Saturday, January 29, 2011

Purely Decorative

Art for the home anyone can make

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel January 15, 2011

When the weather turned cold about 17,000 years ago and humans took refuge in caves in what is now France, they painted pictures of large animals on the walls deep inside their caves. Experts have many theories about the purpose of the images, ranging from astronomical, to historical, to instructional, to spiritual. They also theorize that since these ancient paintings are never found in those parts of the caves that were inhabited or near daylight, they could not have served a purely decorative purpose.

If the foremost purpose of art in the home is decorative, so be it. Decorative art is a pervasive feature of the modern American home, and how this came to be is a fascinating story.

The fireplace makes room for art

In Bill Bryson’s latest book “At Home—A Short History of Private Life” he explores the evolution of the home in his beautifully fluent, humorous, and often digressive, prose. I love Bryson’s ability to turn a seemingly mundane topic into a fascinating examination of western civilization, and how world events and discoveries have shaped our private lives right down to minutest of details.

For instance, to keep warm in medieval England, an open hearth was built in the center of the living space (usually a single multi-functional room called a “hall”), filing the ceiling space with smoke. It wasn’t until about 1330 that bricks and chimneys were developed, which proved less efficient at heating the home and its occupants, but, by the diverting of smoke, allowed builders to create second and third stories, multiple rooms and private spaces.

More rooms, more walls, more art

As rooms proliferated, so did the overabundance of wall space. In Elizabethan England the well-to-do nobility acquired expensive tapestries, paintings, and mirrors to accent their walls. Bryson notes that mirrors, especially large ones, were “exceedingly precious treasures, more valuable than any painting.” Of course any consideration for wall decor was strictly limited to the rich and powerful, since only they had the walls and the resources to think beyond the practical aspects of day-to-day life.

It was not until the emergence of the so-called middle class—in the mid-18th century—that interest in interior decoration began to spread to other social groups. This occurred during the age of European Imperialism, when exploration and exploitation created greater wealth and new job opportunities for the common man. Urban professionals, such as bankers, lawyers, artists, designers and merchants could now afford to dress their homes more lavishly.

“Suddenly there were swarms of people with splendid town houses that all needed furnishing, and just as suddenly the world was full of desirable objects with which to fill them,” says Bryson. Framed art of all kinds—drawings, paintings, lithographs and etchings—now became more commonplace in the middle class home. “The modern house—a house such as we would recognize today--had begun to emerge,” says Bryson.

Decorating your own castle walls

Today, those who are reluctant to choose art for their home—either because they are not sure what to buy or because they don’t want to spend a lot of money—have many choices. Those who can afford it can hire an interior decorator who will select art that complements a room’s color scheme and style.

A less expensive option is to visit a consignment store, yard sale, thrift shop, flea market or craft fair. Art in a consignment store is usually in good condition, framed and ready to hang. Thrift shops, yard sales and flea markets are especially good for great deals on wooden frames (if the art itself isn’t worth keeping), which can be repainted to your liking. Craft shows usually have art geared for pop culture tastes such as posters of musicians, photographs of movie icons, or drawings of sports heroes.

If you want to save money by putting together your own art, but don’t see yourself as an artist, there are ways around that as well. Here are a few ideas I gathered from and other sources:

Pretty paper

Frame scrapbooking paper, available in an array of trendy colors and patterns, for easy and inexpensive artwork. Choose several papers that suit your room’s color scheme and hang them together in simple white frames with white mats. Also consider wrapping paper, handmade paper, wallpaper, book illustrations, postcards or note cards. Small items such as postcards or book illustrations gain instant impact when surrounded with an extra-wide white mat and a simple black frame.

Large photographs

Take some high-resolution digital images you’ve shot to Costco, where they can be blown up large and printed on canvas for a reasonable price. With “gallery wrap” your photos are ready to hang without a frame.

Wall curtain

Find identical plastic placemats you can buy in large quantities and create a wall curtain of repeating patterns. Use Fotoclips to link the mats together horizontally and vertically, then hang the whole curtain using thumbtacks or nails. Fotoclips can also be used to create a large wall collage of 4x6 photos.

Purely Decorative

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, January 15, 2011

Artistic kids

Give your kids markers or crayons in the colors of your room and let them create their own art. Choose your favorites and frame them with colored mats. The kids will love seeing their work displayed and you'll have a keepsake of their creativity.

Anyone can paint

Visit an art store where you'll find stretched canvas, acrylic paints and brushes. Paint abstract designs or use templates for geometric shapes. “DIY Art at Home: 28 Simple Projects for Chic on the Cheap” by Lola Gavarry has ideas, techniques and pull-out patterns from which anyone can make decorative art.