How Fiction Can Inspire Wonderful Rooms
Novelist Sloane Crosley on how she goes deep into her imagination to conjure fictional interiors.
Novelist Sloane Crosley on how she goes deep into her imagination to conjure fictional interiors.
DURING MY SENIOR year of college, I took a literature class called The English Country House, which focused on dumbwaiters and dining rooms from Woolf to Waugh. The class is responsible for my fluency in oh, say, wainscoting. At the risk of belabouring the point? I went to a liberal arts school. But what appears to be a rarefied entry point into the literary landscape is actually a portal into the Great Hall of any novel. Once you start paying special attention to where novels are set—not just their country or cultural moment but the minutiae of where our heroines and heroes lay their heads—their narratives open up in new ways. After the characters have gone, you can still stroll from room to room, an unpaid housesitter grazing her fingers along the wallpaper.
So many of the canonical examples of fictional interior design really do come from the British, who like to inhabit etiquette minefields stuffed with generational trauma, class issues and chintz (“Bleak House,” “Howard’s End,” “Wuthering Heights,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” “The Remains of the Day”…Jane Austen takes the prize for Pemberley alone). Contemporary British authors are also unavoidably good on the subject (I’d gladly entrust Rachel Cusk, Alan Hollinghurst or Zadie Smith with my blueprints).
But there is no shortage of memorable interiors scattered across all literature. Both as a reader and as a writer, I have always gravitated toward fabricated design (by which I mean not just imaginative design but the actual, literal fabric of it; see also the Jenny B. Goode tapestry pillow that Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” clutches as he nurses a cocktail). I find such details, which purposefully but slyly speak to the time in which the characters live, move a story along as much as they pin it in place.
In the Glasses’ apartment in “Franny and Zooey,” “not only were the furnishings old, intrinsically unlovely, and clotted with memory and sentiment, but the room itself in past years had served as the arena for countless hockey and football (tackle as well as ‘touch’) games, and there was scarcely a leg on any piece of furniture that wasn’t badly nicked or marred.” This is no mere décor. It is, to employ a cliché, another character. The first image that pops into mind when I think of that particular book is of Franny, staring up at the ceiling. I can see the apartment as she sees it, fill in the gaps. Just like when I think of “The Great Gatsby,” I am struck less by Gatsby’s infamous green light than by the first sight of Jordan lounging on a sofa, curtains billowing behind her, “extended full length at her end of the divan, completely motionless, and with her chin raised a little.” I know that divan. I can run my fingers over the upholstery. I can also tidy the bookish disarray of “Giovanni’s Room,” ascend the crumbling steps of Manil Suri’s apartment block in “The Death of Vishnu” and feel the deep, deep anti-Craftsman sentiment of Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”
As someone who spent her childhood sleeping in an 8-by-8 bedroom of a small house and whose current furniture is flush to the walls of her apartment as if being held at gunpoint, I come by this fetish honestly. I have now lived in New York City for over 20 years, and I still think the height of luxury is the exposed back of a sofa. Once you can afford a 360-degree view of your own furniture, you get to worry about aesthetics. Writing fiction gives a person such as myself the opportunity to imagine my way into whatever space I like with whatever budget I like. In short? It gives me the chance to really go to town.
My first novel, “The Clasp,” begins in a mansion in Miami and ends in a 16th-century French château. But for my new novel, “Cult Classic,” I did a full gut renovation, turning a derelict synagogue on the Lower East Side into a sleek cultlike club. The design details are not explicitly named, but I know that those are lighting designer Lindsey Adelman’s chandeliers dangling from the ceiling, Danish designer Jens Risom’s chairs and Scalamandré wallpaper in the bathroom. And because the synagogue is less a manifestation of my personal design dreams as it is satire, the tray of bottled water in the conference room is that of a “branding studio” where I once took a meeting. The drinking straws are striped. Very Instagrammable. And there’s a room with nothing in it, save for an amethyst geode, an image I swiped from a self-serious spa that I went to once.
But is this what I want people to take away from my novel? Danish side tables? Not really. What I hope a reader remembers is how the design unfolded alongside the plot. So much is kept secret from our heroine, her access to information and her access to space are intertwined. I wanted to create a feeling akin to the one I felt as a child, reading Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”: “Five children and nine grown-ups pushed their way in—and oh, what an amazing sight it was that now met their eyes! They were looking down upon a lovely valley. There were green meadows on either side of the valley, and along the bottom of it there flowed a great brown river. What is more, there was a tremendous waterfall halfway along the river…” I, sir, am no Roald Dahl. But there is, in fact, a fountain in the lobby of my fictional club.
With few exceptions, writers must force themselves to reign in their descriptive tendencies, lest they wind up with five static pages about a claw-foot bathtub. The trick, especially when it comes to interiors, is in peppering signifiers without listing them. Too few? I don’t know where I am. Too many? Well, if I wanted to read a catalogue, I would read a catalogue. In the end, the visual impact of a space is not up to me but to readers. Readers who will set about correcting or replacing my images with versions of their own, with details of their own. Or, in the words of Maggie Smith’s famous poem, “Good Bones”:
“Any decent realtor,/ walking you through a real shithole, chirps on/ about good bones: This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.”
Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: Jun 01, 2022
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There’s no shortage of design inspiration online but nothing beats the joy of spending an afternoon immersing yourself in a good interior design book. Edited, carefully curated and, above all, designed, these titles take you behind the scenes of some of the world’s most beautiful interiors in a considered way. Think of it like the difference between listening to a few tunes on Spotify versus releasing a thoughtfully crafted studio album. We’ve assembled our top six of interior design books on the market right now for your viewing and reading pleasure.
Step inside the world of award-winning interior design duo Juliette Arent and Sarah-Jane Pyke in this, their first compendium of their work. A ‘best of’ over more than 15 years working together, it’s a masterclass in working with colour and pattern as seen through 18 projects from around the country. With a focus on the idea of home as sanctuary, this hefty tome offers insight into the mind of the designer with points on where to find inspiration, meeting client briefs and the importance of relationships. Thames & Hudson, $120
If there was ever a book title for our times, then this is it. With a subtitle of Playful Homes and Cheerful Living, this book champions fun in interior design, with bold and bright homes from around the world to delight and inspire. While there’s a good dose of the unexpected, like a disco ball in the garden, there’s no mayhem in these spaces. Instead, they’re beautifully executed to tempt even the most colour shy. Gestalten, $105
Some design books are beautiful to look at, and that’s it. This is not one of those books. A master of colour and pattern, UK designer Ahern offers a practical foundational guide to beautiful interiors, mixing form with function in her latest book, Masterclass. Find the inspiration you need to create a gorgeous home. HarperCollins, $65
Looking for a visual crash course in international design trends with longevity? This is the book for you. Featuring homes across the globe, from New York to Auckland via Avignon, the biggest dilemma for readers is settling on a style. Many of the projects are owned by designers and creatives, lending a dynamic edge to this tome, now in its 40th year. Taschen, $50
For many Australians, the ocean holds an almost hypnotic appeal. Home by the Sea by Natalie Walton lets you imagine, for a little while at least, what it’s like living the dream in a beach shack in Byron Bay. The book tours 18 homes in and around the region and the hinterland owned by artists, designers and makers. With photography by Amelia Fullarton, it champions the good life. Hardie Grant, $60
Released last year, this is the third volume from award-winning interior designer Greg Natale. Different in format from his earlier books, the eight projects featured are Australian but with a slight Euro-centric focus. The writing is conversational, almost intimate, inviting the reader into the most luxurious spaces beautifully captured by photographer Anson Smart. This coffee table tome is perfect for dreamers and doers alike. Rizzoli, $110
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