You’ve probably walked into someone’s home and instantly felt like you’d entered another dimension, gone through a looking glass, and ended up in the pages of a catalog (or one of those fake rooms in a furniture store). If, instead, you want a house that walks that blissful path between soullessly showroom-perfect and happily pigs-in-mud chaotic, you should definitely read this new book: Deborah Needleman’s The Perfectly Imperfect Home: How to Decorate & Live Well (Clarkson Potter).
The founding editor of Domino magazine, Needleman is currently the editor-in-chief of WSJ. Magazine. At Domino, she was primed to rebel against the sorts of overly perfect homes she saw in other magazines. “There was no way into them,” she says, “and no way to get from where I was, to there.”
“I’ve always had a passion for houses that reflect the owner and the lives of the people in them, that reveal things about them,” she says. Her childhood home, alas, was not one of them. She opens her new book with an intro that begins, “Growing up, I was struck by the fact that our house had nothing personal in it.” Needleman elaborates, “Where I grew up was exceedingly suburban--sort of Ice Storm-y. All the houses looked the same. It made me long for places that weren’t so… perfect.”
This book is not so much a paint-by-numbers guide to making a room look just so; it’s more about the living being done in the room. “If you put out the signs of a life you want, you actually help encourage it,” Needleman says. “Comfy pillows and loads of books on a coffee table—it’s a look, but it encourages lounging around and reading. An inviting-looking room ends up being more lived-in.”
Needleman says that this book evolved from the idea of creating a list of items every house should have. Then she realized that her list was more about the feelings and emotions shared by her favorite houses, than it was about actual things. Instead of a guide to furniture styles, acquiring more stuff, or setting strict decorators' rules (though there are loads of useful tips sprinkled throughout), this book is about the life you want your home to inspire. “The idea was to come at decorating from the angle of: What kind of life do you want to lead. How do you want your home to make you feel or make others feel?” she says. “Is it mostly about creating a calm place to escape from the world, or do you want loads of people around and lots of excitement? Or all of the above? It’s about using stuff to create the life you want.”
Needleman learned about living the life you want by turning to past greats, as well as being inspired by the homes of her friends. “I read a lot,” says Needleman. “The writing of Billy Baldwin is unbelievably prescient—perfect for today and accessible. He was the decorator to Babe Paley and to very fancy society ladies. His rooms were incredibly glamorous but super livable—and often really quite cozy.” She also learned from Mark Hampton: “His style was straight-up unrepentant WASP, but the way he thought about lighting and hanging pictures… he understood exactly how a house should feel.”
Of the current crop of designers, she says, “I’m obsessed with the Brits—John Stefanidis, Nicky Haslam, and Robert Kime. I adore the whole English Country House thing.” And of Rita Konig, a friend, decorator, and writer, she says, “All the houses she makes are completely full of charm. It’s an essential and really underappreciated aspect of style. There are lots of references to Rita and illustrations of her home in the ‘quirk’ section of my book. She knows how to make a house beautiful while not taking itself seriously.”
In the book’s pages, Needleman is only bossy when she needs to be—such as in how to set up a pantry so you can rise to the occasion when a pod of people drops by for an impromptu dinner. She also tells how to have a well-organized linen closet for when that same pod decides to sleep over. “Those are areas where it’s best to plan ahead so you can forget about it later,” she says. “This way, you won’t lose your cool.” However, in typical offhand and wry fashion, she says about the book, “Take the bits that appeal to you and ignore the rest.”
What appeals to her is a house that feels truly lived in, rather than ready-for-its-close-up perfect. “For aesthetic reasons, I prefer a house that’s a little bit messy,” she says. “The flowers looked better two days ago, there are pictures leaning against the wall—there are these signs of life. And, as an added benefit, it’s liberating that not everything has to be perfect.”
Tips & Takeaways: Ways to be Perfectly Imperfect
Needleman’s book is crammed full of helpful tips on everything from arranging furniture to hanging pictures to setting a mood. Here are a few basics to live (well) by:
—The light from a reading lamp should be below eye level when you’re sitting; the goal is to illuminate the page, not your head.
—When you’re trying to fit a shade to a lamp, bring the lamp to the store. Even the pros can’t eyeball it, she says.
—In a small entryway (or powder room), “exaggerate the mood” with bold wallpaper or intense colors that would be overpowering in a bigger room.
—The key to reducing clutter is to create “designated storage” consisting of bins, baskets, boxes, and trays. With these “miracle workers,” there’s a place for everything.
—In the living room, it’s nice to have a taller, firmer upholstered chair for older people who might have trouble getting in and out of slouchy couches. It’s also great for all those who hate slumping into the cushions.