The Case for a (Sometimes) Messy and Mismatched House
In her latest book, A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of Misspent Life, Mary Randolph Carter, long-time creative director for Ralph Lauren, makes an amusing and persuasive case for living creatively with collections, clutter, work, kids, pets, art, etc. She also encourages her readers to stop worrying about everything being perfectly in place. Through her own photographs, she brings us into the lives of eight Case Studies, people whose homes owe their “look” more to impulse purchases than to a strictly adhered to decorating scheme. On Saturday, Carter (below), as she is called by one and all, including neighbors at her family’s weekend house in Millerton, will be at Foley & Cox in Hudson to greet fans and sign copies of her book. One of the people whose house she features in the book, Daniela Kamiliotis, will create a window exhibit for the occasion. And the normally rarefied Foley & Cox, in honor of their special guest, whose favorite sport is “junking” (think: antiquing, only less serious), is “opening its attic for a special junk sale.”
RI: According to most of the pictures we see in decorating magazines, a house should be visually disciplined and lightly lived in. In contrast with the rooms in your book, those “living” rooms could pass for the lobbies of boutique hotels. Yet many pristine rooms have the very signs of life you champion—books, magazines, art, even collections. Why is it, then, that these so-called “personal touches” don’t look all that personal in such settings. Is it because they are at the service of the decorating scheme, not the other way around? Is it because everything “matches”?
MRC: The homes I love and the ones I share in this book are put together by people who have a lot of confidence in their own taste. I do believe the personal touch is important and prefer to see a house that is truly lived in and put together by the people who love it. Also, I’m of a certain age and, at some point, you begin to give yourself permission to say, “No. I am not doing everything for the company that is coming.”
RI: Do you believe that decorating, as most of us understand it—a color scheme, a particular style of furnishing, a general narrowing and refinement of options so that nothing is jarring or incongruous—is at war with the sort of visual spontaneity you espouse?
MRC: I’m not at war with anybody. I like messy homes and neat homes. I like decorators. This book is about giving people permission to live in the large sense. Decorators and color schemes can be helpful as long as they don’t dictate. I remember years ago going into some friends’ apartment that had been decorated by a professional. Everything had been chosen for them, even the matchbooks on the table. I wondered, ‘Where are my friends? I can’t find them in this place.’ On the other hand, we all need help.
RI: Most of the eight Case Studies in your book are people who live the visual life—a photographer, a ceramicist, a fashion designer, etc.—in other words, people for whom visual harmonics are intuitive. Isn’t that why, like jazz musicians, they can get away with improvising? You are offering readers an alternative (“the beauty of the imperfect life”) to hyper-orderliness. But sometimes a mess is just a mess, such as the artist Alexander Calder’s Roxbury, CT. studio, which you show in the book.
MRC: It’s true; society forgives people they think are creative. If you walk into an artists’ home, it’s okay for things to be kind of randomly placed, because that’s part of the creative process. If someone else took those liberties, most people would just think that person is lazy; they’d say, ‘This is a mess!’ Artists have a leg up because we expect them to be like that. But I believe there’s a little bit of Alexander Calder in more of us than you’d think. Unlike Calder or Nathalie Lété [Case Study #2, whose Paris atelier is shown above left], many of us don’t allow ourselves the freedom to express ourselves in our homes. That’s part of what the book is about. Sure, there are dishes to be washed and beds to be made. But if you have an opportunity to paint a picture, do it. The rest will get done. I’m an idealist.
RI: The words “memory” and “memento” come up a lot in your book, as if the “junk”, as you call it, that you and your Case Studies accumulate so effortlessly were a kind of diary. Not everyone is wired that way. Don’t most of us buy things we hope will either be useful and/or look good in our houses?
MRC: Oberto Gili [Case Study #1, whose Greenwich Village living room is at right] and I are sentimentalists, so when we travel, we pick things up. I was just in Paris, and I had to steal a napkin from this little bistro, because when I put it on my table at home, I’ll remember that wonderful place. Sometimes, when I go junking, I let my heart speak, and I’ll buy something because it makes me feel so good. Other times, I’m looking for something utilitarian. We need a new grill, and I’ll find a great Weber grill for $10. Either way, for me, shopping is kind of a sport.
RI: Is tidiness the enemy of comfort? Isn’t some measure of tidiness essential to being comfortable?
MRC: Absolutely. Order can be liberating. One of my sisters brought me a little scrap of paper with a quote from Henry Adams, “Chaos is the law of nature. Order is the dream of man.” But order can be incredibly stifling too. In Karl Lagerfeld Confidential, a French documentary, Lagerfeld is shown sketching at a table with stuff piled up all over. And he says, “I like disorder when I am at work. I would freeze at a tidy desk.”
There’s a difference between clutter and mess. Clutter means having a lot of things; mess is a total disregard for order. When you do have a lot of things, you have to have a lot of discipline. If you believe cleanliness is next to Godliness, you aren’t going to get to enjoy the comfort you’ve created because you will always be looking over your shoulder.
RI: Speaking of looking over shoulders, someone once asked Isabella Rossellini what she had learned from her mother, Ingrid Bergman. She said she’d learned to always look back whenever she left a room to see if anything needed tidying up. How does that strike you?
MRC: I love that she remembered that. Sometimes when I leave my office at night, I will turn around and look at the space before I leave. If there is some obvious, big, messy pile, maybe a stack of books that could look a little bit nicer, I’ll go back and do that, so next day when I come in, the room is ready for me to work. And, I must say, I do love starting a day by making the bed. But I was doing a radio show the other day, and a woman called in and said, ‘I had to leave the house this morning, and I didn’t do the dishes, and I felt like such a terrible human being.’ Somehow this was a reflection on her character?! And I thought, oh my gosh! What those puritans did to us! No, no, no! The important thing is, did you have a nice time while you were out?
RI: I once read that the average person spends 40 minutes a day looking for things they’ve misplaced. Since there is no average person, that must mean that Miss Tidy wastes just 10 minutes a day, while Mr. Messy squanders 70. You describe your old office at Ralph Lauren, which you had occupied for 15 years, as filled with “stacks of books, magazines, tear sheets, photographs, contact sheets, jars of Sharpie markers, pencils, wooden rulers, old alarm clocks, postcards, letters, magnifying glasses,” etc., etc. Weren’t you forever ransacking it, looking for the one thing you really needed? Or do you have a photographic memory, so that, for you and others like you, there’s no real downside to having all that stuff in full view?
Rodgers Book Barn
467 Rodman Road, Hillsdale; 518.325.3610
610 1/2 Warren Street, Hudson; 518.828.2886
Five and Diamond
5th & Columbia Streets, Hudson; 518.828.1557
Bottle Shop Antiques
2552 Route 44, Salt Point; 845.677.3638
42 Main Street, Millerton; 518.789.3474
The Little Store
88 Main Street, Great Barrington; 413.528.8277
325 Stockbridge Road (Rte 7), Great Barrington; 413.528.7766
6420 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; 845.876.1450
3201 Route 199, Pine Plains; 518.398.7075
MRC: If you allow yourself to live with a lot of things, you do have to be more disciplined. I may be Mr. Messy, but I think I would beat Miss Tidy finding what I need any day, because she has to search through her hermetically sealed closet for everything she needs. People put things away, like their wedding silver, and they never use them again. I love to see and enjoy the things I have, so my life is an open book. When you are that way, you learn how to find things. I definitely have a system. And when things get out of control, I fix them. Recently I moved to a new office, and I was trying to work, and I just had to stop, because there was stuff piled up helter skelter around me. I took an hour or two and systematically organized it for me.
RI: In your book, you mention The Book Barn in Hillsdale and applaud its ambience, especially in winter, when there’s fragrant cider warming on the wood-burning stove. Where else in our region do you like to shop?
MRC: The Book Barn is wonderful. Just the experience of finding it! And in every season, there is a feeling in that place that comes from the place itself and the books.
We’ve been coming to Columbia and Dutchess County since the 80s, and in those days, there was a shop in Hudson called The What Not Shop that I still miss. Now I love a place called Fern on Warren Street; it has an amazing ambience. And even though I’m usually not big on vintage clothing, I love Five & Diamond. There’s another junk store I miss, The Rummage Shop on Rte 22, just north of the turn into Millerton. It was in an old muffler shop, and she was only open from 11 – 3 on Sundays. People would be lined up. It closed, but now she seems to be open again on big holiday weekends. In Millbrook, I love Bottle Shop Antiques, which is run by Kevin Martine, who was raised in the house right next door. And in Millerton, I love Terni’s because it is so authentic. In Great Barrington, The Little Store is a jewel. And, of course, Hammertown Barn in Pine Plains, Rhinebeck and Great Barrington. Especially, the barn in Pine Plains. I love the way Joan Osofsky makes it feel comfortable, with stacks books all over the place.
Foley & Cox
317 Warren Street, Hudson; 518.828.3210
Mary Randolph Carter Reading and Signing; Saturday, November 6; 4 - 6 p.m.