12 August 2011

Reader Question: What's my style?

Help! I'm getting ready to renovate my house and I'm in a bit of a quandary. I like all kinds of things, from antique sofas to hyper-modern appliances. I've been going through the magazines and hard as I try to, I can't categorize my style. It's one thing to be indecisive but there's a lot of money on the line here and I'm wondering if there's a website or a tool that will help me find my style?

I haven't run a reader question in ages but this one was too good to pass up.

Sun in an Empty Room, Edward Hopper - 1963; Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 39 1/2 inches; Private collection 

Why the rush to categorize what you like? No one categorizes how she or she dresses and I don't understand why anybody would want to pigeonhole him- or herself into a rigid category someone else defines.

Before I go any further I want to ask you to do something for me. Stop watching HGTV. I suspect that network is where you're getting this need to categorize yourself. Contrary to how it looks, HGTV doesn't exist to educate you. It's there to sell you the products that pay to appear in their programs. Any time you see Genevieve Gorder or David Bromstad pick up or call out a branded product, that's a paid placement. It's easier to sell people stuff by forcing them into a category and that's what drives the idea that there are people who are country, contemporary, cottage or what have you.

Reality works a lot differently than that because people can't be categorized so easily. It's human nature to want to break massive amounts of information into manageable groups but resist the urge to do that with yourself.

Morning Sun, Edward Hopper - 1952; Oil on canvas, 28 1/8 x 40 1/8 inches; Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

The other notion to rid yourself of is the idea that there's such a thing as timelessness when it comes to design. All design looks like the time when it was installed. Even retro styles are modern interpretations of other times. The reason for this is simple, times and people change. If you're looking for longevity, there are classics aplenty but even they are hardly timeless.

Rather than categorizing everything you see into a a specific style, concentrate on the individual elements of the rooms photos you're drawn to. Join a site like Modenus.com or Houzz.com and start collecting scrapbooks of photos. As you add each photo, write a note about what you like in the shot.

In a very short time you'll have a collection of images that can be called eclectic, which is what most people end up with. Eclectic means a bit of everything and it's a perfectly fine thing for an aesthetic sensibility to be.

Rooms by the Sea, Edward Hopper  - 1951; Oil on canvas, 29 x 40 inches; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut 

Once you have a good collection going, start interviewing designers. Interview them as you would interview an employee. There's no real hurry but what you want is to find someone who can listen as well as he or she can advise. Good designers, not the ones who end up on HGTV, don't have specific styles they work in. Their job is to channel your sensibilities to give you the home you want. A good designer can look through your seemingly unrelated scrapbooks and find the common threads that will make you feel like your renovated home fits you.

If a designer you're interviewing doesn't listen or if you're not 100% comfortable, then move on. Don't expect the designers you meet with to do anything but talk to you about your project and expect them to ask what your budget is. Holding onto that piece of information in particular helps no one. Their goal is to help you spend your money more wisely, not to fleece you. Working with a designer will save you money, despite how counterintuitive that statement may sound.

But it's only a designer who can show you how to knit together all the disparate things you like. A good designer can make sleek, modern appliances work with antique Hoosier chests if that's your thing. A good designer can combine a Duncan Phyfe sofa with an Eames Lounge and an Arco floor lamp and make it work.

Hotel Room, Edward Hopper 1931; Oil on canvas, 60 x 65 inches; Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection

So the answer to your question is to stop trying to categorize yourself and find a good designer. I'm plugged into an amazing network of dedicated designers and if you need a referral I will find you someone.


  1. Great advice! I see this type of question all the time over on the GardenWeb forums, and really - why put yourself in a box? I love your response. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I still think the best guide to one's personal style is the dictum from William Morris: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." And for us non-millionaires, another question to ask is: "Does this fit with what I have?" That's "fit with", not "match".

  3. Excellent advice, my man. Personally, I have my own take on this idea of design and conformity and so forth. I like the idea of several different styles in the same room. When we started working on our home, my wife was of an opinion that we should use the same species of wood throughout. But I much prefer the idea of having different types of wood and finishes and so forth. I also hang on to my earlier pieces, even though I am a much better woodworker now and could greatly improve certain projects. The earlier ones remind me of how far I’ve come as a woodworker.

    My wife and I do spend a lot of time with the designs of various projects, working hard to get it all to come together in a configuration that pleases us. Others may not share our enthusiasm for various things, and certain designers (NOT, I hasten to add, present company!) may not care for what we have done and will be doing. But we like it a heck of a lot! As Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.”

  4. Thanks for the feedback gang. Chookie, William Morris summed it up perfectly and fitting trumps matching every day.

  5. LOVE the interspersed art, so original I might have to copy you (just kidding). I do find the kitchen "scrap booking" idea useful in unearthing unrealized preferences. You will begin to see the patterns materialize in your selections!

  6. Thanks Gloria. Nobody painted an empty room like Hopper did.


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