By Marni Jameson
“I’m having a hard time appreciating the piece. What is it?” is the text response I get from DC, when I send him a picture of a painting I’ve stumbled across.
I am in Kansas City shopping at a sumptuous home décor store with two dozen sorority sisters, who have met up for a girls’ weekend. This reunion explains why the noise level in the city temporarily surpassed that of the night last fall when the Royals won the World Series. If my husband agrees, I’m buying the piece and shipping it home to Florida.
“It’s an oil-painting, an abstract waterscape. I’m thinking for over the bed in the master,” I text back.
“From what I can see, I’m not wowed.”
“That’s why I like it. It doesn’t jump out, no people, no action. It’s actually called ‘Calmness of Blue.’”
“It’s calm all right.”
“You think it’s boring …”
“It’s hard to say yes without really seeing it.” Though he has his opinions, DC is unfailingly polite. “Who’s the artist?”
“No one we’ve heard of.”
“Probably a Chinese assembly line.”
“That’s why it’s a great price for an original oil that size, 48” x 39,” under $300, framed.” I do not say plus shipping, which won’t be cheap.
I persist, because I am part terrier. “I’m not looking at this as a collector, but as a decorator. The scale is right, the colors are right, the price is right, the subject matter is right – calm, serene. (You don’t want a painting of a bullfight over the bed.) We don’t need to love it. Not every piece of art needs to make a statement.”
“I’m pretty good at deferring on most design decisions, but I’m just not sure I’m sold,” he texts.
We table the discussion, which makes me feel like Muhammad Ali in his last round against Larry Holmes. I come home without the painting.
However, the back and forth made me flash on an article my brother, Craig Jameson, a Los Angeles architect, published in California Architecture 20 years ago. I asked him for a copy of “The Forgotten Background.” I like its sentiment now even more than I remembered.
“Imagine a new building unveiled in the city. It is a building of exceptional serenity, balance and harmony,” wrote my brother, the more cerebral sibling, in the opening. “So seamlessly is this building woven into the city… that it is scarcely noticed. It offers no shock, challenge or offense. No one writes an article about it. No one takes its picture. It is the kind of building the city needs more of than any other. It is a background building.”
Though such subtle buildings should occupy most of a city’s landscape, that is clearly not the case, is his point. Too many “buildings today are not conceived as background; they are conceived as foreground.”
And that is a problem.
Because every architect is striving to make buildings that stand out, cities have become “bewildering shouting matches of architectural showmanship.” Our cities would be improved “if architects were equally concerned with making more restrained buildings in between those that deserve special significance.”
A week had passed since the art-related text exchange. I share this article with DC, a lawyer by vocation and a director of plays by avocation. “I’m thinking of the parallels between architecture and theater,” I say. “When you cast a play, not everyone can have a lead role. You need a supporting cast.”
He agrees, of course. At which point, I seize the moment — which you must be quick to do if you are married to a lawyer – and add: “Like art in a home, not every piece needs to make a statement. Sometimes you need supporting art.”
“The calmness is growing on me,” DC, that wise man, said.
“Calmness in Blue” arrived last week. In deference, I hung it not in the master, but in a second bedroom, where it injects a sense of calm in an otherwise colorful household,
- Recognize the importance of background. Craig defines background as “an inconspicuous field that promotes the foreground.” Realize that foreground and background rely on each other to work; the more consistent the background, the more pronounced the foreground. Decide what pieces in the room you want to lead, and let everything else be the supporting cast.
- Not everything has to be fabulous. When choosing furnishings, home decorators often fall into the trap of getting a bunch of great things that don’t look great together. They find a fabulous lamp, a gorgeous chair, an exotic piece of art, an extravagant fabric, and an area rug that makes a statement, and wind up with too much of a good thing.
- Practice good design manners. Items in a room should bow to one another, and defer. “Exercising good manners in architecture means knowing when to walk and when to dance,” Craig said. The same is true inside.
- Seek subtlety, exercise restraint. Rooms, like cities, often collapse under the visual clamor of complex elements. The good gets drowned out in the noise. Great design knows when to whisper.
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of two home and lifestyle books, and the newly released Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing 2016).