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Ugly Is as Ugly Was

The Horrors of the '70s Come Back to Haunt Us

By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page H01

Among this year's crop of coffee-table tomes -- celebrating four centuries of French armoires or the sun-drenched colors of Santa Fe style -- scurries a most welcome garden-party skunk.

The book, "Interior Desecrations: Hideous Homes From the Horrible '70s," is a full-throated rant against the decade of shiny op-art wallpaper, plaid upholstery and long-haired rugs in a palette dominated by orange, green and brown, everywhere brown.

Rooms in need of divine intervention.

For 176 pages, most featuring eye-jangling photos in full color that actually appeared in well-regarded design magazines of the era, author James Lileks ridicules an aesthetic he lived through and loathes. In prose by turns vulgar, blasphemous and hilarious, he takes no decorating prisoners.

From deep within a 1915 Arts and Crafts home the author describes as extremely tasteful and entirely kitsch-free, the Minneapolis Star Tribune humorist wrote the following about '70s interiors: "This is what happens when Dad drinks, Mom floats in a Valium haze, the kids slump down to the den with the bong and the decorator has such a desperate coke habit he simply must convince half the town to put up reflective wall paper. . . ."

It seemed so normal at the time that Lileks said his own tasteful, unmedicated mother performed a "fashion upgrade" on the living room of the family rambler in Fargo, N.D. even as young James, now 46, sat around in bell-bottoms and Earth Shoes watching "Hee Haw."

The shag carpet, he lamented during a recent phone interview, was "an unusual brown, where if you ran your hand through it, it turned a light brown. A sofa was added, characterized by an unusually florid design that made the rococo period look like Mondrian. It was beige, white, black, brown, orange and cream, with flowers that would have come to God in a fever dream. As though we understood there was something wrong about it, the pattern was instantly covered with thick, translucent plastic to protect it."

Very little in "Home Desecrations" (Crown Publishers, $23.95) is protected, which is too bad. Sunglasses or blinders would have helped in viewing rooms he captioned as "the visual equivalent of granulated glass in your eyes."

Lileks starts at the front door. One entrance hallway is a symphony of black-and-white, busy-print wallpaper and checkerboard floor tiles, and it segues into an adjoining chamber covered in brown, yellow, black and white stripes and dots. Another foyer boasts a curved stairway with vertical, abstract printed paper he likens to "a close-up of one's intestinal lining. . . . You can be sure the designer chose this scheme because it 'drew the eye upward.' Of course, one could say the same thing about the Hindenburg disaster."

The living room chapter features one salon with chairs and rugs done in warring geometrics of brown, black, yellow and cream: "Just to amuse himself, Marvin would wear a shirt and slacks in the identical pattern as the floor." Another is a riot of green, including a wall that appears to be covered in avocado crushed velvet: "a living, mossy" surface that brings the outdoors inside -- "and of course that includes the sight of several thousand writhing grubworms and millipedes when you remove the painting [that hangs on said wall] to clean the glass."

The worst living room may be the paisley travesty in which walls, curtains and sofa meld in seamless fey camouflage: "Surrounded and outgunned, the lamp and pillow" -- both inexplicably sky blue -- "held out as long as they could."

Onward to kitchens, which veer from "unspeakable quasi-Pennsylvania Dutch dreck" in greens and browns to a rather sleek space filled with orange cabinets that "matched the Velveeta you used for the fondue."

A dining room -- decorated, perchance, to celebrate the Bicentennial? -- sports red-and-white-striped walls above the chair rail, white stars on a blue field below it. Red and white stars cover the navy carpet, topped by a white shag rug and six crimson lacquered chairs. "There's not a Republican in the entire country who'd choose this design," wrote the author. "In fact, most Republicans would regard anyone who desecrated the flag in this fashion to be a godless Meathead, and they'd have a point."

Lileks -- who also wrote "The Gallery of Regrettable Food," inspired by '50s cookbooks -- gave two reasons for chronicling '70s interiors: "I wanted to do again what I'd done with food: simply take these things, which were held up as examples of modern advancement, and kick them in the ribs from the safe distance of 20 years." "But I also wanted to write a Cautionary Tale, capital C, capital T, because ever since the early '90s it had seemed apparent that dark forces were laboring to bring back the '70s -- and they completely succeeded."

Both the food and home books are doing well enough -- far better, in fact than his three earlier novels, Lileks noted. But his most creative outlet has to be his Web site, www.lileks.com. It may sound innocuous, but it is a marvel of twisted wit, divided into several subjects, including "the Bleat," a Monday-through-Friday blog he began writing in 1997. The saga of "Joe Ohio" examines the life of an achingly average mid-century guy through the matchbooks he collects. Lileks is threatening to turn it into a novel.

Lileks has a wife who is a lawyer, a young daughter whom he takes care of during the day, a dog and a $650,000 home decorated, he says, in Arts and Crafts and Mission furnishings "down to the silverware."

He tried living in Washington in the early 1990s, installing himself in the ultimate Adams Morgan triplex bachelor pad complete with hot tub. But he couldn't bear to be so far from his beloved Minneapolis, so he returned home.

Despite what seems to be a cult following -- he has complained about the cost of buying extra bandwidth to accommodate heavy Web site traffic -- he remains well below the mainstream media radar. This is his first big-time interview and he's a tad uneasy about the photo shoot, he confessed in last Thursday's online Bleat.

"Now everyone will get to point and laugh at my home decorating choices. I suppose it's only fair. . . . Should I wear clothes I wear around the house or pretend I stalk the halls in a quilted jacket and ascot?"

James, aren't you sorry you didn't save at least one Quiana nylon shirt and a couple of gold neck chains?

© 2005 The Washington Post Company