I lived in the dorms for a semester in college. My roommate and I acquired a mottled rust and orange colored shag carpet remnant to cover the tile. The cinder block walls had been painted aquamarine. Somebody made light of the color by taping a paper puffer fish to the door – one of those cheap decorations they might hang at a grocery store to herald a Hawaiian days promotion. The fish was stolen within a week.
The room was probably the most depressingly hideous space on the planet, which didn’t bother my roommate as much as my inability to properly decorate my side.
“There’s no theme over there. Nothing matches,” she said.
This was true, but in my defense, throughout most of the rest of my life there had been a distinct lack of burnt umber and turquoise hues with which to work. I was out of my element.
And there was the fact that I hadn’t realized one was supposed to decorate a dorm room.
My boyfriend snapped to with one of his brilliant comebacks.
“Of course everything matches over here,” he said. “It has to. There’s at least one item of every color. Anything that comes in here is bound to match something else.”
He totally had a point. “Decorating” to me has always meant the act of sticking random stuff on the walls or on shelves that has come to be in my possession by a variety of means. At that point in my life, this would have consisted of party photos, notes of encouragement from friends who liked to use cute stationery, lots of stacks of books, and baskets full of magazines and other reading material, and maybe a plant or two I’d been trying to keep alive. I guess I had sort of a “late twentieth century, absent-minded English lit student who doesn’t realize she’s supposed to decorate her crappy dorm room” thing going on.
My roommate, an interior design student, kept her side of the room completely uncluttered, highlighted with white throw pillows, floral accents and hand-lettered placards featuring uplifting quotes. The semester we lived together, she developed a nervous habit of chewing on her cuticles until they bled.
My approach to decorating continues to be to make the best use of stuff we have collected along the way. I’ve graduated from the things you’d normally find tacked to a cork bulletin board in college to framed photos, mementos from trips, and, of course, stacks of books and the occasional straggling plant. Sometimes I’ll bring home a framed print that I felt sorry for at some benefit auction.
This all works really well for me, and since I live with a bunch of boys (except the dog and the lizard, who are technically girls, but whose total décor ethic can be summed up by the fact they deliberately avoid pooping where they sleep), I don’t get a lot of input in any other direction.
Then I visit my friend Stephanie’s house and realize what a total decorative nincompoop I am.
Stephanie and Bob have been friends of ours since before the aquamarine dorm room days (although Mike is not the boyfriend to whom I referred earlier) and we’ve had the good fortune to be friends since. Recently we helped them move to their new home. When I say “helped them move,” I mean we showed up with a truck and a couple of pizzas just in time to help them unload their last three pieces of furniture, take a tour of the new place and drink their beer.
Stephanie has vision when it comes to interiors. Bob must have vision too or else he’s just too laid back to object to the stuff she brings home. What I’ve come to realize through Stephanie is that such a vision evolves over time. Earlier in her life, I know there was an incident with a light bulb she’d painted green in order to cast a specific hue in her bedroom, but the light bulb started smoking when she plugged it in, so she wiped it off with a washcloth. Unfortunately, the washcloth was then employed by her sister to wash her face, turning it green, probably freaking her way out, and giving Steph the giggles.
In college, Stephanie’s decorative vision was represented by a passel of light-up tulips and an electronic Coors Light sign in pastel neon. Pure 1980s awesome.
All I’m saying is, developing such a vision as my friend Stephanie has takes some experimentation and work that I’ve never had the patience for, but always envy. Stephanie combs through catalogues and shops yard sales, thrift shops and places with Swedish-sounding names with equal exuberance. Not everything is brilliant, but much of it is.
So we’re helping Bob and Steph move the other weekend and all of the booty she’s accumulated, like metal chicken sculptures, tin watering cans and stuff artfully crafted from distressed barn siding, is piled up in what will be the living room. And there’s stuff that apparently has never been in circulation in their former home. Or at least I’ve never seen it before.
I’m not kidding, Steph has objets d’art she has to rotate through her home like collections on loan to a gallery. There’s just too much coolness to put out all at once. It’ll burn your eyes.
Stacked up against the wall in this new home of theirs is this painting of a cow they picked up somewhere. It’s just brilliant. Of course, I wouldn’t think it was brilliant hanging up on display somewhere, but in Steph and Bob’s house, I get it. A life size cow painting. And then there’s this painted cow skull sculpture sitting on a sideboard that I’ve never seen either and I’m blown away.
Of course, there’s a story. Steph picked the skull up while attending a conference in New Orleans. She was shopping with Bob and they had to drag it several miles back to the hotel, which is where they found out it wouldn’t fit into their bags. The concierge couldn’t find a box big enough for the skull because it has horns (I’m trying to get Steph to send me a photo, but I think she’s a little creeped out by the fact that I may be writing a blog about her – you might just have to imagine the brilliance). So she and Bob schlep the thing back to where they bought it (in Bob’s version of the story, the tone is distinctly of the walking-three-miles-to-school-in-the-snow-uphill-both-ways variety), ask the sculptor to remove one of the horns from the skull so they can pack the thing back with them to Idaho, where Bob will weld the horn back on. Because Bob has welding equipment for just such an occasion, which is a totally different kind of awesome.
And then they set the thing aside, along with the painting of the cow, until they find just the right space for these things. That’s vision. That’s the kind of vision that inspired them to paint a chicken coop solo-cup-red with white trim and outfit it with a weather vane and French doors.
Which is to say I have friends whose chickens have cuter digs than I did in college, or, like, now. Come to think of it, those chickens probably ended up with the cool, neon pastel Coors Light sign. Dang, that thing was awesome.