Home & Garden

Home decor: Can ‘country’ style be considered ‘classic’?

Kitchens present a challenge for historical styles because modern lighting, plumbing and appliances have to be integrated into a "period" look. This example shows it can be done right.
Kitchens present a challenge for historical styles because modern lighting, plumbing and appliances have to be integrated into a "period" look. This example shows it can be done right. Gibbs-Smith

When nearly every new smartphone or social media website makes headlines, it’s clear that we are a fad-driven nation. For some, that means the excitement of novelty is never far away. But for others, the never-ending chase of the new becomes a tedium of its own. Yesterday’s ideas, however valid and useful, become detritus that’s cast aside in the hope of something smarter, faster or more fashionable.

When the “old” things we abandon are just electronic gadgets or last year’s must-have fashions, the process seems harmless enough, and pretty manageable. But when the monetary stakes are higher, that trend can cause trouble for the undisciplined. Subjecting our homes to that kind of fickle direction-changing is foolishness that Tim Tanner, designer and builder, says can inflict serious losses that are not just financial.

Tanner is a champion of good design in all its forms, but he is particularly fond of the style known as Early American Country, featured in his book Early American Country Interiors. While that look might seem like a narrow slice of the decor spectrum, Tanner insists that the best examples are actually rooted in classical principles.

Among the advantages of not chasing design trends, he says, is the cost savings from avoiding frequent style “upgrades.”

One trend-averse strategy might be simply to ignore the incidental details of our visual environment and stick with whatever look we happen to have in our home. That’s easy to try but hard to do, the author admits; all of us have some aesthetic sensibilities and instinctive responses to our shelter spaces and visual surroundings. Our eyes and brains prefer certain visual stimuli, in the same way that we like some types of music or foods, but not others.

The trick is to discern the things that we find inherently satisfying in a home, and that’s where Tanner thinks Early American style shines.

Some people swoon over contemporary designs with glossy granite countertops, sleek stainless-steel appliances and sparkling glass fixtures or tile, but not everyone enjoys living in that environment. Tanner says that “warmth, comfort, familiarity, shelter and peace” are the sensations that Early American interiors inspire, and that’s why the style remains popular despite the arrival (and sometimes disappearance) of many decor trends since.

What Tanner emphasizes most, however, is that the colors, textures, materials and other signature elements of good Early American design are really just the incidentals, the details that overlay basic design principles that date back to classical Greece and Rome. He is especially tuned in to the concept of the visual hierarchy, where the elements in a room are chosen and placed so that the viewer’s eye experiences them in a deliberate sequence.

Tanner’s analogy is music. Imagine, he says, if all the notes from your favorite song were played simultaneously. The result would be a chaotic, layered noise, not a melody. Music provides not only the components (notes), but also the sequence and timing in which they are heard. Visual design doesn’t have the luxury of time; it all “unloads” immediately and the viewer’s eye and brain have to sort it out.

The designer’s bag of tricks for dealing with this problem includes the principles of emphasis and subordination. These can direct the eye around the space in a deliberate sequence, with “rests” at important focal points. Tanner walks us through the use of contrast, placement, lighting, color and other tools to create and manage this sequence. Subsequent chapters introduce other design principles that can be used for a desired effect — visual weight and balance, alignment, harmony, repetition and variation, texture, symmetry and asymmetry, and so on.

Alternating chapters showcase individual spaces — kitchens, baths, bedrooms, living areas, dining rooms — with examples done in the Early American Country style. These spaces exhibit not only the signature elements of the style but also the underlying design lessons Tanner has been promoting throughout the book. This makes for a reader-friendly format with plenty of teachable moments, and offers a richer understanding of an American decor classic that too often gets overshadowed by less-deserving fads.

Book Information

“Early American Country Interiors” by Tim Tanner; Gibbs-Smith Publisher; 2013; $35; hardcover, 158 pages; 801-544-9800; www.gibbs-smith.com

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