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Author Biography: Sheila Bridges is president of Sheila Bridges Design, a New York-based company. Her own Manhattan apartment and many of those of her clients have been featured in magazines and books, including The Best of Martha Stewart: Living, Decorating Details, House and Garden, House Beautiful, and Town & Country. She lives in New York City.
When I was a child, I always thought that I would grow up to be either a veterinarian or a marine biologist. I certainly never envisioned becoming an interior designer. I'm not even sure if I knew what an interior designer did until I was in high school. I had never heard of fabric swatches, paint chips, or memo samples and definitely knew nothing about toile fabrics or Aubusson rugs. While I do vaguely remember being dragged into the dining room by my parents and asked my opinion about the fabrics that they were being shown by their interior decorator, the rest is pretty much a blur.
Obviously, something happened on my way to adulthood that drastically changed my career path from talking to the animals like Dr. Dolittle to talking to clients about fabrics and furniture. I can't pinpoint what set me sailing on a course to spend my days searching for antiques, art, and architectural salvage instead of searching for aquatic adventures on uncharted waters with Jacques Cousteau. Even though my close friends will tell you that I still have a childlike fascination with animals and the ocean, I am very happy with my choice to become an interior designer. I am content with this choice even though it was unplanned, unanticipated, and most highly unlikely. Like every other profession, there are moments of frustration and moments when I wish the frenetic pace would slow down long enough for me to spend quality time in my own home. But I can't think of another career that would be as continually challenging, eye-opening, and visually stimulating to me as the one I have chosen. I also can't think of another profession that would have allowed me to play so many roles without an audition first. I have become a walking, talking, fabric-wielding designer-decorator-stylist-psychologist-florist-accountant-collection agent publicist-attorney-trucker-analyst with a Stanley Powerlock twenty-five-foot tape measure. It is as exhausting as it is rewarding, but I wouldn't want to trade places with anyone else in the world.
So who are you anyway, and how do you know whether this book is for you? You woke up this morning and suddenly realized that whether you like it or not, you are an adult. You have a career rather than a job. You pay bills and balance your checkbook regularly. You own a dog or a cat, or maybe both. You are married with one small child and are seriously thinking about having another. You are single with a demanding career that takes up most of your time. Or maybe you are a single parent with a demanding child that takes up most of your time. Either way, you probably own or lease a car and use a computer daily. You have an answering machine, a fax machine, voice mail, e-mail, a cell phone, a car phone, a pager. You have more than one type of insurance, including health, disability, home, auto, life, or pet insurance. You no longer have a roommate (unless you choose to) or live with your parents. You just purchased and moved into your first "real" apartment or house, or maybe you're still a renter if you live in an expensive city like New York, Chicago, Boston, L.A., or San Francisco. You have a real life with real responsibilities and realize that it's time to own some "real" furniture. But you're not quite sure where to begin. How do you upgrade from Conran's to classicism without becoming completely overwhelmed? How do you make that transition from IKEA to inspirational without having a nervous breakdown? What do you do with the stuff you already own that you think is too good to throw out but don't want to live with anymore? Where do you buy stylish, quality furniture without the quality price? And once you find furniture you love, how do you put it together or arrange it in a way that will make the room look great? How can you make your home look terrific without spending all your money?
Do you need professional help? Do you want to enlist the services of a professional interior decorator or designer? And if so, can you afford one? Even if you can afford a design professional, what should you know before hiring one? If you choose not to work with a designer or decorator, how do you buy furniture that you won't hate or outgrow in three years? Is it really possible to buy furniture for today and tomorrow that you will love ten years from now?
There really is a psychology to decorating, which exists for everyone who has ever tried to part with a rocking chair that belonged to a relative or a blanket that belongs to a child. Decorating is, and should always be, a very personal, intuitive, and enjoyable process. When it isn't, the results are glaringly obvious. My hope is that this book will address many of those apprehensions in a practical and reasonable way. My desire is that by discovering the basic anxieties and emotional stumbling blocks that we trip over while decorating our homes, we will learn how to avoid them in the future. The goal is to help you to get past these impasses so that you can eventually create an affordable and comfortable home environment that reflects who you are or who you would like to be.
In the following chapters, I explain how the concept of "Furnishing Forward" will help you make logical and practical decisions so that you do not waste money on impractical items that you will need to replace in a couple of years. This concept will also help you approach decorating in a way that is straightforward, down-to earth, and hopefully less overwhelming. Since so many people are intimidated by the mere notion of decorating, I was inspired to write a book that would take some of the mystery out of interior design and put some of the humor back in. I also wanted people to be able to refer to a practical guide and visual map when trying to create the kind of spaces they wanted to live in. The first step toward demystifying the world of interior design and decoration is to understand what it is exactly that interior decorators and designers do.
Good design is far from arbitrary, although it may seem that way to some. Design is a well thought-out process that is as much about furniture, color, and lighting as it is about mood and atmosphere. It is as much about materials and fabrics as it is about function, scale, and proportion. There is a certain exactitude inherent in the process of design, partly because every design is based on a specific point of view. Interior design is also about spatial relationships and visual perceptions. It is one of the few professions that are truly reliant upon our senses. Without them we are profoundly lost in the world of design. Since our senses create a commonality we all innately share and are attuned to, I genuinely believe that we all have the creative potential and capacity to design and decorate our own homes.
It is important to understand that creating a comfortable and elegant interior involves a lot more than just shopping for a great sofa or an interesting floor lamp. All the things we surround ourselves with in our homes certainly have an effect on our emotional well-being. Once we recognize this, the more likely we are to develop an appreciation for good design. Finally, the easier and more enjoyable the design process becomes for us, the better the results.
Thirteen years of working in the interior design profession has taught me a great deal about what it takes to successfully furnish people's homes. While much of my experience has come from working with clients, a lot of it has also come from working on my own homes. During the past decade I have begun to understand the importance of having a design philosophy that you are willing to adhere to throughout the furnishing process. My own philosophy revolves around what I call the art and psychology of Furnishing Forward-a concept that suggests furnishing or buying furniture with the future in mind. Furnishing Forward has to do with furnishing for the long haul. Though I have too much of an appreciation for history to ever suggest that you completely turn your back on the past, I do suggest that you look at your past with a critical eye. Learn from both your mistakes and your triumphs as they pertain to the way you have approached furnishing your home. Be willing to interrogate yourself a little bit. Administer a polygraph if you have to. While it can be challenging to be completely honest with yourself about what has and hasn't worked in the past, it is an essential component of Furnishing Forward to identify the potential mistakes before they become decorating disasters of Titanic proportions.
Whenever I'm in the process of helping someone furnish his or her home, friends always ask me when the project will be finished. The answer is always pretty much the same: never. Good design is an ongoing and ever-evolving process. Well-decorated homes are never completely finished, simply because the people living in them are never finished dreaming about the future. As our lives change, so do the spaces we live in. We all know that life is a series of both expected and unanticipated events. You get a new job instead of that promotion you were counting on. You have triplets instead of twins. You elope to Vegas instead of getting married in your local church. We continuously move forward, bringing new experiences and attitudes with us along the way. We need to design and decorate our homes so that they are completely in sync with these life changes, no matter how difficult or provocative they may be. By the time we reach adulthood, we should know that most things in life are beyond our control. What we choose to put in our homes is not. One of the goals of Furnishing Forward is to motivate you to become an active participant in the furnishing process rather than a spectator watching from the sidelines. The reason for this is simple. The more involved you are in the process, the greater the likelihood that you will be happy with the results.
The most common excuse that I hear from people about why they can't focus on decorating their homes has to do with money. Although this excuse sounds good on paper, in reality it doesn't fly. I know plenty of people who do not have a lot of money but who live stylishly yet within their specific financial boundaries. You do not have to be a Wall Street banker, music mogul, or movie star in order to live comfortably, elegantly, and smartly. Whether you live in Tennessee or Timbuktu, we can all live in homes and with furniture that is long-lasting and low maintenance even if our lives are changeable and high maintenance.
I am continually amazed that people approach the design and decoration of their homes in ways that are completely contradictory to how they manage the other aspects of their lives. Whether you choose to live in a tepee or a Tuscan villa, you have to think a little before you bulldoze into the design and decoration process. Like every other challenge that we face in our lives, we make better decisions when they are reality-based, educated, and well informed. This doesn't mean that there isn't room for fantasy. In fact, fantasy and curiosity should be encouraged. Design without these components is about as exciting as doing your income tax return. All of us want to live better and in ways that are more gracious and flattering to us and to our loved ones. The key is in the balance. Creating living spaces that are as beautiful as they are comfortable. Defining spaces and home environments that are as stylish as they are functional. Our homes should be as much about celebrating where we came from as they are about where we are going.
We should think about creating personal refuges that shelter us from the harsh realities we sometimes experience. As we get older, most of us come to realize that life is not always easy. On a daily basis, we face personal crises that come in many different colors, shapes, and sizes. Our children get sick, our company goes bankrupt, we get divorced, our parents pass away. Challenges arise in the forms of terrorism, sexism, racism, cancer, AIDS, etc. The list goes on, ad infinitum. We begin to realize that none of us, no matter how successful we are, are immune. While I am hardly suggesting that these things can be avoided or prevented because we have lovely homes, I am suggesting that our homes become places for self-contemplation, reflection, and healing, places where we can comfortably shed the armor that is necessary for the daily battle called life. Our homes should be places where we can truly relax and be ourselves. Finding comfort and humor in the physical walls surrounding us might help dismantle some of the emotional ones that we have built over the years. Our homes are where we should feel grounded and most centered. If this is so, then our hearts and souls have a place to retreat when things are truly difficult.
It is not uncommon for people to have love affairs with their furniture. Even the most unromantic of men have been known to fall in love with a La-Z-Boy chair now and again. Maybe we think we love our dining-room table. Is it because it is made of beautifully weathered pine and looks great in the space? Yes. But we also love it because of what it symbolizes. What we associate with it is part of what gives it such great significance. Maybe your dining table reminds you of Christmas dinner or your daughter's 1 first birthday celebration. Whether we serve sushi or salami, getting together with friends and family to break bread is important to our overall well-being. Sitting down together at your dining table is as much about ritual and tradition as it is quite simply a place to sit and eat. Whatever the memory or recollection attached to the rituals and routines that take place in our homes, we subconsciously keep them in our inner framework, always reaffirming what is most important in our lives.
There is a certain authenticity to our homes that can't be disguised in the same way that we do other aspects of our existence. We can hide that extra five pounds we gained during the holidays with a pair of control tops. We can disguise that premature gray hair with the help of a little Grecian Formula. We can paint the most flattering self-portrait for the rest of the world to see, but no matter how hard we try, we can't hide how we live. Our homes are honest in ways that we can't necessarily be. I find it truly discouraging that people so often become complacent when it comes time to decorate their homes. It's as if the cheesy particleboard table disguised as mahogany simply knocked on your door and invited itself into your living room. We make conscious choices about the way we choose to live and furnish our homes, whether we want to admit it or not.
Home. Dorothy and Toto wanted desperately to get there, and E.T.
Excerpted from Furnishing Forward by Sheila Bridges Copyright ©2002 by Sheila Bridges. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 24, 2002