Photo by Toby Israel
Source: Photo by Toby Israel

I could say, “I’d like you to meet Nina, the mayor of Lambertville, N.J.,” but she’s not a real mayor. Better to say, “I’d like to introduce Nina, a good will ambassador to the world." She’s little (petite really) but she is mighty in both persona and profession. Walk with Nina along her town’s gently-flowing canal and you’ll hear people say, Hello Nina!” and then whisper behind her back, “I love Nina. She is THE best.” Those lucky enough to attend one of her national talks or read one of her eight books on peacemaking and conflict resolution will sense the purpose and passion with which she’s worked to be a 'peacemaker' amongst her family, friends and in her classroom as a former teacher.

Nina was not one of my clients. When I first met her, she was recently divorced and had already moved from the isolation of her suburban American Dream Home to an apartment up a picturesque, almost European-style alley in her walkable Delaware River town. The apartment, like her, was understated, soft, warm, and personal. Don’t get me wrong. She also was a strong, independent woman forging her own path. She carried all of these best aspects of herself to her new place right by the river where she walked purposefully and then paused every day to enjoy the water’s beauty.

Nina dressed her space and self with sophistication, good taste and flair. She looked ‘together’ as did her well-ordered place. Stop in any room and read the story of her hard-earned success: Chapter One: Photos of her thriving sons and her unbearably adorable grandchildren. Chapter 2: Intriguing masks from her travels to Africa and Peru. Chapter 3: Graceful statues and soft paintings of women looking vulnerable but strong. Chapter 4: I’ll let Nina read you the rest someday about how her things reflect her life’s ebb and flow. I only know that Nina seemed to ‘possess’ her space in the best sense - - she was connected to it.

In fact, Nina is a connector. Most recently she connected me to Princeton’s Potluck Society, a high-powered group of women (‘twenty-somethings’ to ‘don’t-ask-my-agers’) who meet regularly around issues of importance to them. Their theme for the year: ‘Women in Transition.’ Ah, yes! Women and transition and their spaces and oases and . . . before you know it, there I was on my porch listening to my backyard’s waterfall and preparing a Women by Design: Transforming Home, Transforming Self workshop for the Society.

To be well-prepared, I wanted to know more about the history of women and design so I began to read THE LITERATURE on feminism and design. Then, one bird led to another and I began musing about my mother, born in 1923, who had a career as an interior decorator. My mother wanted to be an actress before she married and had children. That creative fire was doused by her hard-working immigrant mother who heard “actress” and thought “fallen woman.”

But Hungarian women with passionate hearts need to find avenues of expression so Mother struggled to find a path that would be both acceptable and creative. Thus she became the first family member to graduate college and, in her early twenties, went on to teach at a New Jersey college (acceptable) in the Speech and Theater Department (creative). By her mid-twenties she had married and had two children (acceptable). In her early homemaker years she made all of my little lace dresses, directed the school plays, and helped my father at his paint and wallpaper store (acceptable and creative). But, it wasn’t enough. She felt stifled and stuck. Thus, unusual for a female in the 1950s, she parlayed the decorating advice she was giving at the family store into a decorating business run out of our home.

Most female “homemakers” of her generation weren’t supposed to ‘make’ except within the home where the dictum was make “Warm Hearth” = “Happy Home.” Men, on the other hand, were out doing the “real work.” For my beloved father, the man-burden of real work at “The Store” meant he had two heart attacks and died by the time he was fifty-four and I was sixteen.

My mother continued to work and from an early age I can remember tagging along with her from designer showroom to showroom as she chose fabrics and furniture that transformed her clients’ lackluster homes. Via these outings I learned to carry any color in my head, to circumscribe space imagining people within it, and soon could spot a beautiful, jaunty lamp or a cushion with a tale to tell.

At first the world of interior decorating provided a creative outlet for my mother and many other marginalized women to both express and transform their psychic and home interiors. As time progressed, however, the idea that just “anyone” could decorate a home space became denigrated and was seen as “trivial” by those wanting interior “designers” to be viewed as professionals like architects or lawyers.(1) Designers were in, decorators were out in this new tide.

Such a push to put interior design on equal footing with male-dominated design professions seemed a step in the right direction in an era where women were rightfully demanding equal rights. Yet the push to “professionalize” also had a boomerang effect of re-marginalizing women for whom home was the only canvas on which they could express their most colorful selves. My mother, for example, began to feel a fraud despite her creative talent and professional success since she did not possess any “real” interior design credentials. (Tide out.)

What were the” real” credentials? Look closely and you’ll realize that even those women who became the standard-bearers of the profession like Elsie de Wolf (who, like my mother, had abandoned acting for interior design) and former debutante Dorothy “Sister” Parish, had no formal design training. (Tide in.)

Then, too, women’s perspectives differed when it came to what constituted good design. Some female design pioneers influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement championed authentic, unpretentious design of spaces. (Tide out.) Other “ ‘lady decorators’ . . . mainly designed historicist interiors for the homes of the social elite.”(2) Elsie de Wolfe (like Nina!) was lauded because of her “flair” and “style.”(3) (Tide in.)

Interestingly, Parish, wrote about how her design philosophy was influenced by childhood experience of place:

As a child, I discovered the happy feelings that familiar things can bring -- an old apple tree, a favorite garden, the smell of a fresh-clipped hedge, simply knowing that when you round the corner, nothing will be changed, nothing will be gone. I try to instill the lucky part of my life in each house that I do. Some think a decorator should change a house. I try to give permanence to a house, to bring out the experiences, the memories, the feelings that make it a home."(4)

Yet she was no design psychologist. Hers was “nostalgia” design where “chintzes, overstuffed armchairs, and brocade sofas with such unexpected items as patchwork quilts, four-poster beds, knitted throws, and rag rugs led to her being credited with ushering in what became known as American country style during the 1960s.”(5) (Tide in . . . Tide out . . .)

Right there lays a schism because these messages went back and forth so much. And were women trying to find their unique footing or simply a way to enter the burdensome, exclusive male club?

Now I am wondering what messages you and I got from our homemakers about how to create an ‘oasis by design.’ Were we taught to create the image of a High Society Club or Pleasantville or did we retain a primal instinct to make authentic hearth as home?

Ah yes, making connections. . . . and soon there I was asking the women in my Potluck audience to retrace the story of the women by design in their family trees and to hover and to make connections and Princeton seems like a small town and now Nina is re-connecting me with Joel, a wonderful Princeton architect, one of the first I previously took through my design psychology exercises, who is connecting me to Kirsten, a great residential architect up the street from me, who (coincidentally) bought her house from my friend Jennifer and transformed it to a hearthful home for her family and life goes on at Kirsten’s (not Jennifer’s) favorite local coffee shop where she and I then are sitting and I am telling her all about The Three Muses. . . . . . and so it flows . . . .

Kirsten confesses she’s always wanted to connect with other women architects in the region - - to have a group, perhaps somewhat like “The Muses,” with whom she could pause. Since you never know when “always wanted” may turn into a life run out of steam, I challenged her to put such a Princeton ‘Women in Architecture’ group together. I volunteered to help jump-start it, especially since Nina and those Potluckers now had me wondering more and more about how women are transforming themselves along with their space these days.

Kirsten thought it might be hard to find female architects to attend a first meeting. Instead her living room was filled with women drinking wine and sparkling water. To break the ice, these women traced back their Environmental Family Trees. In the chatting that followed, Jane claimed she only survived her grueling, male-dominated architecture school because of her youthful training as a fierce, competitive athlete and because of her architect-father’s encouragement. Jane suggested that perhaps she could help recently laid off Linda find a job.

“Already the designers in this group are supporting one another!” I remarked. “Architects” not “designers” one of the group members corrected me. Proud, she insisted that she is not just one of those “decorators” of the world. (Tide out. I am feeling a little seasick now.)

I didn’t attend the next ‘Women in Architecture’ meeting since, because I wasn’t an architect, I’d been “voted off the island.” At first I had this sinking feeling but then I realized:

I do not want to live on an island. I am most at peace on the water of ideas and support that flows between me and other women. There from a sailboat in the Delaware now, Nina and I wave and invite you to hop onboard. Join us decorators, designers, architects, you. Look across the bow. Note how different the land looks when seen from afar - - too circumscribed. Turn back to the water. Adjust the sails. Then lean down, place your finger in the river and make a ripple in this mirror of clear and calming glass.

1) Pat Kirkham and Penny Sparke, “A Women’s Place . . . ? Women Interior Designers” in Kirkham, Pat (ed.) Women Designers in the USA 1900 – 200 Diversity and Difference (New York: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 305 – 312.

2) Ibid., p. 307.

3) Ibid., p. 307.

4) Wikipedia

5) Ibid.

Copyright Toby Israel 2015.

About the Author

Toby Israel Ph.D.

Toby Israel is an environmental psychologist who studies design psychology.

You are reading

Design on My Mind

Our Secret Life in Bathrooms

Transform your space as you transform your 'self' into an older, wiser soul.

Nurture the Phoenix

The art and place of well-being

11/9: Envision Light

The day after the election, I wanted to go to a beautiful, uplifting place.