Dooce recently posted a picture of some gorgeous vintage Vera Neumann napkins, and the blurb she included about Neumann’s ideas on wearable, functional art really made sense to me:
She was of the belief that fine art shouldn’t just be for the wealthy. It should be available to all and it should be incorporated in everyone’s everydays…Vera had the philosophy that you should change the art around you every once in a while because [otherwise] you soon stop seeing it.
Georgia O’Keeffe had a similar approach to her surroundings and the way she chose to decorate her home at Ghost Ranch. During the whirlwind two years of my MFA that I spent studying the absolutely epic catalogue raisonne of her work and reading all of her letters and biographies, this was one of my favorite anecdotes about how Georgia (yeah, we’re on a first name basis…) decorated: Apparently, she was an avid collector of all sorts of things, despite how spare her everyday surroundings seemed. Her classical music collection was massive, as were her collections of strange natural objects found during her travels and walks in the canyons and trails around Abiquiu– bleached bones and knotted tree roots, shells and rocks and interesting plants. But her house was not bursting at the seams with piles of stuff– her closets were.
She kept most things out of sight, meticulously filed away or shelved in closets or storage spaces, and she would select one or two to display at a time: a single white conch shell centered on a sleek, low table. One bleached, antlered skull on a wall next to the broad leaves of a big potted plant. Her home was painted a pale gray– walls, floors, and ceiling– and the spare, modern furnishings she had were few and functional. She claimed that the minimalism and the neutral walls allowed her to see more clearly and precisely, and thus to paint, since painting was basically an extension of seeing for her.
I just recently moved across the country (again…) and I’ve been thinking a lot about O’Keeffe’s ideas– and now Neumann’s– as I set things up and try to make my home look and feel the way I want it to. As a person with a profusion of stuff (oh my God…so many boxes labeled “silver set,” or “rocks from Lake Ontario.” SO. MANY. BOXES) and an impossible-to-turn-off impulse to collect things, I admire how O’Keeffe’s system worked. By drawing her beloved objects from the closets one at a time and isolating them, she allowed them to become more than just an interesting shell or bone or rock lost among hundreds. By making each object the focal point of an entire room, she turned it into art.
Now that I’m clued in to Vera Neumann’s work and her design philosophy, I find it dovetails nicely with O’Keeffe’s and distills the nebulous reasoning I applied to all my recent houseware-shopping trips quite nicely. I mean, if you have the option between dish cloths that are purely functional and dish cloths that are both functional and beautiful, why not spring for the ones that inject a little art into the everyday? Why not choose to surround yourself with things you really love, even if they are also things you use? Now that I am older and have had a real-ish job where I was making real-ish money (not that I have this now, but that’s a different post altogether…), I can walk into Ikea or Target to shop for housewares without my sole purpose being to leave with the cheapest serviceable option available. I love that.
Now, I don’t think I will ever be able to limit myself to displaying one object at a time. Let’s be serious…I worked at Bloom…I will never be able to stop collecting pretty things and showing them off. But these ideas–surrounding yourself with everyday art, and changing the art out once in a while– make me want to tap my fingers together plottingly and cackle like a deranged maniac. Why? Because if I choose to adopt such a decorating philosophy, it means I actually need to collect MORE COOL STUFF so that I can switch it out on a regular basis! So I can keep seeing it! Also, I have a storage unit in the basement, and it is lonely and nowhere near full!
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there is a vintage shop on the other side of the isthmus that has a whole box of mercury glass Christmas ornaments with my name on it.