I once found myself squished into the back of an overflowing seminar room while Rose Tarlow spoke about design. Due to the crowd, I couldn't see her face but I heard a man rise and ask Ms. Tarlow about the most important element in a room. Without missing a beat, she said, "The people."
Tarlow is known for being sort of an anti-decorator. She considers herself first and foremost a collector and antiquarian, and she likes to craft subtle rooms around exquisite objects. I think of her as the high priestess of understatement. But that doesn't mean she is a minimalist.
She does though often use a neutral backdrop, something that she feels won't compete visually with her cherished collections, and she uses colorful objects -- the brilliant blue glass and the green ceramics in image two, above -- like jewelry. A very flexible approach to decorating.
Neutrals certainly aren't a requirement for understated interiors. According to Vogue's Book of Etiquette, 1969, "A little understatement merely recognizes the obvious but frequently forgotten fact that a house should not overwhelm the people in it. A domineering quality is as disturbing in a room as it is in a person."
I think the room directly above, designed by Schuyler Samperton, shows a nice use of restraint. There are not too many pillows on the sofa. Yet, there is no lack of interesting pattern and texture. It's not that grand gestures or abundant pattern are even a problem. The key, according to Vogue is avoiding the absurd. And of course that can become subjective.
Vogue gives examples:
"A ruffled skirt around a bed can be charming, but if the canopy, chair skirts, and curtains are ruffled too, the charm vanishes."
"Ornaments that delight the eye can make a room more interesting, but when they occupy every available surface, one feels like the proverbial bull in a china shop."
"Just as people can be too loud, too talkative, and too exuberant -- so a room can be too dramatic, too colorful, too crowded, too ornate...exaggeration tends to create an impression of insecurity, braggadocio, or vulgarity."
The last image was sent to me by reader Elizabeth. It's a Paul Ludick alcove from Elle Decor, December 2006. The mix of the George Smith leather chair and gallery wall grabbed my attention.
Images one through three are from The Private House.
And one more thought: this oft-posted vignette from designer Betsy Burnham is a favorite of mine. She seems to be channeling the famous Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. It's not too domineering for me, so I think it raises an interesting point about the whole concept of understatement -- as defined in the Vogue book -- being, again, very subjective.