Save-the- Animals Decorating

August 11, 1991|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Universal Press Syndicate

Once regarded as a fairly innocuous if not frivolous enterprise, home decorating may soon become downright controversial. Get ready now, because the debate will be coming soon to a living room near you.

The issue? Whether it is right and reasonable to use animal-derived materials for household adornment. It may sound silly at first, but I suspect the battle lines are already being drawn.

Increased environmental sensitivity, the raging war over fur coats, the debate over using live animals in medical and cosmetic research, the animal rights movement and the ever-growing list of endangered species are already prompting some of us to question our own preferences for certain decorating styles -- from Southwest to hunting lodge to out-of-Africa chic.

Personally, I've been feeling guilty for three years about the mounted deer head on the wall of my living room. Now, I'm not a hunter; I could never have shot that deer myself. In fact, I'm opposed to hunting. The killing of wild animals is not what I consider a sport. No, I bagged my trophy at an antique shop.

The truth is I just didn't think about the moral implications -- until I got it home and hung it on the wall. Then, instead of a trophy or an artifact, I saw a sad perversion. And I began to recognize the part I had played -- albeit at arm's length -- in fostering a market that ultimately supports animal killing for pleasure.

Suddenly, I was no longer morally superior to the guy who pulled the trigger or even to the woman who wears a fur coat made from the hide of a coyote or a baby seal that she didn't personally slaughter either. And I began to realize that for years I had been only too happy to admire home furnishings and decorative accessories derived from animals -- things like bearskin rugs, fox throws and antler chandeliers. I'd really never given much thought to the fact that a bearskin rug was once a bear, a fox throw was once a pack of foxes and that an antler chandelier comprises the crowns worn by who knows how many stags.

So, all right, lesson learned. No more deer heads, no more antlers, no more polar bear rugs, no more lusting for the masculine rusticity of the hunting lodge or the exotica of the safari tent.

Ah, but Mr. Self-Righteous, you're thinking, what about leather furniture, what about steer-hide rugs, what about suede pillows, goose-down comforters, wool carpeting and that icon of Southwest style, the bleached cow skull?

Frankly, reconciling all the points of view about what is and is not acceptable about using animal-derived materials for home decorating is beyond me. I'm not a purist, just a typical middle-of-the-roader. But, if pressed, I suppose I'd have to say that I think it's all right to use materials and objects derived from domesticated, agricultural animals as home furnishings and decorative accessories as long as they are a byproduct of food production. As long as the animal was killed first for its meat and not for its hide, head or horns -- or for recreation -- I don't have a problem.

Reasonable? For me, yes. For others, probably not. The deer hunter, for example, might well argue that, given my food-first rule, venison stew makes deer hunting justifiable and mounted deer heads genuine trophies. I can't argue with that. All I can do is resolve not to bring any more of these trophies home with me.

One way to sidestep the issue, of course, is to purchase man-made look-alikes. Lighting manufacturers are now offering synthetic stag-horn fixtures. Rug makers are duplicating the look of zebra, tiger, leopard and other wild animal hides by printing on steer hides or synthetic fibers. Animal-print fabrics are also widely available.

Yet another compromise is to approximate the look of exotic animal materials yourself. That's what Michael Lane, a contributing editor to Decorating and Remodeling magazine, did. wildlife conversationalist at heart, he painted a faux tortoise-shell mirror frame with black and burnt sienna acrylic paint over a base of yellow ocher. For a leopard chair cushion, he dabbed fabric paint on cotton velvet. And on a coarse sisal rug he used black acrylic paint to create zebra stripes.

"There's really no reason these days to use real wild animals, endangered or not, for decorating because there are so many alternatives," says Mr. Lane. "Besides, there is an element of fantasy, whimsy and hand-craftsmanship in approximating the look. In that way, it becomes better than the real thing."

Still, as a design consultant, Mr. Lane sometimes finds himself torn between personal convictions and professional obligations.

"I pretty much try to avoid natural animal materials across the board," he says. "But if it's something a client already has and is particularly drawn to, it's pretty hard to pull them away from it."

Instead of proselytizing, Mr. Lane teaches by example.

"I liken it to the time I stopped drinking, about five years ago," he says. "I didn't do much talking about that either. But people noticed, and I think I passively influenced the way they looked at their own drinking habits. The same thing applies to my design projects. I just don't use real animal elements and, in the long run, I think that's a lot more effective than preaching."

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