Have you noticed that since September 11 the prevailing attitude of most Americans about being an American has changed? The tragedies experienced that day have had the reverse effect on our collective psyche than the terrorists had anticipated. Instead of weakening the American spirit, they have fueled the flame of freedom to burn ever brighter.
Stories of heroism and honor have given us new faith in the courage
of the American people. We have bonded together as never before
in this generation, steeled in a resolve to buoy up one another,
to share one another’s sorrows and to cherish our life of freedom.
And we firmly believe that no one can take away from us this priceless
legacy of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
True to the American entrepreneurial spirit, this newfound pride
in America has found its way into the realm of marketing—clothing,
personal accessories, gadgets for automobiles and recreation, home
decor, even stepladders! More people are flying American flags,
it seems, than at any point in history. Flags and slogans are widely
available for any moving vehicle. I have even received e-mail photo
attachments of customized painted SUVs (sport utility vehicles)
depicting current American heroes, leaders, military deployment,
even the seal of the President of the United States. In short, Americans
display our new pride in America anytime, anyplace. We are up to
any challenge and respond with enthusiasm and commitment to the
defense of America.
With this obsession to market American symbols, it is no wonder
that Americana today is a major interior design theme. However,
flying a flag in your living room isn’t exactly livable. In
designing a theme based on American pride, there must be a fresh,
new approach that emphasizes our current desire for real livability
(spell that c-o-m-f-o-r-t).
THE FIRST AMERICANA
As we trace the development of this style, let’s review some
of the authentic looks of Colonial and Frontier America. These two
themes seem to be the perennial favorites. They both seem to celebrate
a time of new beginnings—the beginning of a new country on
the one hand and the beginning of our expanding civilization on
Colonial interiors were spare and undecorated, but furnished with
highly utilitarian objects—things that were used in everyday
life. Backgrounds and furnishings included random plank wood floors,
wooden palisade or rough stucco and post walls, double-hung windows
covered with tab curtains—or, more likely, left bare—and
a few simple, handcrafted pieces of furniture such as ladder back
chairs, trestle tables, Windsor chairs and deacon’s benches.
Upscale period interiors included built-in cabinetry and some imported
European damask or tapestry fabrics. Most homespun Colonial fabrics
were simple muslin, checks or stripes, and were used sparingly as
a simple window treatment or a cushion, or neither. Well-used clothing
was recycled as braided rugs, woven rag rugs or hooked into floor
Colors were natural neutrals or natural dyes including cranberry
and indigo (reds and blues—very American) and goldenrod.
Colonial style became far less rigid during the 20th century. We
now borrow from a wider source of inspiration than the spare New
England interiors of the original Colonies. For example, during
the first Continental Congress, only one vote determined English
as the official language over French. France has been our ally on
more than one occasion (excluding the most recent conflict in Iraq).
So a touch of Country France is acceptable in Colonial interiors.
Another blended influence that fits into Americana style interiors
is the subsequent periods surrounding the Civil War, a tragic war
that became, in the end, another source of unification for the United
States. Although right now the American Empire style is on the decline
in terms of popularity, the Regency style has received renewed attention.
These were styles by Duncan Phyfe, an English cabinetmaker and furniture
designer who created gracefully curved backs and occasionally splayed
legs based on Greek furniture shapes.
The Victorian era also gave a type of decoration not seen in the
Colonial days, but used today as Americana: wall coverings, especially
featuring floral patterns, including dye cut borders.
The other continuous link we see today with the American past is
that of settling the Wild, Wild West. These interiors were likewise
spare, often with dirt or cement floors, occasionally with wood
flooring and rag rugs or, where affordable, broadloom carpeting—a
real luxury in the West.
The Victorian era was in full blossom when the West began to be
populated, so we see overtones of John Henry Belter (Rococo Revival)
and Charles Eastlake (Renaissance Revival) furniture set against
rough stucco walls and blended with regional items such as Navajo
rugs and Native American artifacts, or artisan wares next to cowboy
lifestyle items such as boots, chaps, cattle ropes and whips. This
influence continues to be strong today as we still see people who
want to link to this frontier style.
These two styles—Colonial America and Wild, Wild West—have
become classic favorites today. But they often are updated according
to contemporary trends. Some of these current styles include the
use of cowboy artifacts and red and blue color schemes in a host
of wall covering borders, fabrics and rugs. The rugs often imitate
Native American Navajo rugs, but usually are woven in Mexico as
simple striped designs.
Pine furniture in simple designs influenced by the Colonial style
work well; these are usually masculine and natural. Window treatments
are the most creative of the current Wild West trends—alternative
treatments need to have a touch of the rustic about them such as
matchstick shades or two-inch blinds or shutters with rusticated
wood (real, faux or otherwise) or earthy colors in alternate treatments.
Drapery side panels often are hung on a variety of rods that reflect
these Americana styles from custom aspen wood to wrought iron capped
with horseshoes—unusual looks are the fashion.
STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER
An Americana theme based on the U.S. flag is a politically correct
and popular look today. This red, white and blue theme also has
historic precedent, although it is somewhat recent.
During the 1970s a milestone in American history was celebrated.
That event was the 200th anniversary of the War of Independence,
which began with a bold declaration in 1776 and ended with a new
Constitution firmly based on egalitarian (all men are created equal)
beliefs. The United States of America became a sovereign nation,
destined to become the greatest power for good in the modern world,
accepting the huddled masses yearning to be free and offering unlimited
opportunities to realize their dreams based on hard work and virtuous
The focus of our bicentennial celebration was an appreciation and
even reverence for the nation’s Founding Fathers and families
who sacrificed fortune and personal honor to secure the independence
and freedom of the United States of America. That was the good news.
The bad news for fashion and interiors was that the 1970s arrived
on the coattails of the hippie movement. American colors bordered
on the psychedelic. Brilliant interpretations in large quantities
such as patriotic red or electric blue carpeting or upholstery,
graphics on walls and even striped colors in the then new mini-blinds
caught hold. The entire color palette was so bright and shocking
that it’s hard to look back on it today without shuttering
and muttering, “What were we thinking?!”
But Americans are resilient. We do make mistakes, but we usually
learn our lesson and do not repeat those mistakes. Having realized
that big, bright and bold does not equal beautiful, we have entered
an era of subtlety in interior design—softer, more neutralized
colors, more complex palettes and more timeworn furnishings even
though today we are barraged by the technology that engulfs us in
its web of blasting entertainment and demanding e-mails.
It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out why the new American
theme takes on an antiquated, mellow approach. We need an escape
back to a simpler time of being a free American, free from worry
and fear, free from stress and pressured deadlines. So we paint
furniture then sand off some of the paint and search for creative
ways to establish a patina. The goal is to make a room feel lived
in, not new.
A contemporary American theme that has become popular this year
is the use of the five-pointed star from the U.S. flag. These stars
are used as motifs and as accessories in the new classic Americana
room—on walls, as borders, as drapery rod finials, as holdbacks,
as attachments on draperies and, of course, as a design on fabric
and woven goods such as blankets and throws.
Perhaps no other motif is more American. And Americans have shown
that like the stars on Old Glory we too can shine as we do good
and do our part to keep America free, strong and proud.
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.