Style Court

Textiles, Art History, Gardens, and a Little Mental Traveling with Courtney Barnes 2006-2016


Deborah Needleman's Universal Appeal

[Illustration by Virginia Johnson from Deborah Needleman's book, The Perfectly Imperfect Home, Random House, 2011.]

For several decades now, my dad has driven a vintage sports car that's like a magnet. No matter where the car is parked, people of all ages and from all walks of life flock to it and peer through the windows. I appreciate old cars, but I'm not a serious connoisseur, so I'm fascinated by the reaction. Must be a testament to great design. Form and function and all that.  

[On the left, Eric Cahan's photograph of personal pictures in Carolina Herrera Jr.'s Madrid digs as seen in domino, spring/summer 2005. At right, Virginia Johnson distills the essence for The Perfectly Imperfect Home, Random House, 2011.]

When I first opened Deborah Needleman's book, The Perfectly Imperfect Home: How to Decorate & Live Well, I probably had the same look of recognition or excitement that the car gazers have.

As mentioned several weeks ago, instead of using recycled photos of iconic rooms to illustrate her small-but-packs-a-punch decorating primer, Needleman enlisted the wonderful artist Virginia Johnson to capture the essence of some famous (as well as less known design cult favorite) interiors ranging from the late Brooke Astor's polished, Alan Campbell fabric-filled bedroom to India Hicks and David Flint Wood's breezy island vignette to Elliott Puckette and Hugo Guinness's perfectly 'undecorated' living room (shown at top). Design junkies will feel a sense of connection ("Hey, I have that apartment in my inspiration file") but those who don't know or really care which tastemaker did a certain room will, I think, simply be inspired by the ideas.

[Lisa Fine's Parisian pad illustrated by Virginia Johnson for The Perfectly Imperfect Home.]

With humor and her trademark gets-right-to-the-point style, Needleman makes the case that almost all designers claim to favor warm, functional, highly personal rooms yet somehow, month after month, the shelter mags are filled with very similar staged interiors. (Personally, I see the same end tables, the same fabrics, the same high heels 'casually tossed' on the floor, and the same decorative pillows placed in a way that almost prohibits sitting.) Reacting to this, her book explores a variety of truly comfortable, stylish, user-friendly rooms and breaks down their common elements.

What's unusual, from where I sit at least, is that Needleman's tips are absolutely universal. And I don't think I'm exaggerating here. Her advice makes just as much sense for someone living in one room with a spare assortment of hand-me-downs as it does for the person in a cavernous MacMansion. Doesn't matter if your aesthetic is more in-tune with Ray Eames, David Hicks, or Nancy Lancaster.

[At left, the book open to Johnson's interpretation of Carolina Irving's weekend house with hanging suzani from Irving's friend, Christian Louboutin, and a Directoire sofa covered in Indian raw silk from decorator Peter Dunham. At right, the Francois Halard photo as seen in Vogue Living, fall 2006.] 

Needleman arms us with all the essential facts on lighting, sofas, chairs, beds, tables, picturing hanging, and furniture placement, and she even addresses things that never show up in photo spreads, like tissue boxes (the info works regardless of lifestyle or budget) but she also encourages us to experiment with less tangible components: personal narrative, a sense of history, a touch of quirk. Among my favorites are the jollifiers and mollifiers.

Often sentimental, jollifiers are pieces that make you smile each time you pass by them -- mood lifters, no brainers. The category is open to interpretation. Mollifiers are typically un-chic but allowed in the house because they make someone else happy. This example isn't in Needleman's essay, but at the moment I'm thinking of Ruthie Sommers and her husband's glossy red Loni Anderson trash can (InStyle Home, spring 2007) -- a possible jollifier and mollifier. Instead of tossing it, Sommers made it work.

A really chic person can mollify because she puts love before style -- and she can look upon the offending items as amusing, or at least as part of the package.

-- Deborah Needleman

My friend Stefan Hurray recently met Needleman and he shares his response to her latest book here.

Random House provided me with a review copy of this book. Certain friends please stop reading now because I may have also purchased a personal copy or two for holiday giving.  


Pigtown*Design said...

can't wait to get this book. might have to actually BUY this one!

Style Court said...

Meg -- It's a really nifty little book. I bought a personal copy :)