Divine inspiration Spiritual symbols are helping to turn interiors into sanctuaries for body and soul.

December 22, 1996|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

The funky and quite expensive decorative bird house is

charming -- and just happens to be in the shape of a church.

You could hardly call it a design trend in itself, but consider this:

Three new books on feng shui (the ancient Chinese art of improving one's spiritual as well as physical environment with interior design) have just come out. A decade ago most American interior decorators would have laughed. Now one of the country's most influential designers, Clodagh, has a feng shui consultant on staff.

Or consider this:

House & Garden reports that lingam rocks, objects of worship in Hindu temples and homes, have "become a popular decorative accessory in high-style American interiors." A lot of people are using them for healing, the magazine explains. (It doesn't say how.)

Spiritual decorating. It sounds a little -- well -- otherworldly, doesn't it? Not exactly a mainstream trend. And not something you'd expect to find among the swanky interiors of glossy home magazines.

But Donna Warner, editor in chief of Metropolitan Home, would disagree. "Spirituality is a big word," she says, "but people are decorating so that their houses give them a sense of comfort and peace. Minimalism at its best is a spiritual approach to decorating."

In other words, those beautifully uncluttered interiors -- a hallmark of '90s decorating -- are serene sanctuaries in almost a religious sense.

For the more literal-minded, Warner points out that the grand prize winner in the magazine's Home of the Year contest, announced in the January/February issue, is a small house in Berkeley, Calif., filled with religious art and architectural elements from old churches.

The use of overtly religious art in decorating isn't unusual these days. Mary Emmerling, author of numerous books on American country collecting, says that one of the current hottest collectibles is the religious folk art of the Southwest, known as santero village art. Examples range from paintings or carvings of saints to carved wood or punched tin cabinets that hold small religious objects.

For local santos collector Julie Alderman, these are beautiful pieces to live with, not collectibles to be stored away.

"It's no longer rare," she says, "for icons to be considered pieces of art" -- to be part of the home environment even if the owner isn't particularly religious.

Ken Hobart, creative director for the Becker Group, a Baltimore-based company specializing in seasonal decor, also uses his collection of santos and prayer candles as part of his decor. He describes himself as "coming from a very Waspy background." In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- that, he says, they have a fascination for him: "The rays of light coming from the hands, the blood pouring out of wounds. They have a great artistic and a spiritual appeal."

The demand for santos is so great that contemporary artists are creating their own versions, using religious pictures with frames or boxes crafted from recycled tin containers, with sequins or other decoration. (You can find them at various shops in the area, such as Something Else in Mount Washington and the Store Ltd. in Cross Keys.)

Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery, believes the appeal of religious icons of every sort can be traced to their personal, quirky aspect -- often chosen as one might choose a personal presence to live with (or pray to). The gallery's gift shop has carried a number of icons tied to exhibits that sell very well.

"We have to assume," he says, "that they have a public position in the home. People are buying them -- and at fairly high prices."

Presence of angels

If all this seems a little rarefied to you, consider the extraordinary mainstream popularity of angels as a decorative motif for the past few years. Angelic images grace everything from dish towels to decorative boxes. Shops have opened up that deal with angel items exclusively; books have been written about them.

Celestial motifs (stars, moons and suns), with their aura of New Age mysticism, have also been omnipresent for several years now. Perhaps people simply like the pretty designs, but their longevity suggests some more complicated appeal.

Although most people don't realize it, another much-used decorative design, the fleur de lis, historically has represented the Trinity. On some level the ecclesiastical roots of it and other popular Gothic elements (cathedral arches, crosses, quatrefoils) probably come through.

Mainstream furniture manufacturers have produced modern interpretations of Gothic designs, softened to appeal to modern sensibilities but still with the "churchy" elements of the original: pointed arches, tracery and elaborate carving inspired by the architecture of medieval cathedrals. Lane Co. has had great success with its collection Hudson Views, combining country and Gothic. Ralph Lauren's Cottages and Castles home collection, particularly the Medieval line with its heavy Gothic influences, also has done very well.

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