“I noticed the light would move through the space, selectively choose objects and illuminate them to the point of bursting,” he told me, describing the moment he knew he was onto a new book. “It was very choosy. Everything got its turn at being precious and focused upon.”
How many of us, and my hand is up, would have rolled over that morning, pulled a pillow over our heads, and said, “Who opened the blinds, dagnabbit?”
Not McAlpine, which is why we have “Art of the House: Reflections on Design” (Rizzoli 2014), which McAlpine wrote with his longtime business partner, interior designer Susan Ferrier.
Ferrier is McAlpine’s grounding force. “If we were elements, Bobby would be air, and I would be earth,” she said. “We meet in the middle.”
That middle ground includes home interiors that, like their complimentary partnership, are full of contradictions: gilded frames in wooden barns, straw with gemstones, old bones alongside polished crystal.
“So it’s like gourmet décor?” I said, trying to put a tidy title on the essence of their work.
“I’m sorry?” McAlpine said.
“When I was a kid, I used to define gourmet as a bunch of foods that don’t go together, like your designs,” I said, then stammered. “I mean, but they do.”
“We try to lift items that need elevating and quiet those that need bringing down,” he said. In the case of gilded items against stacks of firewood, “the gilt elevates the wood, which dims the glamour of the gold.”
McAlpine calls this dynamic “gilt by association.” Then, remembering whom he was dealing with, added: “Imagine ‘Gilligan’s Island’ without Ginger.”
After McAlpine saw the metaphoric light, the book, which features McAlpine’s home on Lake Martin in Alabama among other lake houses, tumbled out almost by accident.
“My lake house is made up of all the furniture I got for clients that never sold and from the contents of an antique store I had that I closed,” McAlpine said.
“I ended up with a lot of gilded furniture, things a little too refined for a rustic environment. But when combined with walls of firewood and unfinished material, they all just loved each other,” he added.
Which just proves that, in the right hands, magic happens, or as Ferrier said, things “become beautiful in each other’s company.”
“It’s like friends and family,” McAlpine said. “We balance each other out, and we are all better because of one another.”
Hoping to tap into their vision and knack for creating refined, yet humble, homes, I asked them to share some of their reflections:
Be contradictory: Think to the far left and far right in your furnishings, McAlpine said. Don’t stay in the middle. Don’t worry about whether items match or make sense. Put the finest pieces with the most rustic. They forgive one another.
Be reflective: Every room needs at least one object that reflects light, something gilded or crystal, a mirror or a glass object, up against something soft or textured that takes light in. But go easy, Ferrier said. “Control your glamour so you don’t get too slick.”
Be original: All of us are a little guilty of treating houses like doll houses, McAlpine said. “We tend to build rooms we were taught to want.” Home is where above all you are who you are. When you mimic your own self and the contradictions that are you, you create an environment that is the only place in the whole world like that.
Be yourself: “I wish more people knew that people like them the way they are,” McAlpine said. Company will only feel comfortable in a home that reflects you. If you have raided Restoration Hardware, that won’t be authentic. But if your home is a kooky mix of things that are pertinent to you, it will feel genuine.
Be fresh: Once home decorators have everything just like they want it, often they don’t move anything, and the space grows stale. “You have to handle and move, touch and rotate. Put objects away or in a different room. Give everything a turn.”
Be open to letting go: None of us is the same person we were five years ago. A continual edit of our home’s contents is important, McAlpine said. “Don’t grow a calloused eye over all of it. This requires retiring a bit of sentimentality, letting go, and keeping only what is really important and pertinent to who you are now and who you are headed toward being. Otherwise, it will hold you down and drag you back.”
Be considerate: A welcoming home is all about consideration, he said. It is not about having all the right props. “What matters is not that you had the perfect side table, but that you thought that someone would need a place to put a drink, even if that means you turned a bucket upside down.”
Columnist Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.
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