It’s a classic!” are words that most interior designers or decorators would love to hear in praise of their work. Classic means enduring, beautiful and universally appealing. Often we associate classic with formal, traditional styles that have withstood the test of time (see “Tradition!” D&WC, May 2003, page 24). Today, however, we can find classic elegance in a very dressed down sort of look; handsome and comfortable.
To walk down a boulevard in New York City or Los Angeles or any city in between,
you might not be able to guess who has money. Some people who are dressed up
may not have any real wealth, but may be dressing for success in an effort to
convince themselves or others that they have means to impress. Or it simply may
be required by their jobs to look nice.
On the other hand, many people who are genuinely wealthy often dress down in
jeans, T-shirts and jogging shoes because they no longer need to impress. They
can be confident in their casual attire. However, you often find that even the
jeans, shoes and shirts are very good quality and upper-end design. This is the
essence of redefined casual: high style, high quality, less formality.
The great thing about the new classic casual style is that it can have many different
looks. Here, we will examine three of these looks and will look at ways to accomplish
an interior for a client who may say to you, “This is a classic!” The
three categories are Clean Casual, Neo-traditional Casual and Eclectic Casual.
A major contribution of the International Modern style was it redirected American
thought away from the idea that if a little is good, a lot must be better—á la
the Victorian era. When the masters of the Bauhaus in Germany fled to America
for asylum during World War II, they brought with them a unique approach to interiors.
This new philosophy was “Less is more.” It evoked a theory that all
design should be simple, uncluttered and profound.
Coupled with the age of man-made materials and designing for machine mass-production,
we entered an era known as Mid-century Modern. During this time, Modern design
dictated that all superfluous items be shunned in favor of only a few well-crafted,
man-made items with emphasis on form rather than decoration and a frank exposure
of construction—exposed joinery, for example.
In this new upscale, spare casual-yet-sophisticated interior natural materials
were married to modern furnishing items. Neutral-hued linen, wool, cotton and
leather were the favored textiles for boxed and sculptured upholstered pieces.
Natural linen draperies at the window often were replaced with a combination
of man-made fibers in casement cloth draperies, which filtered the light and
allowed some daytime view.
Gradually, draperies with their cumbersome upkeep gave way to the cleaner and
simpler look of alternative window treatments. The mini-blind revolution led
the way at the window in tandem with vinyl, metal and polyester vertical louvers.
Both of these treatments—metal blinds and vertical louvers—though
still worthy and widely popular, have gradually been replaced with fabric alternative
treatments such as cellular and pleated shades and various manufactured shading
The reason for this metamorphosis is that as we have re-embraced the Mid-century
Modern philosophy some 50 years later we have scrutinized what was worth keeping
and what could be improved upon. Fifty years ago there were no computers, fax
machines or cellular phones, no remote controls or even microwave ovens. So,
back then, the idea of a machine age to come was exciting and empowering. Interiors
were hard-edged, cold and decidedly spare and unfriendly as modern citizens drove
home the point of embracing the Brave New World.
Now we feel quite the opposite. We have more technology than we sometimes need.
We have no need to make a techno-savvy statement, as we likely would not impress
anyone. We all have e-mail, so what? Rather, what we are striving to achieve
now is the comfort of soft and supple fabrics to smooth away the irritating and
rude sound of somebody’s cell phone. We want softness, albeit clean softness
that still allows us to be connected to our online lifeline.
This is a great look! Plug in your laptop and place your infrared remote on the
coffee table and it looks like a well-planned, well-coordinated accessory item.
Spread out on the sofa, a neutral wool rug or as you lounge on the slightly Deco
Lawson-style sculptured chair and play around with the remote until you find
just the right stopping point for those sleek top-down cellular shades, adjusting
not just the view, but the graphic configuration of the window treatments in
relationship to the window opening. What a cerebral, control-freak exercise!
Don’t worry about putting color in the interior; there’s plenty of
that on the computer screen. And when the online work has fatigued the eyes and
fried the brain, wherever the eyes may wander, they’ll find restful, soothing
neutrals and softly appealing textures. That’s 21st Century casual!
This interior is a good example of a room that is an updated and casual version
of Neoclassic. Federal blue, in this case leaning toward Country Blue—warmer,
deeper and more comfortable, is still blue. Stripes on the wall and on the over-scaled
ottoman originate from the late 1700s. Likewise, the two arm chairs are classic
French Neoclassic fauteiuls (fa-toy’ya). Window treatments are light semi-sheer
fabric, also from the same historic period.
With these elements in place, the fun begins. Bringing the interior into the
present and making it comfortable have been accomplished with the addition of
contemporary Lawson sofa and chair and the overriding use of “forever blue” denim
with chenille as the ottoman fabric. Makes you want to take off your shoes, plop
down in your own blue-jeans and prop up the feet on the extra soft footstool/coffee
Note how the use of pattern plays into this kind of scheme. Floral schiffli embroidery
on the sofa denim in bright colors relieves the solid quality of the blue-jeans
fabric. Lattice and isolated motifs on the pillows work well with the stripes
and solids. The use of textures and motifs in this way is a pattern that can
be followed to create casual rooms. It is a focus on texture with supplemental
patterns that are not demanding yet add some liveliness and punch to the scheme.
Natural flooring is a sure bet with true-blue denim. The sisal rug over a random
plank wood floor is perfect. Blue and beige is a classic color combination.
Complete this look with the white crispness found in the paint color and breezy-style
curtains, and any interior can become casual and comfortable. Always remember
that alternative window treatments should be used in any living space for nighttime
privacy. Good choices would include the products that stack completely out of
the way so they are unnoticeable. Mini-blinds, two-inch blinds, cellular and
pleated shades, other roller-type shadings and vertical louvers with a center
draw are all good choices for light and temperature control as well as the peace-of-mind
This look is much more individual than the previous two styles discussed here.
It is unique in that no two interiors will ever look alike. Compare the photograph
illustrating this style to the following criteria for a great eclectic casual
1. Each item has merit as great design on its own. Furnishings do not rely on
anything to make their statement. In other words, each item—furnishings,
textiles, art and accessories—is inherently beautiful, interesting and
Eclectic rooms in which this requirement is not met—that is, some items
are questionable in design quality—will not be successful eclectic designs.
2. Form and proportion are carefully scrutinized. Shapes interrelate in fascinating
and intriguing ways. There is a wonderful balance of negative space (empty, unfilled)
and positive space (furnishings) that is the result of the meticulous interrelationship
of forms. This quality makes the entire interior a work of art unto itself.
3. Texture plays a key role in unifying the interior. There must be sensitive
use of smooth, rough and various in-between textures.
4. Color is the other element that holds the interior together. In this interior,
the scheme is beige and a deep coral red. There is continuity to the scheme in
the placement of the reds. Notice how the eye connects from lower left, then
up and around the window and down the right side. The reddish orange floor stain
also connects the circle of color.
All other furnishing elements are kept neutral. In any eclectic casual interior,
color will need to act as glue because there may be so many divergent styles.
Without the common bond of color the interior would seem disjointed and confusing.
5. Eclectic interiors possess personality. Great eclectic casual is often the
result of dedicated sleuthing or searching. Each item must be a unique find and
immediately weighed against other items. There are times when the find is a serendipity
experience, seemingly falling into the lap of the design professional or client.
Other times the search goes on for months until just the right item or fabric
is discovered through the process of gathering, pondering and elimination.
This dedication only comes about when those working on the project have a vision
that the finished interior will be worth the effort. And it usually is! This
kind of room often comes alive with its own distinct flavor, quality and charisma.
It also may evolve. Eclectic casual rooms do not have to be stagnant, as many
historic settings are. They may never be finished. Rather, they can change with
the seasons, with the demographic shift, or with any change in whim from those
who selected the furnishings in the first place.
THE FUTURE OF CASUAL
As we view where we’ve been and where we are likely to go, the future of
classically casual is bright and potentially explosive in trend acceptance. There
has been a major shift toward interiors in which occupants can unwind, relax
and feel emotionally supported by their surroundings.
While we still want interiors that are beautiful, we now recognize that casual
interiors are easier to live with in many respects. It also is true that any
home may have areas that are more formal and other areas that are more casual.
The rooms that are more casual will be the rooms where people really live!
J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at
Brigham Young University. She has authored several books including
Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction,
3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window
Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.