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The Eye by Barbara King

The very particular place we call home

Whether we're living in it or just imagining it, each of us has our own idea of what that comforting space is.

November 27, 2003|Barbara King

HOME HAS BEEN ON MY mind more than usual lately, mostly because at the moment, I don't have one. But let me clarify: This is a willful homelessness, brought on by a bad choice that has led to an arguably less-bad choice.

I left a 1930s apartment for a modernized loft three months ago, based on an old desire I thought could be rekindled. For years, ever since I'd been in New York, I had wanted to live in a big, open industrial space. And so I did, for a few weeks.

No less a modern-day sage than the redoubtable Cher made the bluntly astute observation when she left Gregg Allman after something like eight days of marriage that it was best to admit one's mistakes as soon as one realized them.

I made pretenses at putting the loft together -- never, as convenience would have it, fully unpacking -- all the while knowing it wasn't right. The old desire wasn't just old, it was fossilized. Nothing about the place worked for me which, at first, made me unspeakably sad, as though I had tried to revive a college romance but suddenly saw that my love object was a stranger speaking a different language. After I got past the disappointment that my fantasy had gone all potbellied and creaky, I got Cher-like. Just get out, I told myself. ASAP.

I pleaded my case to the building manager and the landlords, and was so taken aback by their kindness, I felt momentarily ashamed. Everything -- including any other lingering desires from the past that would need to be dealt with -- went into storage, and I went into a temporary rental, a tiny furnished space with only the bare necessities. A few white dishes, a few pots and pans, a few white towels, a sofa, chair and bed. Clean, simple.

This arrangement was reasonably OK for about a weekend, during which time I felt such a gooey appreciation for the ease of the transition that I embarrassed even myself with the sentiment. And then the stern, purse-lipped critic in me started to wag her bony finger: Couldn't they have just gotten a plain white comforter instead of this hideous gray muddled-up thing, couldn't they have gotten a comforter like... like mine?

Ah. That was it. I wanted my own things. I needed them. All of them. I felt displaced, disoriented, like I was wearing someone else's identity. The way I might feel putting on a dirndl skirt with a puffy-sleeved gingham blouse. Oh, dear, not me, I'm afraid, not me at all.

So, in a very privileged way, I have a strong hint of what it's like for the people soldiering on with their makeshift lives after every dear and familiar material possession was taken from them. Especially now, during the holidays, when home assumes an almost exaggerated meaning. When we want the thick smells of home cooking overtaking the rooms, people dropping by and bringing with them the usual delights and aggravations.

Without my own brand of beauty around me, such as it is for anyone else, I buoy my spirits looking at pictures of houses in books and magazines, as I have always done when I'm going through a transition. And since transition seems to have become a permanent condition in my life, I've looked at a lot of them.

Jeffrey Bilhuber's earth-toned rooms strike me, this week at least, as rooms I could settle into without a twitch of an eye, because I've convinced myself that they're a heightened, more polished version of my own earth-toned rooms, albeit dismantled ones waiting for me in a temperature-controlled vault.

Bilhuber is a New York-based interior designer with a new book, published by Rizzoli, "Jeffrey Bilhuber's Design Basics" and a gift for making neutrals seem as spirited as color. His neutrals don't have that wan look of an airline breakfast -- all egg white, light toast and oatmeal shades -- but give off a richer, lustier effect. Think cognac, caviar and espresso tones mixed with creme fraiche.

I like his philosophy too: "Here's how I judge if I've been successful in designing a space," he writes. "If someone calls up a client of mine and says, 'Thanks for inviting me to the best dinner in years!! The food was delicious and the house was so comfortable and beautiful.' God help me if instead they say, 'Wonderful party. Where did you get the chair?' If this should happen, I'll know I've failed because it will mean that I haven't been decorating, I've been shopping. Successful decorating is about creating an intangible atmosphere that charms and beguiles. You can't tie it to one particular object; you just know you feel good in a particular space."

Recently Bilhuber came through L.A., and we talked. After pointing out that his is the only design book that has a foreword by Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour (he did her two houses), he explained that he wanted to write about solutions to decorating, because we all have to find them, one way or another. That he wanted to analyze the foundation of great design, give us "not the icing, but the cake itself."

What he finds incredible, he says, is that lately, his older clients are asking for a more modern and edited look, but his younger ones are embracing the traditional -- "the values and the comfort they knew as a child. They want the feeling of security that brings."

Bilhuber thinks of himself as totally American in his approach to design, "respectful of the past but optimistically looking to the future. Americans don't look backward, we look forward, as if the best times are yet to come. If your home has an ordered sensibility, you feel life is good and things have worked out for you. That what you have is what you need."

That would be a pretty decent point of view for me to adapt while I wait it out for that "particular space" I'll feel good in again. In fact, a pretty decent one for all time. Forward, always forward. With a nod backward, in thanks.

Barbara King is editor of the Home section. She can be reached at barbara.king@latimes.com

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