Design Lines

Here, there, over, and away

When people come over, things get put away. After things get put away, things get put out. Chips, usually. The process is inexorable, though what is removed from an interior space before guests arrive varies from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. A rowing machine and the kitty litter present their specific challenges of temporary storage in a downtown one-bedroom on the thirty-second floor, while a three-quarter-finished jigsaw puzzle of the Battle of Trafalgar on the dinner table is a challenge for anyone’s domain, whatever its ceiling height and however capacious its closet space and equity.

From the plastic slides and water guns of a young family with their first adjustable-rate mortgage to the various remote controls and almost-empty glasses of Laphroaig at the most exclusive addresses, the stuff that gets picked up before people come over is as various as are property values. Indeed, of all the things that get nixed when the guests are going to be here any second, there is only one common to all markets and finance packages. I refer, of course, to those community newspapers and glossy magazines of the free persuasion.

For purposes of this discussion, let’s say that “coming over” means coming over here — for dinner. Quite casual. Just a few friends. Why “over”? Over what: the Limpopo? It’s not as if guests have to squeeze through the Chasm of Doom to get to our place. But without “over” it’s not the same, is it? Over, you see, suggests the existence of somewhere else. The belief that “here” is what’s real is problematic if you don’t happen to be here. Without “over,” there is no reference to the social contract on which humanity has so long relied.

An issued and accepted invitation acknowledges a fundamentally human transaction. “Here” asks; “there” replies. An agreement is made. Plans are set in motion. It’s a subscription of sorts: an offer, an acceptance. It is an actual relationship established between what is going to be served (an Ottolenghi recipe, usually) and an RSVP.

The act of coming over suggests the existence of two distinct but equal points on social calendars: here, where we are marinating the chicken, and there, where you are trying to find our street address in your contacts. There is mutual respect involved in this relationship — unlike the relationship you might have with (oh, let’s say) Your Neighbourhood Bugle or Clarion or Expositor. Will its staffers be freaking out because there’s no harissa? No, they will not. Arak? Forget it. You can melt black licorice as far as they’d be concerned. After all, these are publications that hold their involuntary readership in such disdain that they won’t spend ten cents on design. Whereas when we reach out from here (where we are) to there (where you are), what we mean by our communication is that we hope to see you, for dinner. As dialogues go, this is not complicated.

Q: Would you like to come over next Saturday? A: That would be delightful. What can we bring?

Not exactly Socratic. Even so, it’s more of a discussion than what you’ll ever have with a controlled-circulation magazine. They just show up, whenever they feel like it. Looking like hell.

Somehow (isn’t it funny how language works), coming over suggests getting on a clean shirt, finding a half-decent bottle of wine, and undertaking an expedition of some sort to a meal to which you have been personally invited — as opposed to being selected as a ratepayer of an identified residential area. In Toronto, which is where I live, the journey over can be a few doors, a few blocks, or a few (if you’re coming by TTC) hours. In any case, somebody coming over raises social obligations that living here does not. Among them, putting things away.

But where is “away”? If guests arrive at seven on the dot, away can be whatever drawer is at hand when the doorbell rings. It is an indeterminate dimension of space and time. Away can be as long as it takes to get from a closet of winter coats in July to the first blizzards of a Canadian autumn, when, quite by accident, having long ago given up hope, you rediscover the blender among the galoshes.

Diligently putting away dreadfully designed periodicals — erasing their dog’s-breakfast, anybody-with-a-computer-can-be-an-art-director presence from the kitchen counter or ottoman — is a recent addition to the rapid styling inspired by the arrival of guests. Unless you’ve simply forgotten to check your mail for a while, you will be familiar with the publications of which I speak. Perhaps you’ve clipped the pad thai recipe. You may occasionally enjoy the “In Olden Days” photo feature. You even read those profiles of crossing guards that abound. When guests are coming over and I suddenly, belatedly realize what the time is, I scoop up issues of Our Local Whatever-It’s-Called from their scattered positions in our interior as decisively as I gather last night’s pizza boxes. Leaving them lying around isn’t an option, really, decor-wise.

Who knows how they get here? Nobody wants them. Nobody can explain why they are not marched straight to the recycling. But there, somehow, they are, rising to the surface on a coffee table like a body in a tide pool outside a quaint seaside town, where, by coincidence, a tragically beautiful homicide detective has come to recover from a recent nervous breakdown. The wannabe magazines seep in somehow, stowing themselves away among the discounted postal rates of legitimate titles. They purport to have an allegiance to the neighbourhood in which you live, and indeed they do. Lurking at the murky core of their editorial soul is (surprise, surprise) real estate. Which is fine. Everybody’s got to make a buck. What bothers me is what they look like.

There was always an admirable generosity at the heart of putting things away. It’s an old Anglo tradition of interior design, distinct from the crowded souk and steerage of cultures that did not value clearances the way the landed gentry did. Making room is what it used to be called in medieval times. Or postwar England. They are often confused. But if you stumbled in from a storm on the heath near Tooting Bec before the days of central heating, and if the only warmish space in that council flat or cottage small was the kitchen, the considerate host always pushed one of the basset hounds or maybe a few unruly children into the rubble of the backdoor bomb site so that you, the guest, could sit by the Belling and listen to the new Lonnie Donegan on the Victrola. Over time, this simple expression of domestic hospitality has become more sophisticated. And now it’s getting ridiculous. The good-natured comfort of general tidiness (give the cushions a pat and put the cribbage away) has been replaced with the icy grip of minimalism.

Whether you’re expecting a large group or a small couple, preparing for arriving guests can be undertaken at an aesthetic level as exacting as the precise placement of a single orchid. Or it can be event planning at a more basic level: clearing a path through the shoes at the front door, emptying the mousetraps, finally taking down those Halloween or Christmas decorations.

What needs to be put away when people come over or what is allowed to stay out changes profoundly from income bracket to income bracket. But whether you are whisking the last dust mote off the upholstery of your Mario Bellini sofa when the door chimes chime or you are emptying the ashtrays and putting out the Fritos when you hear the approaching motorcycles, the same basic human instinct is at play. Guests are to be honoured. That’s why we put ugly publications away when they come over.

’Tis an ill wind, admittedly. Unsolicited, horribly designed titles have their uses. You may own a hamster. You could be a dentist with a waiting room and an expired subscription to Reader’s Digest. Or, like me, you could be a resident of a row of Victorians with good schools nearby and easy access to public transit, who has been inspired by Our Neighbourhood Post or Your Home Beacon to take a more aggressive approach to housekeeping. As an act of protest, I have expanded the protocol of guest preparation to include putting examples of dreadful design away — as away as possible without involving flames. And then, along with the cheese and crackers, putting a few things out for no reason other than their design — their good design.

They’re objects I like looking at. And what I do is put out a few of the things I like looking at so that our guests can look at them, too. Not expensive things. They’re just things that are made by people who know how to make the things they are. Books, for instance. Record covers. And even certain magazines. (Were my bias not so obvious, I’d cite the journal you are at this moment reading as an example of a well-designed thing that I like leaving out for people to see when they come over.)

I used to tuck good magazines away when guests were coming — partly out of some weird need for empty counter space and partly because I didn’t want anyone to think I was signalling sophisticated taste by leaving or (worse) putting them out. Copies of The New Yorker, for example. Their covers alone are worth the price of a subscription. Same goes for the Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson album by the turntable. And over there by the seat at the window, the wabi-sabi tattered, text-only hardcover of a 1962 edition of Pale Fire (“His first new novel since LOLITA,” the cover proclaims). I used to put such things away when people came over. I worried that leaving them out would seem pretentious. I didn’t want anyone to give me an ascot for my birthday.

But now, thanks to God knows how many DIY layout apps and an industry that approaches publishing like staging condos, I am defiant. Bad design gets put away when you come over. And, as a gesture of welcome, I put a few good things out.