The Family That Redecorates Together.
Text Martin Marks Illustration Brian Fee
CHRISTIAN TRADITION HOLDS few places more sacred than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—site of the Calvary, the rock of Golgotha, the tomb, the death, and the Resurrection. Unfortunately, the church itself runs a mere 175 feet wide by 117 feet long, with almost every square inch falling under the watchful eyes of rival pontifical bodies. For most of its history, whenever a door was opened, a chair moved or a staircase mopped, bloodshed usually followed.
After centuries of such squabbles, the Ottoman Empire issued an edict that divided the building among the world’s various churches, freezing these territorial rights, without change, forever. Shortly before this status quo was reaffirmed in 1852, an Armenian monk decided to wash some windows belonging to his ecclesiastical order. In doing so, he placed a small ladder out onto a ledge, which would have been fine, save that the ledge belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church. For 157 years, nobody has dared move this ladder for fear that they may accidentally start a war.
When I first heard about that rickety old ladder, frozen in a purgatory of remodeling and refurbishment, I couldn’t help but think of the Lucite paper towel rack that currently rests on our kitchen countertop. This past August marked the fourth anniversary of its having been removed from our old kitchen wall and placed, without screws, on the pink granite beside the sink. To this day, that Lucite paper towel rack (conservative blue book estimate: $5.00) remains a particular point of contention in our household. My father wants it fixed to a panel by the sink, but my mother won’t entertain the thought of drilling through her brand new bleached anigre wood, and wants the plastic device bolted out of site, to the inside of a nearby cabinet. Remembering the fate of a spice rack rendered non-functional by a similar course of action, I’ve suggested we throw it out, but both my parents have grown fond of it, whereas my sister’s done the most sensible thing and moved to London.
In a synecdochic sense, this simple piece of plastic has come to represent the entire scope of the refurbishments that have transpired in our home. As a family, we are exquisitely stubborn, and possess between us far too many over-educated opinions. This condition has led to flurries of unilateral, decisive, and oftentimes clumsy action punctuating long periods of negotiations as to where a painting should be placed, or the correct axis of the books on a coffee table.
It hasn’t always been this way. In the early 1980s, my mother decorated our three-bedroom, three-bathroom home on the ocean in Palm Beach, armed but with her decorator’s license and a sense of placid, minimalistic virtue. Vast plains of travertine marble—manifested in 18 inch squares set on the diagonal—ran the length of our halls, covered at well-chosen intervals by Persian rugs. Japanese bronze mirrors—no longer manufactured due to the exacting craftsmanship they require—cast a soft reflection of the ocean outside. At that time, my mother’s vice of choice was Italian contemporary furniture—a Saporiti Italia bed-frame in the master suite, bolts of Milanese textured silk covering an undular Giovanni Ofreddi chaise lounge, the seven-foot-long slab of Florentine granite that was our dining room table (or rather, the third incarnation of our dining room table, as the first two cracked en route and had to be shipped back). Even the fake tree in our living room—arboreal artificiality being a most slippery decorating slope, indeed—had a tasteful resonance to it. And it seemed as though “Preserve the Integrity of our Surface Spaces” was an unofficial family motto, one that would hold true so long as Sade’s dulcet, crooning voice could rustle the silken leaves of that tree, “Smooth Operator” passing through a set of speakers that were, of course, hidden in the ceiling.
I’m not sure what happened, but in the years that followed, we all began to grow unhappy with this Eden of ours. My mother started a company, and all the energy she once employed in keeping home was now spent on her business. She was on the road, my sister and I were at school, and so, for a number of years, my father was left to his own decorative devices.
Dr. Marks, a former Olympic chess player, tackles most matters with a Kasparovian quickness; there’s a problem, a solution, and nothing in between. Unfortunately, this pragmatism doesn’t quite lend itself to decorative flair. He likes to buy furniture—or deep fryers, or television sets—largely based on their durability ratings in Consumer Reports. Problem: the stuffing in a once plush sofa bed had started to go, and the joints in my sister’s headboard had begun to rust. Solution: get rid of the old furniture, go forth to a South Florida chain store, and replace all of our bedroom sets. The general ambience of the furniture in my room has a vague Tex-Mex feel to it, while my sister’s bed-frame and media center comes from a slick, shiny, cream wood collection I’ve christened, “South Beach Princess.”
On the occasions my mother did return to the home front, she began to engage in most tasks with the sort of speed and energy I usually associated with tornadoes, or Vikings. I was living in New York when one day, without warning, she called. “I’ve developed a concept for the kitchen,” she said, “and I’ve just completed the first stage!”
What came next was a breathless description of her work. “I’ve thrown out everything—all the food processors and kettles and plates and knives and forks and toaster ovens—and then I had some workmen strip the wallpaper and tear out all the countertops and remove all the electrical wiring and detach all the electrical sockets and disconnect all the lighting and throw out the dishwasher, sink, fridge, microwave, cabinets and stove, so that I may begin again, with a blank, white canvas!”
Idiot that I was, I asked her about Stage Two. She sighed, frustrated with my obtuseness. “I’ve been so busy that I haven’t really had time to come up with Stage Two.”
The only hitch was that she had executed Stage One of this particular concept just before a camera crew was to arrive and film our family for five days. Judging from what followed, I now believe that had she been in charge of the Allied Landing Forces at D-Day, the operation, from start to finish, would have lasted about a week, with only a 35% chance that they’d have accidentally invaded Scotland.
With the blank, white canvas that was our kitchen (arguments could be made that there was nothing “blank” or “white” about it), the next few days turned into a flurry of sourcing, purchasing, and conceptualizing. From the passenger side of her car, she developed Stage Two, which involved vague references to a seamless front of pale wood dominating the vertical plane—no traditional cabinetry with their interruptive, humdrum handles—and a solid slab of rose granite countertop framing the horizontal.
To describe the near constant drilling, hammering, and yelling that took place would only distract from the result. I’ve heard that it usually takes three to six months to gut renovate a kitchen. My mother had ours finished in a week and a half. When the camera crew did arrive, they saw nothing out of the ordinary, save a dazzlingly minimalistic area to prepare and consume victuals. However, had they made a right turn at the end of the hallway, they would have entered my bedroom and, in doing so, borne witness to every salvaged pot, pan, canned good, and spice, stacked on my floor and bookshelves as though I were operating some black-market Himalayan trading outpost.
Once the camera crew left, we could stop to admire the horizontal and vertical planes, both of which appeared truly magnificent. But as we returned to our daily routines, we soon discovered that the new kitchen operated much like a Hollywood set. The cutlery drawers didn’t have dividers (or, for that matter, rollers), the cabinets had no shelves, and the recessed lighting buzzed like an irritable beehive. What’s more, the concept of seamless planes didn’t take into account the sonic value of having all the cabinet doors set on magnetic closures. Everything clicked and tapped, and then, across those vast plains of travertine marble—to remind,18 inch squares set on the diagonal—echoed down our hall with such volume and gusto that had I believed in the paranormal, I would have thought Fred Astaire’s dance-happy ghost had taken up residence in our kitchen.
Alas, this was only the beginning. When several hurricanes hit South Florida a few years later, soaking our carpets and mildewing the wallpaper, my mother decided it was high time to re-enter the decorative lexicon. She had just discovered several groups of thoroughly delightful artisans whose chosen medium of expression was lusterstone and Venetian plaster. She knew she wanted something like Venetian plaster, but didn’t want Venetian plaster itself. And so, another telephone call, during which my mother proclaimed that we had transitioned away from the concept and into the realm of an entirely new decorative word altogether: “I’ve come up with a process.”
Thus, the process. But this wasn’t just one process. It was several processes, none of which she cared to describe, their nature still tenuous and her thoughts still inchoate. Over the next several weeks, proper nouns—ones that should have described the movement and subsequent destruction of very real, very tangible, and very proper noun-deserving objects—began to disappear from our conversations. My sister called me some time later with a much more specific assessment of the ground situation. “Whatever you do, do not come home.”
These processes lasted most of the summer (eight to ten years in normal decorating time), with crew after crew of workmen steaming and stripping, then spackling and troweling, the carpets having been laid, then re-laid, then re-laid again. When I finally did return home, all the walls had a fine, lustrous finish to them, especially when one held a slanted flashlight to their surfaces (we’re still waiting for the new lighting system to be installed).
However, the new walls weren’t the first thing I noticed. Apparently, the aforementioned processes proved so exhausting that nobody had the energy to move their worldly possessions back to their rightful rooms. Everyone’s personal effects—books, clothes, television sets, Tex Mex bed frames and all—had been brought into the center of the living room, and left there. Believing that I now had to purify my own decorative soul, I slowly worked at the amorphous heap of Marks Family Stuff, taking most of the vacation to conquer the rings of Mount Saint Marks.
Our latest foray into the redecorative sphere has revolved around replacing the Venetian blinds that covered our windows. At a design depot in Milan, my mother had just found several dozen yards of fabric—“A gorgeous damask of silk and lace… like something out of Yates,” as she put it during her phone call (this one at 2 a.m., from the design depot itself, telling me to check the pictures she had just sent by Blackberry).
With the intention of fashioning these bolts of Heavens’ embroidered cloth into curtains, she purchased the fabric in bulk. The process this time would be a tripartite layering composed of the drapes themselves, even smaller Venetian blinds (to protect the silk from the harsh Florida sunlight), and blackout curtains (to really protect the silk from the harsh Florida sunlight). The estimated timeline was one month, a surprisingly reasonable estimate, though it did take four years to get started. In the interim, the once and future curtains sat neatly folded on the living room sofa, except when we had company over, at which point my father would carry the drapes into my room and carefully place them on a recliner. Alas, the road to Elysian window coverings seems paved with good intentions, as the small Venetian blinds on the test window were hung on too narrow of a track; when they’re opened, they occlude a third of the ocean view.
What concepts or processes our future holds, I know not. While we may not have preserved the integrity of our surface spaces, and while I may have had to check into a hotel to write most of this essay, and though we still have the Tex Mex furniture, paintings that haven’t been hung, racks of clothes that haven’t been put away, oceans, a third of which cannot be seen, I’ve come to realize that this, in some sense, might be our status quo. Every now and again, my thoughts do return to the Benedictines and Armenians, and that centuries’ old ladder as it rests upon a ledge. And so, I end with a proposed insertion into the Marks Family liturgy, entitled Nostra Casa:
Sweet the marble, sweet the stucco, sweet the carpets, sweet the curtains, sweet the Lucite paper towel rack as it (still) rests upon our granite kitchen countertop, sweet the weight we bear.