It's not that we are afraid of the future or reluctant to embrace what lies ahead, it's that we don't want to lose contact with the past. We want to preserve, to protect, to cherish that which is really worth saving and carry it with us into the realms of the unknown. And so we reassure ourselves by creating interiors that give us comfort and security through the use of antiques or objects handed down from the past.
THE TREASURE OF THE FIND
The desire to preserve the past goes beyond a surface connection. It is the deep satisfaction of owning a piece that is unique, one-of-a-kind. There can be much gratification in owning a treasured find, but pride-of-ownership is not the only reason people search for antique treasures. The connection is not so much the tangible property, it is knowing that someone who admired the piece as much as you do today lovingly cared for this piece, dusted and cleaned it, used it and treasured it.
Thus, a precious antique acquires a persona of its own. It becomes a keeper of secrets, a key to someone's past, a harboring agent of spirits past. If the piece belonged to a person in your family, it becomes a generational link to an ancestor whose life was spent creating a legacy for you. Displaying it in your home is a way of paying honor and showing gratitude for whatever hardships they bore, whatever they sacrificed to make life better for those who followed. Their lives become vicariously a part of your life; their joys and sorrows, laughter and tears are overlaid onto your own life leaving your richer and more grateful to be heir to their legacy through a personal artifact.
These precious treasures of furniture and decorative art pieces deserve a fitting interior in which to enjoy and showcase their unique beauties. This often is accomplished with complementary shabby chic elements as a part of the decorating scheme.
Chic, pronounced "sheek," as a noun means stylishness. As an adjective, chic means cleverly stylish, smart and currently fashionable. Shabby chic means there is a part of the room that has a timeworn, almost frumpy or slightly disheveled look. It is stylish and smart because it is the antithesis of what we have seen in window fashions and upholstery for decades. American interior design is just surfacing from a long period of perfection—precise pinch pleats, swags hand-dressed without a wrinkle, shirred treatments with perfect headers, tied-back draperies meant never to be touched. As the pendulum of fashion inevitably swings from one extreme to the next, it is logical to expect changes in the stylishness ensign.
The look of perfection has worn out its welcome with a good-sized portion of the public, and often people are just too busy to behave perfectly anyway. So welcome casual elegance. This look, now well established and represented best in upholstery, area rugs, wall and window treatments and accessories, is a breath of fresh air. It represents a new way of looking at life. Like an heirloom, we treasure the piece because of its marks and flaws, its traces of having been well used and worn in an earlier life.
Shabby chic is also suitable as a background or complement to the treasured furniture selections of yesteryear.
• Upholstery—Perhaps the best-known application of shabby chic is the look of just-a-bit-too-large-and-thus-wrinkled slipcovers. Historically, the slipcover was a means of accomplishing two goals: To give longer life to the upholstery, and to give upholstered furniture a fresher, lighter, less serious look for the summer months. Utilized mainly in the British Isles and along the eastern seaboard in America, it is finally a concept being embraced by the rest of the Western interior fashions world.
Many are choosing this wrinkled slipcover look for all year-round, and some companies are offering this shabby chic look as the original upholstery. Further, exquisite fabrics such as Renaissance damask make the shabby chic look rich and enhance the elegance of a piece of furniture. The result is a chair, sofa or ottoman that gives the impression that a lord, a lady, a duke or a duchess has just left the room after enjoying a lengthy chat or good read. It appears that we are connected to an earlier era of high style.
• Area Rugs—Area rugs and carpets are another place where the timeless quality of heirlooms come to life. Oriental rugs or carpets that are less than 25 years old are considered new; rugs from 25 to 60 years are old; from 60 to about 75 years old are considered semi-antique and over 75 years old qualifies as an antique. The value of a rug will depend further on its uniqueness or rarity and, of course, its condition.
Oriental rugs, like fine antiques, actually can appreciate in value when carefully selected. Persian and Caucasian Oriental rugs will always hold places of high esteem in interior design. However, many purchasers of Oriental carpets are less interested in the resale value than they are in the look it creates for their interiors. If the design and color is right, that usually is the first consideration. However, many interiors are planned around a great rug, as there are fewer choices in rugs and many more choices in fabrics and wall coverings.
Most kinds of Oriental rugs are produced in India and surrounding countries today. Rugs from India are of good construction and will be serviceable and beautiful, but they are not investment rugs. Rugs from China are unique in that they all have the same number of knots per square inch, are the same deep pile and are sculptured or miter-cut around the designs.
Today, traditional Oriental rugs are joined by a new type of rug, the Tibetan rug, which has imperfections, streaks and the look of an antique even though the rug is new. Many Oriental rugs are chemically washed to soften the colors and produce an antique appearance. This makes the rug more appealing to the Western buyer, who usually prefers the look of an old rug over one that looks new.
From Europe, there are three types of rugs that set a great stage for antiques: the French Savonnerie, made by hand with a pile just as are Oriental rugs and often in bold designs and colors; the French Aubusson, a flat tapestry rug, reversible and generally in more delicate colors and patterns; and the Portugese needlepoint rug, also made by hand with round stitches in stylized floral patterns. More affordable needlepoint rugs today are imported from China.
Folk rugs from around the world have striking similarities. Whether an Indian dhurrie or a Romaniam kilim, a rollikin rug from Scandinavia or rugs from Africa or South America, these flat, tapestry, reversible rugs are usually woven in geometric or angular patterns in primitive motifs and in a wide variety of colors from very bright to very faded.
Another type of rug that is a good choice for antiques is the rag rug. Many designers have rag rugs custom woven of the same fabrics used in the room and the result is a perfect color match in a striated or streaked rug that appears old. Designer rugs also can be specified in both design and color choice to appear mellow.
• Wall Treatments—Wall treatments, both wall coverings and custom painted walls, are ideal large areas in which to create a depth of history. From sponged to marbled effects, the look of layered color is well accepted and celebrated. Printed wall coverings with designs taken from history and given a timeworn patina, a tea-stain effect, or a washed look complement great antiques. Special effects in both paint and wall coverings, such as antiquing, rag-rolling, glazing, shading, spattering, wood-graining and texturizing, all are possibilities to give depth and richness.
Wall coverings alone can offer actual three-dimensional textures: grass cloth, string cloth and embossed and anaglypta paper that can be painted in any finish and technique are examples of marvelous background textures.
• Window Treatments—The look of shabby chic also is well established in window treatments, although it may take some convincing to persuade your clients away from strictly perfect treatments. In Europe, the look of imperfection at the window has been celebrated for many years. This is not to say that all treatments have this look; just some, of course.
Experiment with other kinds of pleats beyond the pinch pleat. The inverted pinch pleat, where the bar tack is at the top, is a good choice. Headings that sag, without the use of crinoline, help to create this look and puddle the fabric on the floor. This means the treatment will be a stationary side panel, and that alternative treatments—horizontal or vertical blinds, pleated or cellular shades or shading devices—will provide light control and privacy while the sculpted effect of the side panels, especially in a soft silk-like or velvet-like texture, contributes the drama and intrigue.
Hardware above the exposed pleats is available in virtually any look desired from very formal to very casual, from light, delicate scale to a ponderous, heavily proportioned selection.
Also consider a pelmet valance, which gives the look of centuries past. Pelmets are a great choice for this look. They are panels of fabric that are flat, pleated or shaped on the bottom and lined. They are attatched to a mounting board and left to hang loose. Thus, the effect is a cornice without the stiffened perfection of the wood. Invariably, the pelmet will pucker and wrinkle slightly, but this is the goal! It is the shabby chic look.
• Accessories—The finishing touches are often the very source of old things given new life by their placement. Never have Americans been so crazed as they are now in the hunt for antiques. Many shoppers are on-line, and some have become obsessed with the hunt.
Small items usually are much more affordable and flexible in their placement. They can be rotated to differing locations and put away and brought out seasonally.
Antique accessories reveal the discrimination of the owner. They also tell a story, or leave us to speculate on the story or to create one. And like antique furniture, they have lived a prior life and imbue that spirit into the present enriching our lives as they do so. Accessories are an easy connection with the past we are loathe to leave, and they will continue to be a link to those we have loved and lost. So let us proudly take with us into the next century and the new millennium the treasures of our past, however glorious or humble, and make our lives beautiful when we arrive.
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at Brigham Young University. She is a practicing interior designer and has authored several books including Window Treatments and Understanding Fabrics. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.