There is a lovely chapter in Mark Hampton: On Decorating that explains the importance and reasonableness of designing the structural elements of a house on the axis. Windows and doors line up like good soldiers, which creates interior and exterior symmetry, optimum airflow and a general good sense that all is right with the world.
Hampton, the late decorator and one of the greats of the last century, wrote a column for House & Garden magazine in the 1980s, which was around the time I became interested in decorating. These columns were compiled into a book in 1989, and I discovered a vintage copy on a dusty shelf in the now defunct and much missed Spivey’s Books several years ago.
In the chapter “How to Create Interior Views” Hampton extolls the wisdom of legendary designer Albert Hadley, moving doorways four inches in order to right a room. In theory, I absolutely agree. Adjusting doorways so that they line up like beads (indeed, this practice is called an enfilade, which is derived from the French word enfiler which translates as “thread on a string”) creates a lovely vista, which draws residents and visitors into the house.
But the craftsman of my Kansas City shirtwaist was either unaware or did not see the value of this design. Few doorways align. The front door opens to the stairway. The short hall into the dining room just beyond does not correspond with the opening to the kitchen, which is not in line with the window at the back of the house. The house is charming, but, like her owner, she is a bit of a mongrel.
I stand sometimes, one hip against the doorframe of the dining room and consider shifting the opening to the kitchen, which, of course, would be irrelevant without moving the window. The ghosts of Hadley and Hampton whisper in my ear, “You must.” I know that they would advise me that it’s far wiser to fix the structure and wait on rugs and furniture and art.
But I argue back to the mist and memory of these great designers, “It’s been this way 102 years. It’s a humble house. We are both, the house and I, happy with the quirks. If the doorways and windows are square, there will never be the photograph, the kilim or maybe even the bronze bell from Ted Muehling.” Hampton looks over the rim of his round-frame glasses at Hadley who crosses his arms, his uniform black turtleneck confirming his rightness as he looks down at his Gucci loafers. “When will she learn?” I know they are both thinking. “Does she never listen?” I am loathe to disappoint them.
Despite this, I know that in the end I will camouflage with paint and pictures, hoping that lively conversation will distract from the construction. The focus of any home, after all, should be the people in it.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
The sightline of a room is unavoidable. It is simply that; the way your eye naturally travels when you come into a space. These elements in every room are either crafted or created. Either way, it’s a good idea to consciously identify a space for the eye to start and then allow it to move around the room.
Distract and Delight
As with my entry, sometimes we are greeted with difficult spaces. My front door opens at the side of my living room with a short space that is bordered by the first rise of the stairs. I treat it as a front hall and ignore the fact that it is the west end of the room. A table under the stairs creates the feeling of “entry.” The glow of the table lamp, the jumble of boxes and candlesticks, and the one bare spot for the aforementioned Ted Muehling bell allows a spot for “hellos,” the shedding of coats and the first offer of a drink. It’s a momentary distraction from being dumped into the house as if from a water slide.
Light a Fire
It’s obvious that fireplaces make a natural, structured focal point. Even discreet, glass-enclosed gas fireplaces draw the eye with their sleek design. And, regardless if you’re building big piles of logs, branches and pinecones or simply turning a switch, fire—and the possibility of it—draws attention.
Rooms with fireplaces can cause homeowners and designers consternation. While a painting over the mantel seems natural, the space can make sense for the television as well. In my mind, you’re creating competing experiences. To me, fires generate warmth. They call for either quiet or conversation, but there’s something organic and primal about gathering around a fire. Television, be it news or your favorite weekly or a must-see movie, creates a different energy. I’d rather not find a TV there, but space sometimes demands it.
There’s an Art to It
Without a doubt paintings, prints and photographs offer a magnetic attraction of the gaze. An arresting picture in a spot where a doorway or window should be creates a vista of its own. In you are at a time in your life when your living arrangement is a configuration of one set of blank, white walls, art gives you the opportunity to lift your spirits, to enliven your home, to engage your guests. Art will give you a new point of view.