In the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, there’s a strong temptation to prioritize the practical above the pretty and to prize efficiency over aesthetics. Form vs. function is an age-old debate, and it’s a fair question to ponder how much time and energy we should invest in a topic that, at first glance, may not seem to yield much in the way of practical results.
I’ve often considered the lilies of the field—which toil not, nor spin, but look awfully pretty doing nothing other than brighten our days—and thought: It must be nice to be cast in the role of decorative non-producer! As for me and my house, it’s hard to justify such frivolities if they come at the expense of accomplishing something of purpose.
Complicating the notion of cultivating a love for aesthetics in the home is the simple fact that I don’t particularly consider myself a connoisseur of art and style. Certainly I appreciate a pretty picture and a well-ordered room as well as the next person, but interior decorating was never a highly prized skill in my mind, since it frankly didn’t much matter to me what color the cushions were in reference to the curtains as long as none of them were unsightly.
Moving on from this strictly utilitarian mindset has been a long and meandering journey. In my early parenting years, I did feel driven by a compelling sense of urgency to get things done. Flower photo ops might have been an impractical frivolity, but if they involved fresh air and sunshine, they fell under the category of health and wellness (an approved consideration) or kid time (a no-brainer, especially when I only had one child).
Mostly, though, in those early years I concentrated on survival. Keeping my children fed and cleaned ranked above clothing them in cute, photogenic outfits; and while teaching them their shapes and colors came right along with letters and numbers, there wasn’t much stopping to admire the scenery along the way.
Nonetheless, I thought it was important to instill in my children a love for beauty and creativity, using the reasoning that if something could be both pretty and practical, well, why not?
Admittedly, some people simply have more of a knack for this kind of thing than others. And while it might be tempting to shrug off the importance of something beyond my normal realm of experience by saying, “Oh, well, that’s just not me—I’m not really into that artistic stuff,” I wouldn’t want to use that excuse as a justification for not making the effort.
After all, we don’t suppose people ought to be permitted to wriggle out of other obligations simply because they’re not good at something or may not like doing it. (“I don’t have a job right now—this whole ‘working for a living’ thing is not really my cup of tea.” “I certainly have not the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”)
Clearly, not having an inherent sense of design and style doesn’t let me off the hook for trying to improve my grasp of aesthetic concerns or spare me the trouble of endeavoring to instill a sense of appreciation for art in the next generation.
I did take an art history and appreciation course in college. I like Gothic arches and flying buttresses and enjoyed reading up on the development of western architecture, but sometimes I still feel like a tourist in the vast universe of fine art, wherein you trot all over the globe to gaze at the wonders of the world, but you don’t appreciate the attractions of your own home town until someone visits you and inspires you to make the effort. I think I might be more oblivious to the beauty worth cultivating in my own backyard if my children weren’t there to point it out to.
And yet. Surely I have an inherent sense of prizing beauty for beauty’s sake, even if my notions of art haven’t always been very well fleshed out. As a child, I know I spent many happy hours fashioning daisy chains, doodling flower fairies and gingerbread houses on the margins of my math workbooks, and curating random knick-knacks in an ever-growing collection of shiny objects.
So despite my more recent focus on maximizing utility and dispensing with non-essential distractions, it seems I do have some innate sense of enjoying the fanciful. I have always liked seeing rainbows and shooting stars, even before I had progeny around to share the moment with (and wax educational about).
In no particular order, because this doesn’t reflect a well-thought-out plan or course of study but simply an honest assessment of where we are at this stage in life, here are some ways we enjoy cultivating the appreciation of beauty in our home:
- We hang pictures on the walls. In one house, this non-innovative decorating scheme consisted of hanging pictures on every single nail that was left in the walls by the previous owner—no planning required. It worked, and our eclectic collection of pictures has always brought me joy.
- We set the table conscientiously. Originally these decisions were motivated by economic incentives (cloth napkins over paper goods, unique napkin rings to avoid washing said napkins too frequently, solid serving pieces rather than disposables, etc.),
but we’ve come to appreciate the respect for tradition this necessary care and investment of time and effort inspires. Learning proper manners and table etiquette is so much more satisfying when the setting seems more substantial. Very frequently,
someone will pick weeds flowers for the table or otherwise put on some nice touches. Making mealtimes special is a pleasant and morale-boosting habit.
- We are not afraid to try new things. We peruse cookbooks for new recipes, we find ways to use up exotic or unexpected ingredients, and we try to practice presenting our food with appetizing flair.
- We encourage liberal use of scratch paper. Our kids freely draw, doodle, sketch, and copy. They draw portraits of each other, they go on various fantasy kicks (right now it’s dragons), they draw fifty copies of their hand, they come up with still life illustrations, they copy pictures from their favorite books. Once upon a time we used to try to scan the drawings, or post them on the fridge or walls, or fob them off on grandparents, but we simply cannot keep up with the sheer volume of output. We admire, lavish praise, and move forward.
- We study great works of art. Of course. The library is a fabulous resource for this one. Even before our eldest could read, I would check art books out of the library and point to famous pictures. Whenever possible, we like to visit museums, galleries, churches, cathedrals, and other points of historic interest. Our family’s collective attention span may be short, but it’s better than not going at all.
- We play music, both in the background and sometimes as a main feature. It’s always more fun to work to music, but we also enjoy pausing from work or school to dance to a particularly compelling number. I love seeing a child come rushing from the further reaches of the house to look up the title of a song track so as to file it away for future reference. In my book, learning to appreciate Vivaldi is well worth taking a break from math for. I always say, if it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it!
- We enjoy watching online videos depicting famous works of art as well as inspired originals, often presented with music or fascinating commentary. It’s amazing to see the vast array of creative artwork out there, from sidewalk paintings and floral clocks to Rube Goldberg paint contraptions and domino runs. One of our family’s favorites is the educational (and fun!) movie Donald in Mathmagic Land, which presents the relationships between math, music, art, and architecture in a compelling and memorable narrative.
Our home is our castle. It may not be fancy, fashionably decorated, or perfectly manicured. But it reflects our interests and values, and it brings us pleasure and joy. And if the purpose of art is to express emotion and uplift the soul, then I’d say we’re right on track.
 Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice
 Cogsworth, Beauty and the Beast
Photo Credit: Header graphic: iStock; All other photos courtesy of Rose Focht