The White Wall attacks most people who live in rented quarters.
The cave man had an unstoppable impulse to draw on the walls. Children can hardly live without their favorite drawings pinned against the wall. Office workers, despite the entreaties of architects, decorators and office managers, paper their walls with all sorts of strange things.
The reason why is easy to understand -- it's an effort to make a strange place seem cosier and familiar. White walls are like blank pieces of paper: There's a need to fill them up. What we all want is something to look at, something bright, something beautiful to distract the eye from the chaos around us.
Art is the answer. But the definition of art can be stretched to fit your imagination and shrunk to the size of your pocketbook.
Magazines produce many pages worth using for decoration.
Back in the '40s, in my high-school library, The New Yorker covers were avant-grade art.
It seemed then to me as if I had discovered them. Surely, no one else knew how wonderful they were. It never occurred to me then that anyone else in Valdosta, Ga., went to the library every week to see the new New Yorkers, as to visit the new Rembrandt exhibit.
I was delighted to find, when I moved to Knoxville, Tenn., that you could actually buy New Yorker magazines. Those wonderful hard edge, late Art Moderne lines and the vivid primary colors set a taste with me that has lasted. I'm still suspicious of watered down or blackened colors.
After the more geometric ones, we liked the Charles Addams covers best. The first house we ever bought was a perfect Charles Addams carpenter-gothic. We always made a great thing of whispering to people at the door, "This is where I say goodnight," in memory of the long-haired lady who made the remark at the manhole.
Equally good were the Mary Petty drawings -- remeber the wonderful maids with lacy caps and aprons, who seemed to float from the kitchen to the drawing room? The furniture in the Petty drawings may have contributed strongly to the revival of the Victorian style in this country. Those parlors! So full of the knicks and the knacks of the turn of the century. They were enough to make you believe in antimacassars.
Every February, I saved the famous New Yorker Eustace Tilly anniversary cover. Later, I pinned up the reverse of the cover, the full page ad with the chimney sweep sitting in the orange Knoll Saarinen womb chair. When we finally were able to buy that chair (second hand, from a Washington Post want ad), I thought we had arrived. Those early Knoll advertisements are well-worth framing today.
We never actually framed New Yorkers covers -- though I knew a lot of people who did. A friend in England covered the inside of her bathroom door with them, all properly varnished and everything. The New Yorker covers were sort of a badge of recognition amongst people who like to think they had literary and design taste. The other day, I went to see an architect's house, and found he'd covered the wall between upper and lower cabinets in the kitchen with the covers.
When I was a young girl, pages from the Godey Ladies Book were even then collected. This early women's magazine produced splendid sketches of women in the costumes of the day. The originals were hand-tinted.
Later magazines of the '20s and '30s (you can find them in antique book shops and sometimes at the Salvation Army) are full of wonderful advertising in the Art Moderne style.
Once we came upon a Chinese newspaper. We thought it was beautiful, and seriously considered framing it as an art object, but someone didn't notice and used it to line the wastepaper basket. Now a manufacturer uses Chinese newspapers to cover coffee tables.
We moved on to posters in the early '50s, when people weren't as sophisticated about posters as they are now. Posters seemed rather Parisian and arty. Travel posters were counted as the great desirables -- art posters as far as we knew were only available in reproduction through Marlboro shops in New York.
One poster changed our lives. It hung in our cold, coal-smoked kitchen -- the room where we found three dead rats when we started our cleanup and renovation of the house just after we scraped together the $600 down-payment.
The poster was of Ludwig II's Neuswanstein, the dream castle in Bavaria. I had grown up on "Beverly of Graustark," "The Prisoner of "Zenda" and all the other wonderful mythical-kingdom novels of the '20s. Neuswanstein was the perfect mythical castle, and the fact that it was real seemed unbelievable.
At night, I would put myself to sleep thinking of that castle, floating pink and white in my dreams. The castle sat lightly on its peak, as though the stone was compressed of lighter-than-air whipped cream. The deep blue lake reflected the castle, giving the illusion of another castle, perhaps, if we knew, another country, lost forever in the depths. Above the cloudless sky was the blue of impossible futures.
It was that poster that made my husband apply for the foreign service. We were surprised when we saw Neuswanstein to find for once the reality greater than the fantasy.
I heard the other day of someone who was thinking of using wallpaper paste to cover his kitchen with posters. If he did, I hope he varnished over them to keep them clean.Ours became rather tattered and dirty. You could, of course, frame them with a simple sheet of Plexiglas, (Virginia Devine suggests other methods in a story in this section) if you had the money. We didn't.
A remnant yard-square of gold and green and orange fabric, with an almost three-dimensional design, served us as a tapestry for some time. When I later saw the expensive fabric, covering someone's chair, I hated it. But that remnant, which cost us a dollar, looked great. Nowdays, of course, people routinely use canvas stretchers for Marimekko prints. Some local shops even stretch them for you.
Handwoven African and Guatamalean fabrics, hand printed Indian fabrics can often be found at the G Street Remnant Shop, the Museum of African Art, the Pan American Union Shop and craft boutiques.
Your mother's trunk may be another good source. One woman couldn't bear to throw away a quilt fragment, too small for even a doll's pillow -- she framed it and we all love it. Lace, tatting, embroidery, (antique ones are sold at G Street Remnant) can make impressive wall decorations.
Photographs are now hot sellers in art galleries and auction houses. Franz Bader, the art dealer, makes color photographs of rocks, seaweed, bark patterns, has them enlarged and gives them as favored presents. He's so good, he now has shows of his photographs. But if you don't know Bader and can't afford Ansel Adams, what about the photographs of your grandmother's house, or the place you spent your honeymoon.
The Corcoran Art Gallery, Montgomery College at Tacoma Park and Rockville, George Washington University, all have shows of student works. Glen Echo often has shows of artists who are just getting started. Bet your eye for a little bit of money.
The museums and art galleries in Washington are full of reproductions of great art.We'd rather have the real thing, but if we can't, at least we can have something pleasant to admire.
Visiting a friend one day, I greatly admired a wonderful abstraction on her wall -- much color and texture and liberated form. It was importantly framed and over the door. "I like it too," she said. "Our 4-year-old made it with finger paints."