The Underdecorate Movement – Pros and Cons

Objects found, repurposed and pleasantly familiar become the nouveau Chic of 2012

Today, The New York Times Week in Review featured Michael Cannell’s article describing trends in design moving toward repurposing every day objects (and whatever else)  spawning an “anything goes: style of decor born of the necessity of invention. Some of you may have caught my article this week about the trend toward Bohemian Design which touched on the same movement, and expanded on ways of making it function for real living.

Cannell describes today’s self-invented design anarchists as “a new breed of self-curating, design-smart amateurs spurred to resourcefulness by the recession and assisted by the Internet in finding materials and furnishings at deep discounts”.  He further describes their result as “an outpouring of homegrown inventiveness — sofas upholstered with burlap coffee sacks, stereo speakers made from Ikea salad bowls, party decorations conscripted as permanent ornamentation”.

Most of this is great – creativity is the inevitable silver lining of any recession. But there is a down-side to the hobo-village approach spawned of sheer necessity that few can now recall in living memory, which I will return to.

Oil painting of pears reflected in a salvaged pier mirror


One of my friend George’s scrupulous still-life oil paintings – Fry Cakes with Powder Sugar Glaze

Tromp loiel cats painted by my friend Nina’s mom


An artist couple who are friends have been doing this for years, to the delight of many friends and guests that their avant-garde residence has warmly welcomed. He a painter, and she a tromp loi’el artist, learned long ago to ride the changing tides of economic flourish and decline – in style. Their converted warehouse in upstate NY was a culmination of residential gallery displaying George’s paintings, articulated by Nina in the finest of Bohemian decor. Vignettes spiced with faux finishes and unlikely salvaged treasures accent a landscape of aged wood and patina surfaces and collected treasures whose assigned value is priceless in the currency of memories.


When their kids were young, Nina delighted in hiking up her sun dress, and leading expeditions  into the river behind their home, retrieving from its shallows discarded and rusted ruins. Tools, pullies and broken tea cups “curated” into

unpretentious collections adorned over doorways, and decorating the deck and windows sills – that magical undefined space separating the world at large defined her space as only design breaking the rules of sound principles really can.

Items found or past their prime become part of the garden landscape.

A River Treasure

Things past the point of use were magically interned in garden displays, calling to mind Camelot or the ash entombed silhouettes unearthed in Pompeii – ghostly snapshots that rendered a glimmer into forgotten human struggles, love, holidays and long gone children’s smiles.

So what can be bad?  “Deep-discounted Internet Furnishings” breaks the reverie.

Duly noted, I am part own of a quality driven home decor e-commerce business. But my objection to this trend is less self-serving,  than driven by an awareness of health, ecology, and economy. Using the same paradigm for purchasing a sofa as sets of disposable contact lenses will not save money in the long run, but will net long-range impact. That $499 sofa is hurting the planet, and may be hurting you and your family.

“Off-gassing” refers to the evaporation of synthetic compounds used in manufacturing a host of products, from cars to computers and toys to tennis balls. You have all heard the toy horror stories about the toys from China. Two of the most identifiable types of off-gassing are the telltale “new car” and “new carpet” smells. Adhesives, wallpaper, and paints are other common offenders, but you can count on that deep discount sofa to depress your health, and your wallet. Consider alternatives:

November 1966 issue of Woman’s Day magazine. Yesterday’s style is today’s chic – Look to vintage and thrift to express your style and stretch your budget

1. Decorate with all the founders objects you like, but think of upholstered furnishings and lighting as the holy grail of your design. One can hurt your health, and the other can result in burning your house down. If you repurpose lighting, source it out to a lighting professional! Reusing is great for the planet and your design budget.

What about a sofa? Look for quality and shape! Pretend it’s white – do you respond to its style? If you buy quality, new or in vintage antique shop, you will still love it in 2 or 3 years. Reupholstering is a planet and budget friendly solution for getting more for less.

3. For case goods and tables, again, try the antique store. If you have a good eye, your decorating may even be worth even more than you paid down the road. Mid Century <em>Vintage</em> Florence <em>Knoll Sofa</em> Daybed Eames ErA Florence Knoll sofa in good condition goes for more today than it cost when it was purchased! Your investment will provide you with the luxury of changing your mind later, and relieve the land fill of one more deeply discounted sofa!

Related Articles:

Décor for a Recessionary Moment –  The ‘Undecorate’ Movement – NYTimes