Which eyes do you see with?

In 1988, I took a class on connoisseurship, to learn about antiques, at Historic Deerfield, in Massachusetts, led by its young, enthusiastic director. Five women showed up for the class and our first session showed us a battered, ugly, brown shell of a chair. And a bright blue, very pretty Bible stand.

Which one, he asked us, was authentic — i.e. of the period — and which was a reproduction?

Of course, the repro was the blue box. To our, then 20th century, gaze it was small, neat, tidy. And so pretty!

But not at all the right size or shape to be true to its time. Inevitably and until then unconsciously, we were seeing it through a contemporary lens, thinking how it fit into a 20th century home and life.

The hideous chair, of course, was the real thing, and terribly valuable.

That class taught us some indelible and powerful lessons:

not to make snap judgments

not to be beguiled by the externally soothing

not to be seduced by mere aesthetics

Whenever I see an early painting or building or use an early textile, (like this one, in the photo above, that covers my desk, sitting beneath my Mac, a 19th century woolen paisley shawl), I wonder about the people who made it and used it. They didn’t have electricity or television or computers or cars or effective anesthesia or antibiotics.

I know my love of old things is some powerful desire to time-travel, to place myself, even safely and temporarily, inside the lives and minds of those long gone. I often start my mornings, if I wake up before sunrise, by lighting several candles. The illumination is gentle and makes me ponder how the world appeared when that was the only source of light.

Imagine how different everything looked!

Having studied interior design, I’m passionate about interior (and exterior) beauty, whether in materials, colors, use of space. I live in suburban New York, but I often buy and read design magazines from France, England and my native Canada to see how differently their homes are created. I find them inspiring and often much more adventurous than the looks offered by American publications. The light is different, the use of historical allusion easier and colors often much richer and more muddled.

Not to mention I live and work in a one-bedroom apartment. The bathrooms and kitchens featured in American magazine are sometimes bigger than my living room! Europeans are more accustomed to designing well and intelligently for much small(er) spaces.

I love that elegant European homes often mix very modern and very old objects, as our does ours; a Tizio lamp and 18th century engravings of a South Seas voyage, to name two. For inspiration, check out Elle Decoration, Marie-Claire Maison, every version of Cote Sud/Ouest. etc.; my absolute favorite is British magazine,  The World of Interiors.

Having lived in Canada, England, France and Mexico — each of which has distinct aesthetic styles that also vary by region, in materials, colors, scale, proportion — I see design with an eye that adores the brilliant pinks and blues of Mexico, the deep black-green of Canadian forests, the gentle tones of a William Morris print, the impossible elegance of a Parisian maison particulier.

This afternoon I walked the cobble-stoned streets of old Philadelphia, looking at homes built in 1752. How did those streets appear then to the first residents?

On Saturday we visited a show of van Gogh’s paintings and I was most moved by one image, of a field in a downpour, the view through his hospital window. If you click that link above, the painting I love is in it!

How did his physical and mental state affect how he saw?

How do you see things?

What has influenced your eye?

19 thoughts on “Which eyes do you see with?

  1. I’m always amazed by how some people can look at old, broken-down houses and see such potential and turn them into homes of amazing beauty. Your post has made me want to look at things through different perspectives. By yhe way, we used to live near Philly and I loved that museum.

      1. True! It’s such a personal thing…I love the scale and proportion of homes built between 1780 and 1880. Would love to rent a really early home in France, Italy or England for a while…

        I love details like beadboard or wide mouldings or bubbled window glass.

  2. Those are good questions. And I can’t say that I can answer them. I know that I tend to ignore details. I see the world in broad strokes. My gaze is often on the sky and the horizon. I’m more likely to note celestial bodies than the new table clothes at my favorite restaurant. (shrugs)

  3. I enjoyed reading your article … thanks for sharing. For me the bright & shiny, while sparklingly attractive to my eyes, never seem to hold the imprint of the people it has passed time with. Contrast these to worn chairs or rubbed table corners … these items hols and show their interactions.

  4. Yeah, me too. Patina, that is. What is so wonderful about patina is the richness and natural history. You know it is real, not manufactured. In fact, an imitation is almost instantly recognized.

    Wonderful sentiment. I just love Van Gogh’s work. Talk about rich history.

    1. I recently bought an armoire (which I’ll be blogging about at some point) that I was told is 18th century. If so, it’s the oldest piece I own. It sure has a lot of patina! It’s a gorgeous teal blue with a lot of wear and tear.

  5. Ah, patina… or ‘dirt polished by age’, as I like to think of it! LOL Great article, really loved it. I adore old stuff. Hell, I LIVE in old stuff – a late 18th century downmarket townhouse. The frontage looks like a crumbly cottage that’s been shoehorned into our street by accident. I love its dotty eccentricity and drunken floors so very much. As a designer, my eye has been influenced by… gah, so much I can barely pinpoint it! The instinctive ‘knowledge’ of what goes well where, and why, is a tricksy one, my precious. Must give this more thought!

    1. 18th. century…**swoon**…normal for some lucky Europeans, a rarity indeed for most North Americans…which is why I am so drawn to crumbly bits like New Orleans.

      I think one’s design eye is shaped by everything we see, from photos in magazines (if you read them) to the colors of leaves and flowers around us (or when we travel; I still recall the combo of purple and lime in a flower in Thailand from 1994) to the scale and proportion of the places we eat or shop. I was going through my travel sketchbook last night and found I’ve even sketched the bathroom window of London’s Fortune theatre…

      It really depends how much/closely you pay attention and remember.

  6. I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam a few years back – delightful place. To me the paintings were reflective of a chaotic emotional state – and yet he was able, in turn, to evoke emotions in his viewers. And some pretty specific ones too. The best part of the exhibition was on Floor 2 where they ran through his life via his art – showing the evolution of what he did, his flaws, his weaknesses, and his strengths. There was no pretense; what is often held up as Van Gogh’s innovative work was actually due to his being a rubbish painter, even down to making errors with perspectives. But technical perfection was not what he was about – nor his strength, which was in other areas – and which render him one of the most emotive and extraordinary painters of his day. Amazing stuff.

    1. I was somewhat disappointed in the exhibition I saw, perhaps because I prefer some of his other work that was not included, like his portrait of a postman or starry night..I was interested to see the texture of his work, some of which must have been done with a palette knife.

      His color sense was extraordinary, no matter his technique.

  7. It is lovely to glimpse the world through your traveled and studied eyes. Every trip, every museum, every read informs and forms– including this read. Thank you! ~ Lily

  8. ‘I know my love of old things is some powerful desire to time-travel, to place myself, even safely and temporarily, inside the lives and minds of those long gone.’ How true! I love antiques, but the antiques that look beaten up around the ears; perfect pieces of furniture don’t do it for me. I’m not sure what that makes my ‘eye’?

  9. Me, too. I like patina. I can’t afford the best things so most of mine tend to be a little banged-up. I like my glass, crystal and china in good shape, but like my furniture a little battered. I suspect you have a great eye…living in an old house and all…:-)

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