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How we design our homes is immensely revealing. A living room tells all: what we need, how we see ourselves, how we welcome guests. Interior design, in many ways, shares a lot in common with dressing — chiefly, the balance between formality and comfort. One person’s modernist masterpiece leaves a friend asking, Am I supposed to sit on that?

What I like about interiors I also like about clothes. They should be personal, pay respect to good traditions, feel lived-in, and be well-appointed but not too fussy. If I meet a man who has a well-worn brown velvet couch, I know he and I have a lot to talk about. 

I should add that my mother, who lives in Minneapolis, is a very talented professional interior designer. My father, also talented, might be considered an enthusiastic amateur interior designer. This means they agree on many things and disagree on a few. Mostly this has to do with the clinical definition of the term “clutter.” My father is a great book stacker — there’s no reason, in his view, that the number of books a house can hold should be dictated by the amount of available shelf space (especially when that shelf space filled up a decade ago). 

Since I live in New York City where space is at a premium, I don’t have the luxury of extra anything. Well, that’s not exactly true. The acquisitive gene has passed from my parents to me, which is why my library is so large it’s currently in storage. My former apartment certainly had a lived-in feeling. I compared it to an English arts club, if the members stopped paying their dues. The rugs (there were many) were worn out and a few had holes in them, but I didn’t mind.

I inherited my mother’s love of mixing texture and pattern. I still like a fairly united sensibility: dark brown wood, old leather, deep colored rugs. So club chairs draped with flannel blankets, textiles and striped pillows. All this arranged in a way that’s inviting. I finally bought a couch a few years ago — these things take time! — from John Derian so I can stretch out and take a nap in style. 

The same way it’s good to have a tailor, it’s good to have an antiques dealer. I visit the wonderful Melanie Bendavid at her home in the Catskills for rustic furniture and ceramics. Meanwhile, my mom frequents Robert Riesberg in the Twin Cities for serious antiques worthy of an English salon.

Artful Living | David Coggins on Interior Design

Illustration by Hilbrand Bos

My girlfriend and I recently moved, which is always a fraught experience, especially for people who do not practice any of Marie Kondo’s principles. Our current apartment (just down the block from the old one) mercifully has more space. To make it ours, we decided to paint the walls. We wanted to do this right, so I spoke to a color consultant from Farrow & Ball.

It was one of the most illuminating conversations I can remember. He knew what shades of white were flattering in what light and how they could be paired with other colors. The same way not all white shirts are the same, not all white paint is the same. We settled on Off-White, which is one of their oldest colors — a chalky neutral that’s soft and warm throughout the day (and not white at all). The other stroke of genius was to paint the doors and the baseboards Mouse’s Back, a lovely gray brown. In short, he knew a lot. And I realized how little I knew.

This was akin to seeing a tailor: You know what you like, but you don’t always know why. What I learned from our friendly consultant was a whole world of possibilities and relationships. How colors are affected by natural light and change throughout the day. Now the apartment feels as though it belongs to an English couple who just came back from Florence, which makes sense because I love Englishmen who try to dress like Italians.

I still believe in some basic principles. A room shouldn’t feel like a museum. If you aren’t at ease in your own home, that’s far from ideal. Similarly, you shouldn’t wear clothes that don’t make you feel like yourself. (And if you don’t feel like yourself in a tuxedo, wear it in private until you do.)

Some advice for the male readers: If you have any posters from the good old days — of your beloved team (go Vikings!), your favorite band or that cherished Martin Scorsese film — it’s time to retire those. You’re no longer living in a quad on campus. On that note, donate your black leather furniture to a charitable organization. And don’t buy the largest TV you can afford; your home is not a sports bar.

But when it comes to art, books, antiques, ceramics and textiles, be not afraid. These are some of life’s great pleasures. Like all things worth doing, learning about them takes time. Interior design, like personal style, is part of the road toward self-knowledge and expression. Wherever you are on the journey, that’s a good place to be. 

A Minnesotan turned New Yorker, David Coggins is the author of the New York Times bestseller Men and Style, and writes a style column for Artful Living.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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