Stage To Live

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I heard Julie Powell speak the other night at a women’s networking event.  Her blogging which Nora Ephron ultimately made into the hit movie, Julie and Julia, has made her an instant icon for many women.  She was funny, inciteful and irreverent.  What I loved most was her reasons for loving Julia child:  Julia was more sure about how to bone a duck than Julie had been about anything in her life up until that moment.  It was refreshing to see the heads nodding in this room full of high powered women (it was hosted by  a law firm) deep down they seemed to relate the insecurity more than the many obvious successes these women had had in their lives.  Is this good?  I don’t think insecurity has a value. But it is the reality.  It is human, and that, in all our contradications, and successes and bad decisions are what we are.

I am sensing a theme emerging here:  perhaps it is Anglophile month.  Farrow & Ball  is a great British brand of paints—they make wallpapers too—that I are now readily available in the United States.  Yes, I know it is more expensive than other paints.  Yes, I love Benjamin Moore colors, especially the HC line where you cannot make a bad choice.   But, boy do I love Farrow & Ball paints.  They are worth the cost.  They go on “like buttah” and once on, they have a depth and interest, I have not seen in other paints.  Why?  They have 30% more pigments than other brands.  F & B is the only manufacturer that makes all the products sold under their name. Unlike other paints, they do not incorporate plastic fillers.  The paints are made with natural ingredients like Linseed Oil and China Clay, and not harmful ingredients such as ammonia and formaldehyde. The company continues to make and check each and every batch of paint itself, not mix it “in store.”  Their edited palette of 132 colors in thirteen finishes has been honed and perfected since 1940, when it was founded by two chemists in Dorset.  Environmentally, they are award winners.  Their VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) levels are so close to zero that most of their finishes are classified as ‘Zero VOC’ when tested to US Environmental Protection Agency standards. And best of all:  Farrow & Ball paints are pretty.  I got a call yesterday from a client who arrived from his home in St. Louis to see his home in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, freshly painted in Farrow & Ball paints.  The cell phone message said, “I don’t know why I am calling on the weekend, except to tell you that the paint is really, really beautiful.  Thank you.”   I know I sound like an infomercial, but you need to know that Farrow & Ball the smart/casual of the paint world.

I  just got an email from a friend confirming dinner at her house a few weekends out.  “7:30PM, smart/casual” it read.  Now, my friend is a good ten years younger than me, British, very attractive, with a stylish husband who is part Brit, part Belgian and grew up in Madrid.  Smart/casual.  I am impressed by this wording.  One thing I love about having British friends is the realization that even if we speak the same words, it is a different language.  Smart/casual is what this generation is all about:  the confidence to do and wear what pleases, to be smart about it, not to conform to formal norms without good reason, at the end of the day, to be comfortable.  Smart/casual:  this is staging.  To think about how someone wants to live in a space (or dress for dinner) and make it stylish and comfortable, even if one breaks a few antiquated design rules to get there.  Your Gen X and Gen Y buyers embrace smart/casual.  All the rest of us aspire to it.  Give the buyers smart/casual.  Your house will sell.

One of the things that I love most about my work is that I learn so much from my clients.  We meet our clients on the cusp of huge life changing events.  We see their generosity, their tempers and their vulnerabilities.  We see them at their worst, and often at their best—we see them human, and I cannot help but to love them because of that. 

Last week was no exception.  We were hired to clean out and stage the home of a retired 18th British lit. professor.  “Jane Austen and all the good ones,” she said, a glimmer in her eye.  Never married, she had moved from a small town in the mid-west to get her degrees and never left the East Coast save a few years teaching in Rome.  Now some 50 years rich in friends, teaching, art, and, most recently, a diagnosis of early dementia, she was being taken home by  a brother and a sister to live out her days.  It was a poignant week. 

As we packed the few things that she wanted to take with her, a steady stream of friends paid homage, saying their goodbyes, stunned that their friend was leaving. Very few were aware of her inability to eat or sleep, the mysterious falls that she could not remember.  She took only a few books, no computer, none of her research.  She did not try to cling, as so many of us do, to our objects and achievements, to the things that seem to make us who we think we are.  Perhaps it was her brain going, but I think it was that she had reached a level of enlightenment few of us reach.  She stood present in the moment, in her self wallpapered gothic rooms, to be with her friends.  With her easy smile, she was there as they realized that this was goodbye. 

I don’t know if my client was religious, but her attitude last week was nothing less than beatific.    We all wanted to be near her, in hopes maybe, that some of her grace would rub off on us.  It seems that she had learned much from her scholarship.  She reminded me of one of those fabulous Austen characters.  She lived how she wanted to live, defying norms, and yet, when need be, coming to understand the circularity of life, the pull of family, and, when words for objects no longer come, their comfort.

“Really? Now really?” as my seven year old says.  Is the “living room”  really a room for living ?

How long has it been since Americans have truly lived in their living rooms?  I would wager a long, long time.  We as a nation, have a brag room, attached to our houses,  which  we rarely use.  These so called living rooms are often the best room in the home architecturally.  And yet, we walk by them, heading straight toward the family room or the kitchen. 

 I would argue that the living room should be as welcoming and comfortable as the family room.  It should show as much about your family as the other rooms.  You don’t need to sacrifice sophistication or formality.  You just need to make sure that it is comfortable to live in.  Try leaving bowl s of nuts and fresh fruit in the room for people to nibble on.   When guests are coming to stay, I leave a tray with sparkling water and lemonade so that they know they can get a drink whenever they  wish .  Make sure the lighting is conducive to reading and for your kids to curl up and do their homework. 

A well functioning home is one in which every room is lived in fully.  It always distresses me when I see these wonderful families owning a huge home and living only in the kitchen and family room.  Why, I wonder, did they leave their starter homes?  I argue that living rooms can be fabulous and showy and livable.  Help me bring life back into the American living room.

Every time I speak, I get the question:  what is the difference between   decorating and staging to live.  In many ways they seem like the same thing, I agree.  Both make homes prettier.  The difference, I would say, is the goal.  The goal in decorating is to make a room prettier, to be pleasing to the eye.  The goal of staging is a bit more complex. 

Staging is identifying how the people in the home hope to use the space, how they could use the space more efficiently, effectively, and happily.  Staging identifies how those living in the space aspire to live.  Once identified, we then, and only then, design the space to achieve these goals. 

Now the end product of staging and decorating may look very much the same, but the underpinnings are very different.  I use design to enhance how people live in a space, to help them become more who they want to be.  This holds true for staging to live and staging to sell.  We identify how the client—the buyer or the owner—dreams of living in the home, and I show them how to make it possible.