We all respond to the ineffable quality of charm in a person or a home, but it’s hard to pinpoint the elements that create it. Sometimes it’s just there. In fact, qualities we admire in people—honesty, integrity, and intelligence—are also the elements of charming interiors. Everyone can create a home with those qualities. It’s all about getting down to the basics, the “good bones” of design.
We’re not talking about structural changes. The only tools you need are your five senses, a pad and pencil, a friend—and a basic understanding of a few simple concepts.
If you’ve ever visited Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond or some other authentic log cabin, you probably noticed how the basic dwelling is perfect and complete in its own simple way. This is the charm of just right and just enough, the most fundamental rules for good bones.
How can you assess the just right of your own home? First, think about how you live; your home must be equipped for your life. If you love to read, you need a comfortable chair and ottoman, a good light properly placed, and a table for your book and a mug of tea. These are simple, fundamental requirements, but how often are they optimally fulfilled?
Take out your pad and paper for an exercise that will give you the key to the just right aspect of design. Walk through your home and make a list of the things you love about it. Include your favorite objects as well as more intangible features, such as the view through a window or the refreshing “feel” of your new stone-floored bath. Locked within these objects and spaces and views is the spirit of your home—its charm.
Consult your list of “charms” and consider again the view onto the garden. Is the room that contains that window truly “a room with a view?” Is there sufficient space in it to draw the eye through to the garden beyond? Space can be a powerful force in design; don’t block its energy with unnecessary furnishings.
You can liberate the spirit of just right by turning to the inner structural beauty that supports just enough.
First, your home must look and feel clean, beginning with its bone structure: walls, floors, and windows. We’ve all seen homes where decorating “projects” have been applied like makeup to skin that is less than shining clean.
Cleaning is not about chores; it’s about attitude. We want to care for what we love. I remember the kitchens of my grandmother and her friends. Scrubbed pine or linoleum floors; gloss-painted white, yellow, or green walls; a few cabinets; an oilcloth-covered wooden table big enough for the heavy boards used for noodle and pastry making. These kitchens were kept beautiful out of love, with the help of children who knew the magic that emerged from them: the lemon and orange perfumed sponge cakes, the tart cherry and sweet apple strudels.
In those simple homes, the word “clean” was taken for granted, but as a practice, not an unattainable state of perfection. The things you use stay clean, from humble utensils to fine furniture. If you have inherited an antique walnut cabinet, use it. Touching, dusting, occasional polishing—daily life creates patina. Your grandmother’s sterling silver flatware won’t tarnish if you use it. Lovely old china may not be suitable for every day, but it can be displayed in a glass-fronted cabinet, where it stays clean, beautiful, and accessible for special occasions.
Of course, a less cluttered house is easier to keep clean and shows its good bones more beautifully. That doesn’t mean every home should be decorated in minimalist style. It does mean having only what is just right, and no more than you can comfortably maintain. If you love caring for houseplants, by all means have them, though they are high maintenance. If you haven’t the time or talent for lots of plants, consider one perfect flowering plant at a focal point in your home, perhaps a low table in the room where you sit with family and friends. That carefully chosen plant is a perfect example of just right and just enough.
A place for everything
Turn to a new page in your pad and write this old adage at the top: A place for everything, and everything in its place. You may be comfortable with a lot of things or a few; your house may be large or small—the rule applies.
There are three enemies of a place for everything. The first is, “Just for now...” If you don’t have a permanent place for something, you don’t need it. There are things you may use only a few times a year, such as camping gear, skis or holiday items, but they all need a suitable storage space.
The second enemy is, “What if...” If you don’t camp anymore, don’t allow yourself to justify keeping the gear with questions such as “What if we take up camping again?” Or, “What if one of the kids...?” You’re veering off the path of just right and just enough into the quagmire of clutter. More profoundly, you’re leaving the path of living in the here and now, in the authentic cycles of your life.
The third enemy is, “It’s here somewhere.” You don’t really own a thing if you can’t find it. Many of us still have a Victorian image of “home” that includes great attics full of hidden treasures. We need to update that image and limit everyone in our families to manageable storage space and the disciplined joy of creating a “memory box” of truly treasured things.
It’s time to call that friend—the one you rely on to think straight and keep your own thinking on track. Get bags and boxes ready, invite her over, give her lunch, then go through all the things you’ve found that you suspect are not right or too much. Once you’ve sorted through them, pack them up and donate them to any of the worthwhile organizations that will recycle them through charity programs and thrift stores. Be generous and know that your old things will find new life while you pare down to a more beautiful and manageable home.
Martha Ruschman contributed to this article.