Born in a tent
If it’s the button of a jacket or an open door, you can be sure there’s a rule that can be applied to its status, one that ever-casual Kiwis will often choose to ignore.
Douglas Lloyd Jenkins lays down the rules
I have this thing – an obsession regarding the buttoning of men’s jackets and waistcoats. The rule is that the last button always remains undone. My close male friends are sick of being corrected and so I have long since moved on to assisting complete strangers with this small but important sartorial point. At a recent family wedding, a young nephew – in a suit for the first time – innocently strode into range. After I’d pointed out the button, I said in justification of my eccentricity: “It’s a rule.” Instead of the bemused response and wan thanks I usually get, he said, with a certain passion: “There are rules? No one told me there were rules – what are the rules? I need to know.” Modern education isn’t about learning rules but finding self-direction. Here was a young person desperate for some rules – to learn them, digest them and then consider whether conforming or breaking them is the better option. There was something very refreshing about receiving a request for a rule – or two. New Zealanders are proud rule breakers, but when it comes to areas such as fashion or home design, the old adage applies: ‘You need to know the rules before you break them’. What happens when you break fashion rules before you understand them is evident every day on the street – sometimes stylish, more often funny and mostly just tragic. Breaking the rules in interior space leads to a similar, if less public, result. Less obviously laugh-out-loud funny, but a perpetual domestic discomfort in which rooms never quite work. What are the rules? Google ‘the rules of interior design’ and you will largely come across spurious journalese, which will almost always include nonsensical statements such as ‘Rule No1 is that you can throw out all the other rules’ – ah thanks. Want some rules? Forget Google and go deep into the past – the further back you go the better and more emphatic the rules become. Young architecture students are often attracted to Classicism for this reason – it provides reams of rules that help provide focus in a world that’s full of infinite design possibilities. But you need to remember that rules are about formality, which is why the ever-casual Kiwi generally isn’t interested and rejects them as class-based and silly. This isn’t always the case. I recall an architect giving a lecture in which he read from a Victorian book on decorating, ‘One must never hang oil paintings and watercolours in the same room.’ The audience was chuckling away at the absurdity of the Victorian mindset, but the art conservator sitting next to me understood. Oil paintings and watercolours have different environmental needs. Separate rooms was, in fact, a great idea – better than that, it made a jolly good rule that even contemporary architects and decorators might work with to create something distinctive. What made this a potentially good rule was the fact that it had been isolated. Don’t try applying the rulebook of history to your scheme – try one rule and stick hard to it. Be uncompromising. These days my occasional rulebook doesn’t go back much further than Edith Wharton, one of the greatest interior decorators working in the early 20th century. Although few of us will ever decorate on the scale of Wharton’s clients, she knew what she was doing. If I have a thing about waistcoats, Wharton had a thing
In our house, ‘We’re expecting a visit from Edith Wharton’ has become the polite way of requesting that interior doors are closed. It’s a rule that’s broken with some frequency...
about doors. She believed in serious door width and double-door pairings. She got excited by concealed or recessed doors set into bookcases. She stated emphatically that doors should never be placed in close relationship to a fireplace and certainly never to either side – all sensible stuff. Yet a rule of Edith’s that most resonates with me is both a design rule and one for living with design. Wharton was quite sure of one thing: ‘The natural position of any door is closed.’ ‘Were you born in a tent?’ is an old Kiwi witticism asked of people that don’t habitually close doors behind them. It usually applies to those who, coming in from the outside, leave an external door open – something you particularly notice when sitting close to the door in your local cafe on a cold winter morning. At home, a more security-conscious world has probably led to the front door of the house being more resolutely closed, but how often are internal doors left swaying on their hinges? In our house, ‘We’re expecting a visit from Edith Wharton’ has become the polite way of requesting that interior doors are closed. It’s a rule that’s broken with some frequency, such are the pleasures of co-habitation. There is, however, a strong case to be made for a closed door. A closed door provides greater insulation, prevents draughts, ensures privacy, cuts out sound, and conceals untidiness. It is behind a closed door that a room becomes complete and in front of one that you are in charge of the reveal – that moment when visitors are exposed to the whole effect. The rules of waistcoat buttoning are arcane, formal, based heavily in class structure and perhaps a little silly, but learning to close a door – well, try it. It will not only make you popular in the local cafe this winter, but it does wonders for the soul of any natural decorator.
In this apartment, there’ll be no need for classic quips such as ‘Were you born in a tent?’, or to anticipate visits from Edith Wharton.