings” or “leaders” of their parties are usually the ones shouting or disdaining. Social media encourages lots of posting and lots of scanning headlines without seeking information or nuance. We watch cable to feel righteous or pissed off. The hunt is for the thrill, for the spreading of the “Can you believe this?” headlines and memes of the day.

And so we are not armed with perception, and we can’t develop strategy. We can only react, and in turn the leaders we elevate become even more reactionary.

In our democracy we have many opportunities to gain perception and develop real vision – the kind that imagines many different constituencies moving toward common goals. This week, for example, The Washington Post is broadcasting the Cabinet confirmation hearings live online. Taking a ten or fifteen minute break to watch or listen to one is fascinating and far more informative than any news summary.

Senators signal their positions through their lines of questioning. Nominees betray ignorance or display thoughtfulness that is not always covered in the media accounts. And when you see something you like – like a Senator being tough on someone for a particular position or lack of knowledge – you can follow up by giving their office a call to say thank you, which shifts that office’s perception of what is important. Same thing when you don’t want a Senator to be soft on a particular issue, or you have concerns about the nominees’ ability to address it. You can participate as a citizen, right there and then.

As you begin to participate, you learn the issues and the players more clearly. You can ask more of your own politicians and others across the country. And you might begin to notice where there is some commonality you previously thought did not exist – as I found yesterday, when a Senator I did not expect to closely questioned the nominee for Secretary of State on climate change. Armed with that awareness, you might begin to think about how to turn the tide on an issue that has seemed so partisan and deeply entrenched.

That’s what the greats did. That’s what we should expect again of our leaders — but we will only get this from them if we expect it of ourselves.




Wherefore, boots?

For at least three seasons, maybe as many as five, I haven’t been able to find a tall boot that would work in a professional situation. At first, I thought it was me. I wasn’t really looking, or I was too picky, or the fashions just weren’t right for me. If it was the latter – well, that always changes after a season or two.

But recently I’ve realized that the current offerings are relatively permanent, and that it’s a problem noticed by other women I know. It’s an abrupt reversal of fashion and design trends that grew over decades as women entered, stayed in – and sent female children off to – the work force.

This isn’t about a boot shortage. These days, there seems to be a surplus. Online retailers like Zappo’s and Asos list pages and pages of tall boots (not to mention the equally ubiquitous “booty”). Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom, Nordstrom Rack, Marshall’s, T.J.Maxx, Nine West, Garnet Hill, J.Crew, Land’s End and others all list them on their websites or stock rows and rows of them in their stores. Everywhere, there are boots.

But there are none for women who want to wear them to work, looking smart and professional all day while being able to hurry down the halls of Congress or run up the stairs of the lab building or chase down an interview at the end of a court proceeding and then get back to the newsroom. For when we would want to wear trousers, dresses, or skirts.

The tall boots offered now are one of two styles: “riding” or over the knee (or riding boots with an over the knee flap, giving them a vaguely jackbootish air.) Some of the riding boots are faintly or overtly western, other Ralph Lauren-ish stiff, others elfin slouchy, still others all three in a mashup of design elements. Most of the over-the-knee boots remind one only of one profession – which might bring you to Washington or to courtrooms but not for the right reasons.

None but the highly expensive dress the ankle. None distinguish themselves through the shape of the toe bed. Almost all in the “riding” style have the profile of a rain boot: Wide in the ankle, gaping in the calf, neither square nor narrow. Some of the over-the-knee boots are fun, and some beautiful, but not really for everyday. For everyday, it seems, we have shapeless.

Did this trend emerge from girls wearing Uggs or Hunter rain boots (depending on whether they wanted to be slouchy or prim in their privilege) to college classes ten years ago? Is it a resistance to being professional? Are the stiletto over-the-knee boots being sold at department stores an outcome of internet porn?

Maybe it’s all of this and maybe it’s something more reflective of the state of our economy and of our aspirations. There is little cost to making the same boot year after year, and making it in China out of manmade materials. There is no cost to making a boot that will “fit” anyone – and there may be a profit in putting actual design up on the “luxury” shelf, so those with any style at all now cost between $300 – $800. And when we see boots that can only be worn with skinny jeans and leggings by day, or a minidress to a club at night — does it limit our imagination for putting on clothes that will take us far out into the world?

It’s a reshuffling toward the proletariat and the oligarchs – not toward a place where women are independent, buying their own clothes with their own money, succeeding and leading in the workplace and beyond.

boots from


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