First, there was the basic, utilitarian approach: You took whatever Mom and Dad gave you, and you shoved everything against the walls. Bed, dresser, desk, toy chest. It all formed a perimeter for the central mayhem area in your bedroom. Your furniture worked in much the same way the boards work in a hockey rink.
Then one day you decided the Donald Duck night stand looked ridiculous and you started casting around for a bentwood rocker or an adult-looking leather wingback chair that you could put in the corner--at an angle.
And suddenly, you had personalized your quarters. You had placed upon them the indelible stamp of your youthful, yet impeccable, taste. You discovered that you had been blessed with an eye for graceful lines, color, proportion, harmony and style.
And that's as far as you got. In later years, lacking a subscription to Architectural Digest, you fell back on the rule that you can't do too much damage if everything is beige. You arranged all the furniture at right angles. You couldn't tell a Chippendale highboy from a Peter Max inflatable armchair. You may have learned how to take out an appendix, or fly an F-18, or engineer a hostile takeover, or cut a deal with the judge, but Queen Anne was just another Brit whose name you forgot after your history midterms.
Gep Durenberger is out to fill that void. He thinks that there are too many people out there who could be living in some pretty spiffy houses if only they knew a little more about what goes into furnishing and decorating one.
An antique dealer for 20 years in San Juan Capistrano, Durenberger bought a rambling building on Camino Capistrano in 1967 with the intention, he said, of "having an antique shop for the rest of my life." However, when a local arts organization, Libros y Artes de San Juan Capistrano, received a large bequest of valuable furniture and objects for the home, Durenberger struck a deal with the city and offered the property on Camino Capistrano as a gallery to display the items.
Since the place opened doors two years ago as the Decorative Arts Study Center, it has been more than a gallery. Under Durenberger's direction, it has become a combination museum/classroom/reference library/lecture hall/home design center.
"It's unique," he said, "in that there's not another arts organization that specifically focuses on the home. It has become a kind of community center, with a very specific focus."
Through private donations, the center collects furniture, decorative items, books, garden displays and other around-the-home items and arranges them in specific, themed displays that change throughout the year. In past months, the center has seen what could best be called an eclectic mix of arrivals, including displays titled "Hispanic Decorative Arts," "At Home in an English Country House," "Art of the Old West," "Arts of the Ukraine," "Anglo-Dutch Traditions," "The Arts and Crafts Movement in California" and "Neo-Classicism in German and Austrian Domestic Design: 1815-1848."
Durenberger and many volunteers take pains to assure that the center remains accessible to the public. It is not an "in" for professional decorators and students (although many use the facilities), but a place where "people can get a handle on how we conceive of our homes," he said. "We provide tools for people to create better environments in their homes. We're trying to get people excited about their homes and gardens."
Want to know if that scrollwork on the top of that mirror you're thinking of buying is Queen Anne or American Colonial? Did the furniture salesman swear that the floral pattern on the chair upholstery is an exact copy of one popular in the Regency--but you're not so sure? Does $1,500 sound like a lot of money for an Oriental rug, and you need a little reassurance before you sign the check? Do you like modern and your husband is a leather chesterfield kind of guy, and you're searching in vain for any compromise?
That, Durenberger said, is what the center is for.
In fact, he said, in a perfect world none of those questions would come up, because children would be taught from a young age about the home that surrounds them and the items that make it up.
"When we get kids in here, so many times I see them get excited about what they're seeing," he said. "I'll see the little light bulb go on. Everyone is so eager to learn, because we all have to live with our homes.
"We'd love to be able to define from a young age a sense of value and quality, or help educate, for instance, young newlyweds, whose taste may be undefined. We help provide a kind of value system of good, better and best."
It's an inexpensive way to get an education. The nonprofit center requests a $3 donation from adult visitors. Children are free.
Home design fanciers can also become members of the Decorative Arts Study Center for donations ranging from $20 to $5,000. So far, he said, there are about 1,000 members, and about 2,500 visitors came to the center for the last exhibition.
Another crowd should be showing up this weekend for the center's Antiques and Decorative Arts Show and Sale, where more than 20 antique dealers will be offering such items as furniture, silver, ceramics, textiles and garden ornaments for sale.
So stop by if you're not quite sure how to juxtapose that Victorian chaise longue and the Andy Warhol soup can. If it can be done, they'll find a way.
The center is at 31431 Camino Capistrano. For information, call (714) 496-2132.