Letting the earth set the tone


Book information

“The Natural Home;” Hans Blomquist; Ryland, Peters & Small; $29.95; hardcover, 160 pages;

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Imagine the challenges of producing an 18th century historical drama, or a reality TV show that replicates life two centuries ago. Everything on the set has to come almost directly from nature. You’d have clay, wood, fabric, stone, glass, some crude metallurgy and that’s about it. No petroleum-based plastics or paints, no synthetic fabrics, no electronics.

That world would be considerably simpler, with fewer and mostly muted colors, roughly textured or hand-shaped surfaces, and more evidence of time and weather aging the materials and everyday items of ordinary life. Would it be dull and lifeless? Hardly, at least if you ask Hans Blomquist.

Blomquist is an art director and designer whose signature style often lies within the boundaries of the aforementioned limitations, but he doesn’t seem confined by them. Instead, the smaller palette of colors, textures and materials seems to free him from distractions he’d likely find unwelcome anyway. Those “limited” design elements, it turns out, were enough to fill a book that Blomquist produced with photographer Debi Treloar called The Natural Home.

Like many books on interior design, The Natural Home features spaces that appear carefully staged, almost like set pieces. That atmospheric effect is certainly intentional — many scenes could serve as subjects for still-life paintings — but there’s none of the overwrought or precious quality that makes so many staged interiors look too pristine for actual living. A lot of the images reveal a minimalist or contemporary decor, but not a hint of the sleek or sterile flavor that puts some folks off the modernist aesthetic.

This look is about simplicity, about homes that seem grown rather than built. The placement of furnishings and objects looks precise and deliberate, the result of a discerning design eye, but you get the sense that to step into the scene with your dog and sit on the bench wouldn’t upset the balance, or the designer.

There might be some high-falutin’ abstract explanation for that forgiving tone, but I think the simple one is that there’s just too much imperfection on these pages for us to feel like we’re trespassing on foreign soil. There’s peeling paint, faded or threadbare fabrics, and furniture with all versions of nicks, scratches, worn finishes and rough edges. There are the chiseled surfaces of a hand- carved wooden bowl, and the cracks and chips in a clay pot or a vintage glass jar. In other words, it looks like us, a little timeworn and showing a few scars. It looks familiar. And it feels like home.

To an eye like Blomquist’s, these “flaws” metamorphose from blemishes into other features better known as character, charm or patina. Most of the book’s content is imagery that conveys this message visually, but the author does offer verbal guidance and explanations for creating similar looks. Here’s a sampling of suggestions:

•  Plants and foliage. These add color and life to a decor, and can be selected seasonally to reflect the outdoor environment: spring blossoms, summer grasses and bare twigs or evergreen boughs in autumn and winter. Display in terra-cotta pots or perhaps an old, galvanized-metal bucket. Sorry, no showy cut bouquets from the florist; these should be homegrown or native specimens.

•  Deliberate displays. Highlight favorite objects or collections by giving them prominent placement in composed arrangements. Weathered-wood frames, old glass jars and other display accessories/containers can elevate “ordinary” objects to a special status. Marks of wear or aging should be left as-is, not doctored by refinishing or restoration efforts.

•  Borrow colors from nature. Sure, some flowers, fish and feathers offer stunning displays of brilliant color, but in temperate regions especially, muted colors are far more common. Fresh or faded leaves, wet sand, tree barks and, of course, various soils and rocks can offer a varied palette of understated colors. Think tranquil and soothing for the large surfaces, and use more intense colors only sparingly, as accents.

•  Use a lot of texture. Blomquist calls texture the “secret ingredient” in the natural home. It can come from scuffed or weathered wood, corroded metal, hewn stone or the weave of linen or burlap fabrics. Either figuratively or literally, texture can soften a space.

Like many environments with an artistic intent, a few of these interiors exhibit an intensity that might be hard to sustain throughout an entire home, but most of them are friendly and livable spaces. That they might have a quality of ritual space shouldn’t mean they can’t be enjoyed informally for everyday living; in fact, they seem designed for both purposes.

Reconciling these simple elements with some of the more complex trappings of modern life such as computers, flat-screen televisions and laundry appliances might mean creating some artificial boundaries inside a home, but there are certainly ways to bring this quiet natural tone to life in some spaces, and they will likely become favorites.

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