In the world of interior decor, we Americans have always been a few years behind the French. I know this from experience; for years I have covered design shows both here and abroad, and I have seen exactly how long it has taken for European — and particularly French — ideas and trends to trickle into the veins of American design.
One Parisian trend that has slowly been creeping into our own national aesthetic is an obsession with the natural world. Take, for example, French artist Caroline Davoy’s cast-resin coral branches and tortoise shell replicas, which have recently become a mainstay at Restoration Hardware. Although these are synthetic replicas of real ivory, coral and tortoise, they achieve the same effect as the real: They add visual interest to rooms, and they bring the outside in. However, such objects are a bland interpretation of what was recently on display at last month’s Maison & Objet (the French equivalent to the U.S. design trade shows) and in the Paris flea markets. Real bugs, birds, butterflies and stuffed big game (if you can stomach it) took center stage. Everywhere one turned there were booths laden with elements of the natural world. Specimen-filled shadowboxes, shelves layered with rock crystals, quartz, real reptile skeletons and exotic stuffed birds were assembled in richly hued, artificially constructed rooms. (Think Sherlock Holmes’s flat in the 2009 Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. movie.) Stepping into these booths was like stepping into the archives of a natural history museum, but with one difference: All of the items were for sale.
Such a display, though seemingly new to an American consumer, is anything but. In fact, opulent assemblages of natural specimens from the land, sea and animal worlds combined with various cultural artifacts date back to the 16th century, when monarchs and the very wealthy amassed cabinets of curiosities. These cabinets, often entire rooms, were specially constructed to house their collections. Objects were curated, catalogued and artistically displayed to question and illustrate scientific relationships. These cabinets were a precursor to our modern-day museum.
Most of America has never seen such a decorative display of objects. The closest thing would be at a science or natural history museum. (An amazing example is the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.) In fact, there is only one store in the United States that I know of that has brought together all of the elements from the mineral, animal and plant worlds in a distinctly Parisian fashion: Creel and Gow on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. And it’s no wonder: Jamie Creel, one of the store’s owners, spends most of his time in Paris. The shop is strikingly appointed. Art and decorative objects cohabit the space in a way that clearly references the cabinets of curiosities of the past. The shop does have for sale its share of taxidermy, which will not appeal to many, but to see these exotic objects together is paradoxically awe-inspiring. One can’t help but be blown away by the beauty of a red Alaskan fox or a flying mute swan. (One thing to note: The companies that supply the animals operate under strict laws. Design et Nature, a company that specializes in taxidermy, follows the laws of the Washington Convention, which say all of the animals must come from zoos or circuses and have died natural deaths.)
There is an underlying message to the trend: Our interior design has gotten too far away from the natural world. At a time when good taste can be bought with one-stop shopping online, we need to add an unexpected dose of the natural and/or the exotic to our rooms. And although I don’t think filling your house with glass-enclosed bat skeletons and stuffed albino peacocks is the answer, I do think we each need something that tips a tastefully decorated room into one that is more layered and interesting. Like this trend or not, you can take it as a reminder to look to the natural world for beauty. So as the ice thaws and trees bud and the butterflies reappear, keep your eyes open to find one or two natural specimens — a leaf, shell or beautiful rock — that you can bring inside to enliven your rooms.
Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”