DESIGNING WOMEN

Our previous house of eighteen years was a woodsy contemporary.  Soaring, exposed-beam construction was clad in brown cedar shakes.   Windows in every angular geometric shape, from the rhombus to the parallelogram, provided views of the surrounding trees, along with insurmountable challenges when replacement was necessary.

We moved in with young children so we were too busy to focus on the prevailing decoration.  However, 1991 was only several years removed from the vividly colored era of the mid-1980’s.  In spite of our work-and-child-rearing-caused obliviousness, we sensed that there can be such a thing as “too much” when it comes to the shade of purple known as mauve.  The house had mauve walls and mauve shades, mauve carpeting and mauve tiles.  If there were a tree that grew mauve wood, it would be certain that our kitchen cabinets would have been mauve; however, they were actually composite materials clothed in bright white.

The seller of the house was genuinely kind.  We liked her and she liked us.  The fact that she was a hard-working, long-commuting and uncomplaining person made her admirable; the fact that she was also blind made us indisposed to hold her responsible for the pervasive purple.  Surely, some decorator took advantage of her situation and a close-out price on mauve paint and materials.

We chipped away at the mauve unsystematically for several years.  The master bathroom gave way to blue and white tile; the entrance floor covering was replaced by stone; and, the living room carpet was ripped out to reveal beautiful hardwood floors underneath.  The re-finishing of those floors, however, was such a horrendous experience, in terms of dust and disruption that we needed two or three years to recover.  When it came time to resume the re-making of the house, my wife had an idea:

“Why don’t we hire a decorator?” she said.

“What would that do for us?” I asked.

“It would provide someone with expertise who could look at the overall situation and bring a decorating scheme together.  We would not be doing rooms impulsively, one at a time, without a comprehensive plan,” she said.

That all sounded so reasonable that I failed to see the yellow lights flashing as we approached the intersection of momentum and expense.

“Do they charge to provide an estimate?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” she said.  “I will make a call.”

So it came about that NS entered our lives, the Martha Stewart of our county.  She swept out of her white Jaguar one day and into the house with a white cape flowing behind her.  I could not see anything behind her designer dark glasses, but I could not fail to notice the massive rings on her fingers.  It was as though she had won the Super Bowl eight times.

“Ohhhhh,” she said in a vaguely British accent, as she surveyed the scene.  “Ohhhh, this won’t do a’tall.”

“Is she really from England?  Or is she from Long Island?” I whispered to my wife.

“Shhhhh,” she said, following NS on her self-directed tour.

“She’s wearing a cape,” I pointed out, quietly.  “I bet we pay extra for someone who wears a cape.”

“Shhhhh,” said my wife, giving me a look that showed she meant it.

NS and my wife communicated for several weeks until, one day, I was informed that the project was scheduled for installation.

“I’ve seen the plan,” said my wife.  “The colors are dramatic.  The material is luscious.”

“Are we going to look at it or eat it?” I asked.

“We are going to enjoy it,” she said, with confidence and pride.  “No one in this town will have a living area like ours.”

I pulled out of the driveway on the way to work the next morning as several small vans arrived.   They disgorged what appeared to be an entire Eastern European soccer team.  One man nodded at me, and I was sure I detected an enigmatic smile.  “What does he know that I do not know?” I wondered.  I concluded I was paranoid.

The office was busy that day and I did not think about the project again until I was nearly home.  The last van pulled away as I arrived.  I noted that my wife’s car was not there; she was picking up the kids on her way home from work.  Prepared to be blown away by what I saw, I strode with great anticipation into the foyer and beheld our high-ceilinged living room-dining room area, and the adjacent family room.

I was definitely blown away.  Instead of mauve the walls were now an overwhelming mint green.  It was like being immersed in a tub of pistachio sorbet.  Over each of the windows and doorways was a heavy and swirling green-blue material that formed what appeared to be an onion dome.  I took a deep breath and sat down in the middle of the floor.  How could I be gracious about this when my wife arrived?  It looked horrible to a laughable extent, but not the ha-ha kind of laugh.  We had paid $5,000 for an “expert” to turn an open, angular space into something that was a bizarre amalgam of looping and swirling shapes; no longer nondescript the rooms were nearly beyond description at the other end of the spectrum.  It was so shocking that I was speechless as I heard footsteps emerging from the garage.

The first to enter the room were my son and daughter who simply stared, wide-eyed.

“Whoa,” said my seven-year-old son, finally.

Last in was my wife who spared me from having to speak by immediately bursting into tears.  She put down some packages and took a spot beside me on the floor.

“It’s hideous,” she said.

The other three of us remained silent for a reasonable interval before the bravest of us, our nine-year-old daughter, ventured a question.

“Mom, was this what we were expecting?”

“It looked so good in the drawings,” said my wife.

“Did you ever get a swatch of the material?” I asked in as gentle and non-accusatory a tone as possible.

“Yes,” she said.  “But the swatch is only about eighteen inches.  It isn’t overwhelming.  This…” she indicated our new surroundings… “is overwhelming.”

“Phew….” I let out a breath.

“Phew….” repeated our son.

“I hate it,” said our daughter.

“Let’s get rid of it,” said my wife.

“Really?” we all asked at once.

“We may as well make a party of it.”

And so it went.  I brought two ladders up from the basement and we gathered some scissors and screw-drivers.  My wife and I cut and disassembled the curtains from over the windows and the turbans from over the doorways.  The children triumphantly threw the discarded materials into trash-bags.  By the end of the project everyone was giggling.

“Never again,” we agreed, with regard to decorators.  A lesson was learned.  From that point forward, we went to stores and bought what we liked.  We hired artisans to paint rooms and install wallpaper or sconces as we chose them and, eventually, the house was fully re-made in our style.  It required several months to cover the mint green walls with a beige faux finish that we all enjoyed, but, by that time, we were old hands at home décor.  When NS’s assistant called to ask if she could come photograph the job for NS’s portfolio, my wife took passive-aggressive pleasure in responding:  “Sure, come on over!”

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