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Home & Garden

Self Portrait

Self Portrait: What your collections say about you.
By Rebecca Sherman |

A few years ago we photographed a house in Highland Park that had historic architectural interest. When I inquired about a striking collection of white ironstone tureens in the dining room, the decorator informed me that it was, as one might categorize it, a “starter collection.” He’d gathered the items himself, like kindling, in hopes that they might spark an interest in his clients for collecting something. Anything. It didn’t.

I came across a similar predicament in a Preston Hollow house recently. As our photographer set up his camera in front of an assortment of charming faïence plates, the decorator explained that she’d enthusiastically launched the collection for the homeowner, who’d arrived in Dallas from the east coast sans good decorative objets. “She adores them,” the decorator gushed. “I’m sure she’s planning to keep up the collection.” Right. I saw that Thomas Kinkade inspired landscape hanging above the fireplace.

Chapter 10 of Bunny Williams’ newest book, Point of View (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Oct. 2007) leads off with a provocative statement: “…What you choose to display on your tables and shelves and the art that you hang on your walls says so much about who you are.”
And you thought decorating was about making things nice. 

All along, it’s been about who we are as human beings. It’s defined the parameters of our self worth. I should know. Years ago, a potential marriage prospect bolted after one date when he saw the red and black color scheme in my garage apartment. Fresh out of SMU, I’d furnished the whole place in pressed particle board and leatherette from Eurway. It was the 1980s. After a few minutes sizing up the room’s décor, my successful-accountant-potential-fiancé winced, “Did you mean for your apartment to look like this on purpose, or did it all just sort of happen?” Until then, I’d never thought of my decorating choices as choices. I was 24. This was pre-Pottery Barn, pre-Crate & Barrel and pre-just about everything that is now stylish and inexpensive. The alternative back then had been grim: brown wood furniture from Weir’s.

Things progressed in the years to come. Sort of. During the 1990s, like everyone else in Dallas, I carried on a raging affair with Southwestern-style furniture. Chunky forged-iron candlesticks. Armoires painted the garish purples and mauves of an Arizona sunset. Hand-thrown New Mexico pottery. Every piece of furniture I owned was pine. The look hollered Texas! Enough of that silly modern stuff, let me get back to my roots.

Bunny Williams was right. Those rusted iron Jan Barboglio accessories on my battered coffee table told the story better than I ever could. I’m in a better place now. Thanks to years of therapy and my current stint as a decorating editor, I’ve learned what makes a room look pleasing, and what color combinations might cause one to flee, like my former suitor. I have real collections, nay, even bibelots. Haven’t you always wanted to know what bibelots were? I have them. A cursory assessment of one of my current tabletop arrangements includes: a pair of Napoleon III figural candlesticks whose bronze patina is emerging ever so subtly under the silver; a slightly pitted, 16th century Japanese blue and white bowl, a gift from a collector; a sleek horn tray from Forty Five Ten with a small burn on the side from a candle accident (scorched horn smells curiously of burning hair); a stack of dog-eared decorating books, including the aforementioned Bunny Williams tome.

I think I understand those clients who refuse to collect anything. The stakes are so high. Who wants to be defined by the stuff on their coffee table? Worse, who wants to be figured out? Roger Banks-Pye, the late, dapper house decorator for Colefax and Fowler in London sums things up with delicious wit: “Everyone manages to accumulate an enormous amount of extra ‘ornamental baggage’ in their lives: sentimental trinkets, Uncle George’s hideous carriage clock, impulse buys, a dynasty of family photographs in a wild assortment of frames. Choices need to be made…” But by whom? That’s why God made decorators. Bunny Williams would no doubt agree.

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