BOOK REVIEW: Undecorate

-1I LOVE A NEW DECORATING BOOK, especially these days, when they help make up for the sad lack of decorating magazines. And despite its name, Undecorate, whose tag line is “The No-Rules Approach to Interior Design,” is a decorating book.

It’s an attractive book, to be sure, and fun to look at. But the concept is disingenuous. Undecorate (Clarkson Potter) shows twenty homes and apartments that are very much decorated in any reasonable sense of the word, only by their owners instead of those with A.S.I.D. after their names. Those homeowners are nearly all prop stylists, set builders, retailers in the home furnishings biz (including the book’s author, Christiane Lemieux, founder of DwellStudio, a textile and children’s furniture company), and so on. They’re hardly what the book’s introduction calls “real people.” They’re visual artists, with an eye for color, a knowledge of historic styles, and an overall creative bent. Most are based in New York and L.A., with a smattering of Southerners.

Totally understandable, of course. What publisher would spring for a full-color coffee-table look book showcasing the homes of real real people? We have the Internet for that.

With only a couple of over-the-top exceptions — an obsessive collection of bright-green ‘Sprout’ memorabilia (Sprout being the Jolly Green Giant’s sidekick), a Chicago couple who share living space with half a dozen classic cars — these camera-ready homes are far from immune to decorating cliche, never mind rules. Over and over, we see studiously neutral color schemes, white sofas and cowhide rugs, trendy vintage science posters, Harry Bertoia wire chairs, and other familiar tropes.

Author Lemieux’s Manhattan apartment. Does this look undecorated to you?

Lemieux congratulates herself and her subjects for being in on “the beginning of a movement.” Really? No one over 25 can possibly think mixing flea market finds with modern furniture, hanging vintage advertising posters in a child’s bedroom, or painting an accent wall pink — all examples from the text — are new ideas.

Former Domino magazine contributor Chase Booth’s house on Copake Lake in upstate New York

“Undecorated style isn’t one wholesale thing,” the book’s intro states, taking a stab at definition. “It’s a shifting target and has more to do with process than finished product.” Deborah Needleman’s foreword calls undecorating a movement free of ideology — meaning, I guess, anything goes.

In her acknowledgments, Lemieux thanks Rumann Alam, the under-credited writer, for “making sense of a somewhat nebulous idea.” Two hundred pretty pictures notwithstanding, I’m afraid it’s still a nebulous idea.

13 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Undecorate

  1. I have yet to read this book, I will probably take a look at it the next time I’m at the bookstore. There have been several reviews on various blogs and I enjoyed reading yours. Are you getting ready for summer in the Hamptons?

  2. “Undecorate” not the book but the idea the title conjured up bummed out some local bloggers. Does anyone really read the words in design books?

  3. Well, Terry, I read them — maybe because I also write them! Though I know there are many like you who say, “Who reads the words – I just look at the pictures!” Yes, HT, been spending more time out here, did my spring cleaning, set up the porch – now if only the gardening season would really begin!

  4. Finally! I was beginning to think (based on all the Twitter fawning) that I could maybe, possibly be missing out on the next The Decoration of Houses! I mean come on. Are we that starved for eye candy that we’ll accept anything with the word decor, or its’ derivative, in the title just for something pretty to look at? I’m with you on the blog-reading. I’m convinced therein lies reality and I’ll take it..non-perfectly staged room shots and all.

  5. hi Nouveau, thanks for the support. I hate to be snarky, but this book would have sat better with me if it didn’t strain to be ground-breaking when it’s not!

  6. Thanks for being straightforward and having integrity! So many people in any particular field/discipline seem to be willing to either remain silent or give false positive reviews about others in that field. This sounds like so many of the current decorating books I’ve seen.

    And frankly, so much of it is derivative interiors that look what we were told we needed to live in in the 60’s and 70’s (and a bit of the 80’s). Isn’t it just another way to sell stuff?: marketing “retro” to a generation that wasn’t alive when the original look was in vogue (and sometimes oppressed us).

    BTW, are you going to, or have you done an article on Lincoln, MA with the various Bauhaus homes, particularly the Gropius’ house?

    It’s a rainy day. I hope the spring tree blossoms hang in there!


  7. BG, you can’t imagine how *guilty* and curmudgeonly I feel for not doing a puff piece. That’s what comes from years of writing for advertising-driven magazines (and trying to be a ‘nice girl’). One of the prerogatives of blogging is you get to be a grouch, but still — old habits die hard. No immediate plans to visit Lincoln, MA, but it’s something to keep in mind, thanks.

  8. No apologies! Seriously, I so appreciate honesty because it seems like in the blog world, everything is “gorge” or they “lurve” it or it’s “adorbs.” Gah. Give me a real opinion and I’ll be your friend forever. Especially when it involves saving me some cash. :-)


  9. “I hate to be snarky” Criticism is brutal everywhere except for interior design. Snarky. Everything is just fabulous. Comments about HGTV is is the one exception.

    Bring on the knowledgeable, snarky design criticism please. Do it anonymously.

    Somebody needs to help us cut back on the sugar.

  10. LOL, Terry and Ellen. One does get tired of the chorus of praise on design blogs. OK, the gushing stops here;-)

  11. Thank you for having a REAL review of this book. I checked it out from the library and have to say i 100% agree

  12. Pingback: Restoration Hardware and Depression « Nouveau Stitch

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