12 January 2011

Of Taxidermy and Such

One of Rachel Denny's "Domestic Trophies" series, whimsical riffs on hunting trophies that the Oregon-based artist crafts out of wool, foam, and wood. For information see the artist's website.

Over Christmas I accomplished two feats: rearranging my brother's house and reading the final installment in Edmund Morris's stirring trilogy about the 26th president of the United States, Colonel Roosevelt (Random House, 2010). The two actions are not entirely unrelated, I must point out.

Like the pince-nezed Teddy, my younger brother is a vigorous sort — military man, wearer of spectacles, given to enthusiastic bursts of optimism and patriotism. More importantly for this blog, however, is an aesthetic characteristic he and Roosevelt have in common. My brother has no sense of interior design at all, other than "the hunter's desire to surround himself with disjecta membra." That's one of Morris's insights into his subject, and it means, basically, animal parts. My brother doesn't hunt much and what he kills, he eats, so while I was at his new residence in South Carolina — a sprawling and surprisingly untouched 1950s house long owned by the founder of a local institution of higher learning —  he regaled me with the venison he put away in the freezer as well as the sausage he made from the meat of a wild boar.

Evidence of those hunting expeditions sat on the floor of his library: a glassy-eyed four-point buck and a bristly black boar's head with a malevolent grin. There was a fish of some sort too, affixed to what appears to be a large piece of driftwood. My sister-in-law dislikes these objects greatly; ditto my mother. But my brother clings to them as evidence of his prowess as a modern-day hunter-gatherer, in the same way Theodore Roosevelt scattered the rooms of Sagamore Hill with bear rugs and such. So I scooped up the trophies and declared the heads perfect for displaying above the copper hood of the fireplace in the family room, which is precisely where they are now, flanking a signed and numbered James Bama print depicting a Shoshone chief. The fish went into the family room too. Where else was it going to go?

My only sibling doesn't have a precious bone in his body or much appreciation for beauty for beauty's sake. Neither does his wife. And they would both agree with me. The furnishings they have accumulated over the years are a bit of his, a bit of hers, as well as a great deal of furniture purchased with the house, meaning suburbiana from the 1950s and early 1960s, most of it, well, not my style. Expressing that opinion, however, was not my place, though I rolled my eyes plenty of times. What was important was to work over the house top to bottom and make it more welcoming — putting tables alongside chairs, moving a spinet piano to a better location, rearranging bookshelves, transferring lamps from one room to another, arranging pictures. (They recently moved into the house and seemed a bit overwhelmed when I arrived.) The end result, I hope, is a house whose furniture placement makes more sense, where collections are more orderly, and where, at the end of the day, my brother has, for the first time, a proper room of his own, where he can relax, play his guitars, and read, if he will ever sit still long enough to crack open a book.

Reworking the library was the hardest part of the holiday makeover. As a room it is nothing special: it a conventionally dark space, about 12 feet wide by 20 feet long, fully lined with mahogany-stained wood divided into panels by applied moldings. The fireplace is framed by slabs of spinach-green marble flecked with veins of white. The wall-to-wall carpeting is beige. If the room was mine I'd paint every inch of wood a Chinese green, the kind of green that's so dark it's almost black; rip up the carpeting and brashly spatter-paint the underlying concrete floor; and haul in a couple of English-club-style chairs, a glimmering giltwood console, some blue-and-white-porcelain lamps, and call it a stylish day. But it isn't my library. Though my brother knows nothing about interior design, he is nonetheless quite stubborn about what he'll live with, which meant that my mother and I could change relatively nothing. Still there's a lot one can accomplish within those narrow confines.

We dragged in a wing chair from the living room, where it didn't look especially happy, and placed it beside the fireplace, facing my brother's partners' desk. The moment that happened he began to envision, for the very first time, how the library could be used, such as hosting an affable father-and-son chat straight out of "Leave It to Beaver." (His observation, not mine.) A Mission-oak-style chair was nearly carried out to the garage, because my brother thought it looked severe and sort of boring. But when I pointed out that its firmness and height made it good for sitting and strumming his guitar with a music stand by his side, he agreed that it could stay. Ditto an old brass table lamp he deemed too retro; it serves a purpose, I told him, and you can always get a more pleasing fixture in the future — so the lamp stayed put. This sort of push-me, pull-you went on for three days straight. He was especially concerned (nay, alarmed) when he came home to find my mother and I removing the shelves from some bookcases, turning them into display cases, and arranging his framed medals and citations against six-foot lengths of wide green-and-white ribbon à la Mario Buatta. The displays weren't perfect, I agreed, but even he admitted that the cascades of carefully arranged frames looked far better than shelves half full of worn books and scattered objects. Plus the documents in the frames reflect who he is and what he has accomplished, professionally, in his life thus far.

So with this experience in mind, I exhort you all: open the curtains, move the furniture, and edit the clutter. All it takes a little effort to create a room worth inhabiting. It might not be as beautiful as one in a magazine but it can be comfortable and inviting. Just ask my brother.