AMERICA the beautiful
In home design, we celebrate the spirit of our independence
Author Gerald Foster identifies this unique characteristic in the introduction to his new book, "American Houses, A Field Guide to the Architecture of the Home" (Houghton Mifflin, $20): "The single-family home has traditionally assumed an unusual importance in the United States, compared with other Western societies. Buying a home is an American rite of passage, and the house has been a symbol of independence and security, as well as social and economic status."
In part due to low interest rates, home ownership in the U.S. has hit an all-time high of 68 percent. This explosion is echoed in the current fetish for TV home-makeover shows and the proliferation of home-design magazines. Even Oprah has entered the fray with the recent release of O at Home. There's no doubt about it: Our modern homes are not only retreats from the world but extensions of our personal interests and style.
In earlier times, settlers often created houses that stylistically reflected the cultures from which they came. The country farmhouse, the practical Cape Cod saltbox, the Craftsman bungalow, the ranch on the Western frontier and the grand Victorian mansion are a just a few examples of this vast housing heritage. But of all the many styles and influences, none stands alone as the definitive "American Style." Over the years, styles have been further modified by environmental, geographic and economic factors.
But whether a house is designed by a commissioned architect, built from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail-order kit or part of a developer's planned community, it's clear each represents the very essence of our country's spirit and ingenuity. To celebrate the Fourth, here are a few nods to our country's roots:
The U.S. market for home-improvement products reached $212 billion in 2003, a sign of a national obsession that goes back at least as far as founding father Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson renovated, redesigned and remodeled his beloved Monticello for more than 40 years (see www.monticello.org). In approximately 11,000 square feet, the house has 13 skylights and eight fireplaces.
Even our nation's house, the White House, has undergone repeated remodeling. Particularly memorable was first lady Jacqueline Kennedy's restoration and redecoration, which culminated in a televised tour in 1962. Her signature style, grace and deftly orchestrated media campaign made an impression on many a baby boomer. Because of the campaign, everyone felt they were part of the design process, and some important donations of furniture were made. Designers such as Sister Parish also became household names.
One of the many unique features of the Sears mail-order homes was their ability to be modified to suit a homeowner's individual taste. Whereas selection on such things as hardware was once limited to what could be found in the local hardware store, the Sears kits opened up a world of options. Today, the choices range from the many home-improvement chains to more specialized shops and catalogs.
In the mail-order catalog tradition, Portland-based Rejuvenation (www.rejuvenation.com) has an extensive period-lighting and house-parts catalog as well as a popular storefront. Because of demand in the Puget Sound area, the company recently opened Rejuve in Seattle's SoDo district, at 2910 First Ave. S. Reminiscent of the old-time hardware stores, the renovated Nisqually Building is filled with vignettes that highlight various reproduction lines from the '20s, '30s and '40s. The center of the store is designed like a traditional hardware store, so shopping there offers a chance for a little time traveling.
Just a Little Bit Country
While it's true our nation's housing styles are constantly evolving, one style invariably comes to mind when referring to what's "American": country. But these days, country has seen the big city and vice versa. Popular magazines feature headlines such as "Country Cool" highlighting homes that show a sophisticated mix of modern style with the beauty of hand-crafted and found objects. No longer restricted to gingham and straw, these country homes and cottages value the simplicity of furniture styles polished with the patina of the past.
Our National Icon
It's doubtful our forefathers envisioned the nation's flag as a recurring decorating motif, pattern for paper plates or campaign for Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger or Old Navy. One can only imagine how modern-day focus groups, the staple of corporate branding initiatives, would have reacted to the design of our nation's flag. By all accounts, the Continental Congress adopted the final design on June 14, 1777, with little discussion. Betsy Ross is credited with dutifully sewing our first flag, but only another American icon, Martha Stewart, could take it to a whole other level. Despite the obvious ironic circumstances, www.marthastewart.com has the best selection of flag paraphernalia for all your decorating and entertaining needs.
Robin Fogel Avni is a free-lance writer specializing in lifestyle issues and trends affected by technology. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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