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.

HOME Magazine NZ - - Contents - Text Dou­glas Lloyd Jenk­ins

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.

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