Chinoiserie Breakfast Bay Before & After, Part 1/5: The Inspiration
There is a point, usually around 6 days after moving into a new house, when I walk into a room still piled high with boxes and announce to my saintly husband in my best Joan Crawford voice that the whole house needs to be repainted at once.
After a cursory argument invoking about the prohibitions in our lease, the waste of time and money, the general pointlessness of painting and repainting an interior of somebody else's house only to repaint it back to the original color 12 months later, my husband hangs his head in defeat. He knows, in the infamous and immortal words of Mayor Gavin Newsom:
So now that we live in a comfortable tract home - if not a McMansion then at least a McBigHouse - I realized that while I can live with the neighborhood's monogrammed doors and even the brown shag carpet, I just can't deal with warm-toned walls. Browns, beiges, reds, if it's warm and cozy and inviting, I just can't even.
And every wall in this house is a shade of I Just Can't Even.
There seems to be a subtle "French Country" thing going on? I imagine going to TJ Maxx and filling this house with chalkboards that say "Bistro Francais" at the bottom, with space for you to write your family's dinner menu in your swirliest cursive?
I really imagine that this is the kind of space where you actually say, "Susie, why don't we indulge in a Zinfandel?" And Susie's not even grossed out by your phrasing. No, in fact she waits a second, and gets a George W. Bush smug little look on her face and says, "Mmmm...well when you put it like that, it'd be a ZIN not to..."
And oh, how the two of you laugh.
Here's the photo from the MLS listing. Cream and Provence Mustard paint, a faux-rustic light fixture, tan tiles. Cute little high-top bistro table, perfect for sitting with neighbors and "indulging in a Zinfandel."
We were surprised when we walked in because the previous tenants painted it a very pleasant honey color, and the darker mustard color beneath even gives the new paint a nice glow under the chair rail. It looks two-toned, but subtle.
I think here of the oft-repeated quote by Diana Vreeland, which is both an overused standard in the arsenal of the "Basic Bitch" AND somehow seems to be entirely unheeded by that very same group:
"A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste—it's hearty, it's healthy, it's physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I'm against."
Even Bow is disheartened by the complete pleasantness yet utter lack of taste shown in this rental-ready home. Don't worry, Bow, because I have some ideas and while most stride the line between "fun" and "really vulgar" I sure hope you like paprika, Bow. Because I'm about to make it rain.
I'm going Chinoiserie. I've heard the arguments that it's Cultural Appropriation. That it celebrates Colonialism. That it's very tacky. Don't care. Ain't never gonna care. I love it.
Chinoiserie - which in French means like "Chinese-ish Stuff" - emerged in 17th-century Europe. It was an exciting time: trade routes were opening and all of Europe was looking for something outside of the restrained and rational neo-classicism. They wanted things that were refined but also exotic and fun. They were like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, like "I Want Adventure in the Great Wide Somewhere." Except they were way more bored than Belle, and probably also had syphilis.
And then these boatloads of ceramics and chairs and weird foods come in from China and the feeling of exuberance and newness is perfectly summed up in this famous quote:
Wha-wha-what?! This stuff is super rad! Guys. Guys. Listen. Okay. So pretending like we're German shepherds and frolicking in fake forests with our boobs all powdered up and having to scrape of that pastey underboob sweat, that's not cool anymore. No. Okay, so we're gonna go inside and we'll wear some like silk pajama things and like, pretty soon opium will be coming in and that will be pretty rad, and in the meantime we'll drink tea. The poors will just be outside being all sad and hungry and the middles will still be frolicking in the forest like total losers." --The French Aristocracy, 1710
The reason I thought of Chinoiserie is that as soon as I saw this space, I found myself really thinking strongly about the Cheney Miniatures at the Baltimore Museum of Art. They are installations by artist Henry Kupjack and they are one of the most interesting and unique pieces at the BMA.
Kupjack specializes in exotic historical recreations, from Turkish coffeehouses to antebellum New Orleans, and not only is his taste flawless, his research is jaw-dropping and, as he makes everything himself from hand-painting the wallpaper to throwing the tiny pots and placing the veneer on the tiny chairs, it's technically exquisite.
This installation at the BMA is called Colonial Parlor in Chinese Taste, 1750-1775 and it just seems so light and bright and fresh. I wish I could find better photos of it online.
There is not much in that installation I could afford to copy in any rental-appropriate way, but that robin's egg-blue and golden-yellow color scheme along with the floral detailing just really feels great for this space.
Fortuitiously, I have two big-ticket items on-hand to anchor the space.
First, in 2004 I managed to buy several yards of Zoffany's hand-printed fabric "The Emperor's Musician." It was something like $300 a yard and for some idiotic reason I thought to myself, "Yeah, Jessica, it would be a financially responsible thing to have this imported from England to Hawaii, and then you could use this to make curtains yourself, and save a lot of money." Let me add that I had two infants, no idea how to sew, and NOT A SINGLE WINDOW that could be curtained.
Twelve years later, I finally opened the box they came in and although they were still in perfect condition, I still didn't know how to sew. Luckily, being snowed-in during Omaha's longest winter gave me lots of time to develop my sewing skills from "nonexistent" to "really awful." I managed to hem the sides, turning a truly fine hand-made fabric into something approaching a 7th-grader's Home Ec midterm project.
They're pretty bad, but I still love the fabric and now I have some very rudimentary curtains to base this whole cockamamie idea off of.
Oh wait, did I say the fabric was my stupidest purchase ever? No, 2004 was a banner year for stupid purchases. See, that was the year that I also purchased an entire "Formal Dinner for Eight" china set by Versace. I've actually used this set a lot though, like a lot a lot. More than anyone has ever used their wedding china. Just not once in the last three years.
And it has the exact colors and feel that I want to look at every morning when I come down my brown-carpeted McBigHouse stairs in the middle of Alabama and look outside at the middles frolicking outside like forest losers.
So that's it: the two inspiration pieces (dog-eared magazine page ripped from Elle Decor, vague memory of a dollhouse at the BMA) and the two anchors: exquisite fabric that I mangled into "curtains" and a formal china service that I haven't used in three years.
My constraints: I can only put in one nail per wall, I have almost no money, and I have no furniture that is suitable for this space.
We are currently using an outdoor glass table we bought on clearance from Lowe's, and I don't have to tell you that sitting on it, looking out the window, I feel like a total poor.