Bare feet on fresh summer grass, warm apple pie and vanilla ice cream, snow and a roaring fire–some simple pleasures in life are better together. One of my favorite pairings is a good book on a rainy day. We haven’t had many such days in Sydney recently (we’ve suffered through a few prime beach days of late), so this past Saturday, I embraced the chilled, foggy day of persistent rain. I was admittedly overjoyed to have a completely free afternoon ahead of me with no plans (!!) and happily sat down with designer Lauren Liess’s book Habitat.
It is no surprise that I am a design book addict. Most of my storage boxes back in D.C. are filled with them. They are not only great for decor, stacked in piles on benches or coffee tables, but I consider them long-lasting resources for reference and inspiration. Some I love simply because of the photos, not even bothering to read the text. Others have limited photos but offer wise words to live by as a designer. Lauren’s is a welcome combination, a reference for both designers and non-designers alike, filled with useful information for both parties with gorgeous photos to prove she knows exactly what she is talking about.
I bought Habitat during our recent day trip to Bowral, New South Wales, of all places. It was such a bizarre experience coming across the book in a quaint hole-in-the-wall bookstore thousands of miles from D.C., where I lived for so many years as “design neighbors” to Lauren. But it was also inspiring knowing how far-reaching her aesthetic is. Her au natural, earthy style and appreciation for bringing the outdoors in is certainly in tune with Aussies who so cherish the indoor/outdoor lifestyle. Her “field guide” proves that no matter where you reside or what style category you fall into, design should be led by how you love to live.
My first encounter with the designer was at the 2011 DC Design House. That year I was assisting Kelley Proxmire with the l’Orangerie and Lauren designed the upstairs library/office. After spending countless hours in a limited period of time to pull your own space together, one becomes a highly biased critic. You become blinded by the joy of your room finally being complete and rarely have time to explore and appreciate others. But Lauren’s really stood out to me. I loved her mix of patterns and use of antiques, the layered presence of textures and gallery-style hangings on the wall. It felt lived in and loved, yet was a brand new room only minutes old. I knew then that she had serious talent, and her success has grown exponentially since. Those of you in the States should look out for her new show airing soon, “Best House on the Block.”
I can appreciate her aesthetic for many reasons but some chapters of Habitat were like a page out of my own (yet to be written…) book:
- Architecture. Once you understand the general language of your home’s architecture, decorating decisions come more easily. It is so important for architecture to be considered in the overall design and aesthetic of a home. While I adore historic homes and farmhouses, I am currently living in an uber modern apartment with sleek lines and stark white walls. Everything is glass, stainless steel, and tile. It is not “me” but I make it work with modern furniture and colorful art. It would be all wrong if I added kilim rugs and leather ottomans. Chances are you bought your home because you loved its bones (OK and maybe the price was right and school district on point) but the point being, the decor that you add to a home should be apparent in its architecture. This is not to say you cannot mix modern with traditional- in fact, this is my favorite way to design – but the architecture should be at the forefront. Highlight beautiful moldings and disguise or change awkward details.
- Finishes. The bones of the house are its architecture, where as the finish selections, often called the “jewelry” help set the tone and style of the home. People will stress about chrome vs. brass kitchen cabinet hardware until the cows come home, but there is no need. Lauren keeps the process for choosing finishes simple, and I could not agree more with her recommended process. Pick finishes that feel good, are practical, and that will stand the test of time. It’s really that easy. Don’t put precious hardwood floors in a mudroom that will see constant traffic and inevitable scuff marks. Pick cabinet handles or pulls that feels good in your hand. Don’t get “tricky” with a kitchen backsplash. Keep it simple and you will surely love it for years longer than something over-the-top and over-thought.
- Rugs. Each rug tells a story and can make or break a room. Why do people breeze over rugs? Liess makes the valid point that floors are one of the most prominent and noticeable surface areas of a home. Besides walls and wall color, the tone and texture of your flooring throughout a home sets the tone. Rugs are a vital part of this equation, and the wrong one can throw off a space instantly. Choose a rug that is BIG ENOUGH for the space (meaning all furniture legs must fit on the rug, in the rare case back legs of chairs can teeter off if necessary) and that makes sense. Use multicolored, darker tones in rooms with high traffic and where spills are inevitable. Lighten up a space with a natural fiber rug where light is lacking. Use wall-to-wall synthetic carpet in colder, less insulated places or where kids rule the show. Splurge on a rug in rooms where you value most or spend the most time; antique wool rugs are often worth the price as they double up on durability and pattern/color to hide stains. In fact, a small stain on a patterned antique rug often feels less detrimental than on a brand new, solid rug. You can have both pretty and practical in one rug, you just might have to spend some extra time looking for it.
- Art and accessories. The final layer of living, [art and accessories] offer perhaps the greatest opportunity to inject personality and meaning into a home. I am currently working on a house that is directly on the water. It is architecturally stunning and the views are second to none. The furniture, lighting, soft furnishings, and spatial planning that we are introducing will only improve upon its beauty. But as I often dread with clients, the art and accessories have become an afterthought. While the world of renovation and design is daunting and construction can often be the most stressful and time-consuming phase, don’t lose steam in the end. Choose art and accessories wisely and ensure that they make sense for the home’s style. Purchasing a new piece of art for a home should feel much more special and personal than using old things simply for the purpose of getting them out of storage.
- Juxtaposition. Everything is made stronger when set against its opposite. This is one of my favorite words – after all the namesake for this blog is based on a juxtaposition. It is so important to every room for some sort of purposeful “tension” to be present. It makes a room interesting and adds that level of imperfect perfection.
In addition to these key points, Liess constantly harps upon comfort and practicality in the book. Perhaps these are my very favorite of all of her design concepts. What use is a living room that is never lived in? Why choose a carrara countertop when you hate red wine stains? Be smart in choosing the aspects that make a house your home, but don’t lose sight of yourself in the process. Embrace the little imperfections that add character to a habitat where you love living.