August 2008

House beautiful

By Gail Binkly

It has seeped into my consciousness over the past few years that my home is lacking a certain sense of style.

I tend to operate on the principle that if the floor is free of cat hair and a clear path is navigable between the front door and the kitchen, my house is in pretty good shape. My husband and I are busy, and cleaning is low on our list of priorities — somewhere below rolling up quarters from newspaper racks and watching “Doctor Who.”

But visiting friends’ houses has made me realize that no one who comes to our domicile ever cries, “What a lovely house!” or oohs and ahhhs at how the ceiling beams match the wood in the coffee table or how the hand-crafted tiles from Mexico complement the granite countertops — because nothing matches anything in our house, and you can’t even see the coffee table beneath our magazines. Once, when we hosted some out-of-town visitors attending a political convention, they kindly remarked, “Oh, your place is a typical activist household.”

I liked the sound of that, implying as it did that I spend my free time leaping into speedboats to save whales and chaining myelf to trees (instead of swilling sangria while looking to see whether the Rockies might win two in a row).

But, in all honesty, my home, rather than being an activist household, is an eyesore. The fact is, I’m not saving the world, so I might as well save my house.

Though I may not be doing much housework, I do regularly read about it. (I especially like Heloise’s column, with its advice on sewing washcloths together with a zipper on one side to store leftover pieces of soap.) Newspapers and magazines regularly run articles about decorating, so while I can’t afford mahogany ceilings or onyx bathroom sinks, I figured I could utilize some modest tips to spruce things up.

One of the first places you should start decorating, I learned, is your mantel, at least according to Mary Carol Garrity of Scripps Howard News Service. “Every season, I get an irrepressible itch to make over my mantel to give it a fresh look,” she wrote.

That urge had never struck me, but perhaps it was time it did. I rushed upstairs to the only mantel we have, which sits over the fireplace in the master bedroom. It was crowded with a motley collection: a glow-in-the-dark plastic skull my husband bought, a giant bottle of popcorn labeled “God Bless America,” some old coffee mugs full of pens with dried-up ink, and two marble urns that David claims are worth money, though I’m not sure to whom.

Obviously I should toss all that stuff. But what to replace it with? I turned to Ms. Garrity for advice on “fun summer mantel treatments.”

One was called “sweet and simple,” which had obvious appeal for me. “Find a piece of seasonal art work, like a vintage botanical, and lean it next to the artwork above your mantel,” she advised. I puzzled over this, as there is no art work over my mantel, just some sooty brick. But I could lean a botanical up there anyway.

What next? “Put a round ivy topiary or potted fern on the opposite side,” she counseled. Or, for a fancier look, I could add an apothecary jar filled with “faux fruit.”

I wasn’t even sure what a round ivy topiary was, or where to find fake lemons and limes. So I moved to the next suggestion.

This involved propping “an amazing tray” on the mantel. Then, Garrity wrote, “How about a tall candlestick with a moss ball or bird’s nest perched on top?”

How about it? Well, where was I to find these things? As far as I know, there isn’t aren’t moss balls growing within 20 miles of Cortez right now, and while I am pretty sure there is a starling’s nest in my willow tree, I don’t fancy climbing 40 feet up to find it.

I skipped to the last suggestion.

“Place a 2-foot-tall weathered garden statue, like a cherub, on one side of your mantel,” Garrity wrote. Then I was to cram a globular topiary behind the statue’s shoulder, add a flower pot with “a wonderful aged patina,” and plop a bird’s nest on top of that.

The problems were: 1 — I don’t have any weathered cherubs in my yard; 2 — My aged flowerpots are crumbling to pieces rather than acquiring a wonderful patina; 3 — There isn’t room on my mantel for 2-foot cherubs; 4 — David would have thought he was in the wrong house if he found bird’s nests and garden statues over the fireplace.

I decided the summer treatments were too much work. Maybe I should plan for fall. I found an article on how to decorate for Halloween if you are tired of the same old orange and black .

"Place an antique silver teapot on a black wire plant stand and surround it with a jumble of white gourds,” read the article in the Denver Post.

“Fill an apothecary jar with marshmallows. [There was that apothecary jar again!] Put a raven figurine atop a pedestal and encase it in the glass of a hurricane lamp.”

Next, I was to lean a silver tray behind this collection to offer “a shimmering backdrop.” For a centerpiece, I shoul.d set up “gothic black risers” beneath silver trays holding raven figurines and black pillar candles. To finish, I needed “ornate silver candelabras” and “black taper candles.”

That night, I handed David a shopping list that read: “antique silver teapot, silver tray, black plant stand, white gourds, apothecary jar, raven figurines, hurricane lamp, gothic black risers, black candles (pillar and taper).”

“And better pick up some marshmallows,” I added.

“What’s all this for?” he asked.

“To make our home into something out of the ordinary,” I replied.

He looked fondly at the glow-in-thedark skull. “I think it already is,” he said.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Four Corners Free Press.