Monday Musings: Is There Such a Thing As Timeless Design?
Updated: May 31, 2021
Timeless Design. How that phrase sounds wonderful and not expensive ;) If we could just implement one great design that would last our whole lives, or at least the length of the time we spend in a space that would be so amazing. The reality is that items that tend to hold more timelessness are generally more costly items; ie anything that is real; wood, stone etc. And even then, those items have their waves of popularity in terms of color and pattern (ie oak of the 80's that is recently making a comeback in flooring but neutrally stained).
At the risk of losing readers too early, I'm going to put it out there right now. There is no such thing as timeless design, at least in the sense that we think of it. Don't shoot the messenger- not all hope is lost! When we refer to timeless design, it usually means something that we won't get tired of looking at after a few years. If you are looking for something that you won't get tired of after comparing it to the latest, greatest on Instagram or Pinterest, then you are up for an impossible task. It's important to differentiate between something that's in vogue to something that's timeless. Truth be told, we all will get tired of what we see day to day at some point.
The first thing to understand about timeless design is that it can't really become timeless until it's stood the test of time, so I'm going to state the obvious- this takes time. Any successful style you look at has a history behind it as it was shaped and refined to make it into something that 'worked' as a whole. We are talking materials (from textiles to more 'hard' features: counters, what a fireplace facade is etc ) that were used and how they were assembled, items used within a space, proportion and flow within a space. So really, we can't look to current trends, spaces or buildings to know if the design is timeless- we have to look in reverse to see what has indeed, stood the test of time. But here's the cool thing- if we can do that, then it can also inform how we choose to implement style in our current spaces. As an interior designer, it's something I kind of geek out on- I love learning from what is timeless in design and figuring out how to translate that to what I'm currently designing.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘timeless’ as ‘not appearing to be affected by the passage of time or changes in fashion’. Who or what is someone or something that you would consider a "timeless icon"? Now try and think about what it is that makes it timeless. If it's a person, is it what they wear, their hairstyle, makeup etc, or how they carry themselves? If it is an item or space, what are the elements that make you believe in it's timelessness? When you find it- pick it apart: there is a reason you feel that way about it. I know- no holds barred- what my timeless icon is; but you'll need to read (or skip!) to the end to find out.
The styles that we read and learn about in design school: romanesque, gothic, victorian, art deco, cape cod, contemporary etc all had to have their time of refinement within each style to achieve what we recognize to be that style. I love that when we look to history for design, we look from the outside in. The farther we go back in history, the more concentrated the emphasis is on the outside of the building in terms of design, which then of course trickled it's way into interior spaces.
I contend that to achieve a more timeless aesthetic, we should think of approaching our spaces with authentic design. Understanding historical design allows for that. Authentic design requires us to become laser focused on the style and therefore be less likely to be swayed by fads that come along and distract us from what our end goal is. When we see something that is authentic, it reads as more timeless, whether you're attracted to the style or not. For example, I can look at a room in an arts and crafts style and, if it is done well- meaning it follows how things were originally laid out in that style; in flow, materials used and the way the furnishings are made, then my eyes will read it as more timeless because it is what it was meant to be. All of it worked for a reason. Again, if I look at an arts and crafts interior that has say, white painted trim (it's authentically stained wood),or round, rather than squared columns, my eye will read it as inauthentic and wrong- possibly confusing it with being dated as well.
Elements of Authentic Design (to help a space feel more timeless)
1) Picking a style that feels right to you and your life and sticking to it without being militant about it
2) Knowing what is authentic execution of your style
3) When selecting finishes, sometimes choosing understated verses exciting
4) Finishes and furnishings should be the 'real thing' as much as budget allows
5) Functionality no matter what era
Picking A Style
Without intending it, one example I can give of 'timeless' design would be my current house. Now don't misunderstand; this is not because I had some great insight. This was purely happenstance and (hopefully) a little intuition. We built our house in 2008- perfect timing for the financial crash of that year (haha). As we were designing it about 2 years prior, California was well into the everything Tuscan phase and I wasn't about to jump on board with something just because it was the thing everyone else was doing. (Sales people be warned: if you tell me 'everyone' likes or is buying this, I'm the person that will likely run the other way. Don't give me just popular- give me unique and purposeful!) We did a lot of research about what we wanted to build, went to Street of Dreams tours, drove through neighborhoods and took pictures, scoured magazines etc. No pinterest board however, because (gasp) can you believe it wouldn't exist until 2 years later?! After doing quite a bit of research about what we were drawn to, we came up with what we called a "Napa Farmhouse". For us, it simply meant having a dressed up farmhouse- we liked the idea of casual with a hint of refinement. So without looking to copy others, we thought about how we lived, what we were comfortable with and how we pictured raising our family.
Once we had defined what our house style was it made it easier to choose fixtures and furnishings. Anytime I would be looking at say, a faucet, I would literally ask myself if it suited Napa Farmhouse style (even though we made that up, but it was a buzzword that triggered the picture in my head) and that would help me know immediately if I was on track or not.
Knowing What is Authentic to Your Style
Knowing what was authentic helped guide our build process. I vividly remember having a conversation with our builder about the walls and how we wanted to do the corners. There has never been a true farmhouse that had radial cornered walls. It's not true to the character of the style. My builder was shocked that I wanted squared off walls- he said he hadn't done those for about 8-10 years. This was because the Tuscan style brought rounded corners into popularity, so everyone and their mother- no matter what style the house was, was rounding the corners of their walls. While that statement momentarily made me second guess my decision, knowing what true farmhouses were like gave me the confidence to say that yes, we were absolutely doing squared off corners. 13 years later, no regrets on that one!
(Sometimes) Choose Understated Over Exciting
Since we've established that 'timeless design' really means 'fixtures & furnishings I will never get tired of'- let's talk about some ways to increase the longevity of your interiors. A great example is tile. If you go to a tile store- there is an unlimited amount of eye candy. As a designer, I am constantly having to hold myself in check with this. 9 times out of 10, when I have a more neutral tile installed (ie the one in my 'tile pile' that is probably the least 'exciting' of my choices)- it has a longer visual life span than the more trendy ones that we think we just can't live without. It's the same with furnishings. If you purchase a couch that has a neutral color and style- it's not always as exciting, but then it becomes a 'background' for other more fun things like pillows with a fabulous pattern that is easily changed out with the seasons or when you're simply tired of them.
Don't get me wrong- I'm not saying to never choose an 'exciting' tile, I love me a great tile accent wall! Or not to choose a couch with some amazingly patterned fabric or a very specific style. What I am saying is that when you do insist on it, do it with caution and the larger picture in mind.
Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing
Last, but not least, look carefully at your budget. Are there places where you can afford to have some natural materials? Because if the correct products are chosen, this too will hold its value and give your space more authenticity. Or use a smaller amount of a natural product (like using real rock on your fireplace only up to the mantel, rather than taking it all the way to the ceiling).
When we built our house, some bathrooms had real stone (granite) installed, while others got tile. If natural products just aren't in your budget, I have some good news for you. Over the passed few years, the strides made to replicate true materials has improved by leaps and bounds. So find what you believe looks the most authentic or better yet, if you're hiring a designer, they should be aware of the latest and greatest on the market and chances are you will be the only one who knows (and your designer of course!).
Functional staying power
There are some elements of design that are authentic simply because of their functionality (which means they were designed well to begin with). Meaning, I can have that element in my space, or some variation of it and it is still as relevant as it was 50 years or more ago. While this isn't about interiors per se, think of a paperclip for example. This object has stood the test of time because of great design. It was patented in 1899 and it still remains as relevant as when it was invented. Or in the same vein, the toothpick, safety pin, and clothespin have the same staying power simply because of their design. Or nature's gift of flowers & greenery. People have been putting flowers in their spaces forever- though how we do it may have changed, why we do it is still relevant and adds to the space in an authentic way. When thinking of it this way, it's easy to see how personal spaces and furnishings are really not that much different, they are just on a different scale. And then there are designs without staying power. A search on the internet can prove that pretty quickly.
This is a perfect example of unauthentic design. I had to add this less because it is a great example of something that does not have staying power but more because I laughed out loud when I saw it. I need to add that I'm 99% sure that whoever invented this thought it was an amazing idea. And I am in no way trying to belittle it because many times innovation happens when thinking outside the box. Clearly sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Kudos to those out there that are willing to try. In this case, it didn't- but my guess is that whoever came up with this has many ideas and one of them could probably be the next best thing that we see.
Where does that leave us? The truth is, design, while at first glance may seem simple- is really quite complex, at least if we want to get it right.
Remember who or what you came up with that's timeless? Was it a person, an idea, an item? I'm willing to bet if you truly give some thought to it- even if you come up with something, it is difficult to explain why you feel it's timeless. That's ok- that's the whole reason for this exercise. Were you able to guess what my timeless icon is?
What is it about her? For one thing- she definitely wasn't the definition of the 'it' girl in her day. She wasn't like Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot. In my opinion, her staying power was that she had a quiet confidence that held up against other more 'popular' looks. While she wasn't the stand out girl, she was the girl with substance and grace that went beyond the centerfold look. There is an intangible quality that is difficult to define. Just like design. Parts of it may not always be a standout, but it has to have a quality that is substantive. So while we may forever be looking for ways to put it in a box, maybe the beauty of it is that- in many ways- we can't. But it doesn't mean we don't try! The truth is, if we could dilute it down to one specific formula- how boring would that be?
Here is to the 'timeless', 'classic', or 'authentic'. May we all take a page from that book and explore what it is that is enduring. Truth be told, I feel like it is a little bit wisdom (ie, do your homework!) but also a lot more luck- when it works then suddenly you just know it, whether it was intended or not. If it were an exact formula, it would have been figured out long before now. But at least there are ways to help guide us in the right direction. So when you're looking towards changing up your space, keep all these in mind as you go through making your decisions- it will help your space become more cohesive and authentic. And above all- enjoy the journey! Let's
hone in on what we know and lay out the rest of whatever it is for the next generation to figure out.
Your turn- Who or what is your timeless icon? Please share in comments!