Design (and Life) Tips from Eric Cohler
My take on the New York designer's Antiques Week talk
A highlight of Historic Charleston Foundation's Antiques Week is their annual Luncheon Lecture. They always hit it out of the park, with headliners like Martha Stewart, gardening dynamo P. Allen Smith, and Dorothy Draper & Co. design legend Carleton Varney (the latter was an evening event).
This year, HCF invited New York designer Eric Cohler as their speaker—another home run. I won't go into Cohler's whole bio again (we published a profile on him in Fall/Winter 2009), but he's been published in a dozen national shelter magazines and is known for his adeptness in mixing styles, colors, and concepts to create dashing rooms. Talking with him for our Charleston Home story, his ideas, philosophy, and decorating approach struck me as surprisingly accessible, which is my priority.
So how did last Friday's talk translate into real-life, usable ideas? I can't speak for any of the other guests, but here are five things that got my attention, and how they relate to our own humble attempts at dressing our dwellings.
At the center of the talk was the concept of the Grand Tour—the tradition of upper class men of 17th-19th century Europe (and later, America) leaving home to travel around Europe. They would return with spoils from their journey; often, a primary purpose was to furnish their homes with these finds. Through a modern-day Grand Tour or just the drumbeats of life, most of our homes are still furnished similarly—and this is wise for those of us who look to our homes to remain centered, to serve as reminders of who we are and how we got there. The old wooden bookcase I bought when I moved to Hoboken, New Jersey; my grandmother’s martini glasses; the books that have been with me everywhere. Cohler's talk was a reminder to me to move meaningless, distracting items (clutter, anyone?) further out of the picture and to keep treasures like these in the forefront.
“An art collection says, ‘I’ve arrived.’”
Cohler was again referring to the Grand Tour era with this statement, but I came back to it as he pointed to a series of examples of how various works of art influence his designs. I’m far from an art connoisseur, but here’s what I like about that method: anyone can look at a collection of paintings and pick out their favorite; and after that, anyone can point to what they like best about that single work. For example: I like John Singer Sargent's Venice in Gray Weather. My reasons? Venice feels romantic and old, and I like both in a city. I'm a strange, breed (Irish girl) who takes more comfort in clouds than the sun. The grey colors are good on white walls near a window. The pop of color in the foreground gives the scene energy. I could go on. The point is, this painting tells me I crave a certain moodiness, a few pops of color, and a sense of history. Why not look at art as a cheat sheet? Extrapolate a color, a blend of colors, a feeling, a shape and work it into your surroundings.
“There’s no excuse for having no taste. Have good taste, have bad taste. Just don’t have no taste.” —Diana Vreeland
“Taste cannot be controlled by law.” —Thomas Jefferson
“Nothing is in good taste unless it suits the way you live.” —Billy Baldwin
All these quotes came up in Cohler's talk and were worth noting. The last one is the best and speaks for itself. The photo below is a Cohler-designed library--the ceiling is a creative example of his (and Vreeland's) philosophy that whatever you do, you should always make a statement. I wouldn't be that daring, but I will try to work in more pieces that I love. Weird and eccentric included. After all, it's my house. Why not?
“Every room needs friction.”
This concept at first sounded like something scientific you learn in design school (i.e., height + weight/ house age = Fabulous). Not so. It’s as simple as this: Mix, mix, mix. The example he showed was this casual, light-filled dining area. The contemporary glass table was nothing special and bought for a song and is paired with six traditional, curvy wooden chairs that were, well, not so cheap. And it worked. Friction in design is all about defying uniformity. I can do that. It's actually more difficult to get everything suited just right than to pick up pieces because you love each on its own (for their price or their look). Thank goodness good design today calls for scouring the sales and cast-offs.
“Dining rooms should be exuberant, exaggerated spaces.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Cohler’s interiors, trust me that his rooms make sense. Certainly the drama dial is turned up in some, but he’s a livability guy first. So when he said the above quote about dining rooms, I paid attention more than I would if, say, Kelly Wearstler were behind the mic. He reasoned that because this is where we entertain, we should think of these rooms as our theater. A one-room license to be a drama queen? I’m a white sofa, natural woods, decorate-with-books kind of girl, but I think I could still do it. I’d start with a fancy wallpaper like the one below and go to town. (Derwent from Osborne & Little's Folia Collection)