Design Rules: Context is king

Last week I wrote about the perplexing array of products in the Neiman Marcus home department, and my friend, KitchenLab and design in a bag‘s Rebekah Zaveloff left a thoughtful comment about the important role context plays in shaping our perception. “I kept thinking, it’s all about how pieces are put together and the context of collections and the power of someone who understands merchandising. I saw a lamp, rug or side table that if I viewed them in the context of Jayson Home or ABC carpet I’d love it, but assembled with all these other pieces, they didn’t hold my interest.” She’s so right. I overlook all kinds of amazing, many valuable, finds at garage sales and thrift stores simply because I can’t help but associate things with their environment and merchandising (or lack thereof). The inverse is also true. I’ve bought far too many perfectly merchandised but way too expensive pieces that looked positively pedestrian when isolated in my place: furnishings, accessories, rugs and candles. Lots and lots of candles. Making generally accurate snap judgements based on context seems like an evolutionary winner to me, so responding to spectacular merchandising is probably hardwired. Maybe that’s why I love Kartell’s gnome table when I otherwise despise gnomes. Sure, there was something I liked about them before I knew they were Kartell but only because I’d seen them pop up in gorgeous magazine spreads (thanks to Kartell). And to tell you the truth, I wanted one a lot more intensely when I realized they were so pedigreed. What’s up with that? Einstein famously theorized that time was relative depending on the speed of the observer, and I’m pondering a similarly revolutionary (but design-centric and less math-y) theory of context. Stay tuned. In the meantime, please consider the following questions when formulating your (much appreciated) comments:

a.) Do you ever wonder what influences your own aesthetic preferences?

b.) The gnome table – that’s cool, right? Or have I been seduced? Is it high design or a joke on the consumer?

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12 Responses to “Design Rules: Context is king”

  1. Is there an equivalent phrase for design “fashion victim?” Because that’s what the gnome is. IMHO, that is! But yes, you are so right — it is so hard to see the forest for the trees in either direction when trying to make a purchase. No matter how much stuff I get at Antropology my house never looks like their photo shoots. I finally realized that I don’t live my life either staged by a stylist or in soft focus.

  2. It seems like there are people buying and selling furniture/home design stuff from every era and of every style all at once. Its hard to keep track of what is current, niche and past its expiration date because there is a potential market for everything. Styles used to be uniform across the country when people decorated their homes in a certain “era” but now things have exploded into a fragmented market of choices and styles. It gives us greater creative flexibility but makes it more confusing at the same time. I agree the context is what makes or breaks a new piece yet almost anything can be the context these days. Great post.

    btw, just say no to the gnome table.

  3. Thanks Sharon and Cherie. I’ve received several emails dissuading me against the gnomes, so I think I’ll pass (for now at least).

  4. a conundrum we all face; pro or novice. but there are those choice few that truly “see past” a piece’s current life and rejuvenate it into something all together different to great effect.
    another human condition i always marvel at, desperately wanting the piece that is SOLD, i often covet the unattainable. and in my shops, we may have had a piece for eons but as soon as it is marked SOLD everyone wants it. does that ever happen to you tate?

  5. I love the gnome table!!! It’s kitschy but that’s the point. Yes, it’s tacky, and yes it’s too much but sometimes that’s just what you need a dose of.

  6. Tate, STEP AWAY FROM THE GNOME TABLE!!!
    For the Love of God, Honey, don’t do it!

  7. As this post suggests, context is a big part of whether or not a piece “works” and the reaction it gets from viewers. The gnome table is something that might be really cool in one setting and a complete flop in another. Before buying something like that, however, I think one has to totally love it and also be super-confident in one’s ability to pull it off.

  8. My choices are not based on context so much as on symmetry and harmony. The spread you did on John Barnett’s Gold Coast project showed both of these elements. Barnett created harmony in his main color choices — limited to 2: blue and white. For accents, he used gold and tiny dabs of other colors. That beautiful bookcase he designed and built into the wall near the white sofa is a perfect example of symmetry. These are the 2 key things I always look for in fashion and interior design.

    Gnome Table, alas, will bring neither of these to your environment, unless you want to build a corner of a room around him, like, say a green chair beside Gnome Table, with both on a black and white rug.

  9. It may sound weird but I see things in context. When ever I see something that interest me or I love, I see it in the context, or lack thereof, for where it would be. Sometimes I create and whole room over one object, the context in which I think it would work. If it’s not my context it’s not for me, but maybe someone I know, so I pass it along.

  10. Hmmmm – you’d need the EXACT right contect for that gnome table to really look good. If I were you (and what fun that would be!)I’d only pop in it if I could take it home on approval and live with it for a week or two.

  11. If you loved the gnome, really love the gnome, chances are it will fit with at least some of the other things you love. Because love is like a color palette. It gives a theme to your things, even if it’s unconscious. That said, it still takes skill and a developed eye to make a room, or a store, or any environment really sing.