Eclecticism means balance, not jumble

April 11, 1993|By Rita St. Clair | Rita St. Clair,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Even though I've been a professional designer for some years now, I'm still amazed at how quickly styles appear and then vanish. For example, a number of looks that were hot in the '80s have already faded into obscurity.

Despite all the current talk about getting "back to basics," no single style has yet emerged as the emblem of the '90s. But something new will eventually emerge, I'm sure -- and be all but forgotten a few years hence.

Amid all this ephemera, a few styles are notable for their lasting popularity and undiminished beauty. One of these is known as "eclectic," an adjective that became part of designers' everyday vocabulary back in the early '70s.

In fact, of all the looks to emerge during the past 20 years, eclecticism has proven the most durable. Today, as when it originated, most designers give this style an interpretation consistent with its dictionary definition. "Eclectic," according to Webster's, means "composed of elements drawn from various sources."

For all its appeal, however, the eclectic look is not easy to assemble successfully. The untrained eye often experiences particular difficulty in achieving the necessary balance in regard to color, scale and form.

How, for instance, can a French armchair be paired with a contemporary desk -- or a classical settee with a low-slung California sofa? One operative principle in such situations is that furnishings must relate not only to one another, but also to the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the room in which they are placed.

But I don't mean to mystify the process. A good innate sense of design -- intuitively knowing what pieces fit together -- will take anyone a long way toward producing a beautifully eclectic interior.

In many homes occupied by nonprofessional designers, I have seen very attractive combinations of contemporary American furniture and Asian or African artworks. Although these diverse elements might seem to have little in common, their affinity becomes obvious to many observers when they're placed side by side. That's because much of contemporary Western art is based on the aesthetics of Asian or African cultures.

The photograph provides an example. The background storage cabinets of pale beige lacquer and darker beige marble tops are straightforwardly functional in their design. A deeper shade of the same color appears nearby in the form of a textured linen wall-covering. It serves as an appropriately neutral back drop for the collection of Asian and African art as well as for the pieces of contemporary American ceramics and glass. Rounding out this sophisticated corner is an antique French armchair stripped down to its natural oak and covered in a melon-colored wool.

As I hope this model suggests, eclecticism involves much more than a free-wheeling assemblage of furnishings and objects. Proper proportions and color selections are essential components of this style. The best eclectic compositions also have a personal touch that sets them apart from something seen in a furniture store or a museum.

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