An idea whose time has come Home: A new book attempts to codify the term 'timeless' and show how it can be used successfully in interior design.


Too-often invoked by architects and interior designers -- and those who write about them -- to describe rooms that defy convenient categorization, "timeless" has become the unfortunate adjective of first resort. Rarely helpful and only occasionally accurate, it is often applied to anonymous-looking spaces, spaces that do not automatically lend themselves to being pigeonholed as contemporary, traditional or country, but occupy, instead, some vague stylistic domain seemingly free of clocks and calendars.

Now, though, veteran design writer Bo Niles has made an earnest, ambitious -- and largely successful -- attempt to legitimize the term and codify "timeless" tenets in a coffee-table book format.

"Timeless Design" (PBC International, $34.95) is a lavishly photographed tome of 33 homes created by 27 architects and interior designers from the United States and abroad.

Niles is the first to concede that the book may be subject to "merciless criticism" because the designation of timelessness is an arbitrary one. Like beauty itself, what is timeless may be in the eye of the beholder.

Niles' credentials as an arbiter of style, however, make her as qualified as anyone to decide what is and isn't timeless. Her first book, "White by Design," published in 1984, was hugely successful and is still in print. She wrote three other books on design and decorating, and during the course of 20 years worked as an editor for the Architectural Forum, House & Garden, American Home and Country Living magazines.

Like its subject matter, the book is a concession to the amorphous nature of timeless design and the myriad ways in which it can be interpreted.

"I have a fairly purist point of view of what constitutes timeless design," Niles says. "But for the book, I tried to respect the particular vision of an individual architect or designer. Different designers have quite different takes on it, but that makes it less subject to dogma and more accessible to more people."

Variation aside, however, Niles insists there are certain basic principles associated with building and decorating in a timeless fashion.

"A living space," she writes in the book's introduction, "must reveal an essential integrity and harmony both within and without. [It] must be appropriate to its setting and to the lifestyle of its occupants. To be livable, manageable and comfortable, spaces work best when they are restrained in demeanor and pared down in decoration."

Structural elements, she says, tend to be "distilled to their essence" and furnishings "assume a stylishness tethered to no particular era."

An illustration of that principle is evident in a vintage Chicago apartment. Interior designer Janet Schirn installed a contemporary glass-topped dining table and four white armchairs in a small window bay, but left the traditional architectural elements, including hefty crown moldings and woodwork, a strategy that combines history with the here and now.

Stylish achievement

But far from plain, the homes in her book are glamorous, distinctive, memorable and stylish, with qualities that go beyond short-term trendiness.

Niles uses words such as "pared down," "well-edited" and "distilled" interchangeably, and some homes in the book,

particularly the custom-designed contemporary examples, are indeed minimalist to the max. At first glance, some readers will inevitably regard them as under-furnished extravagances. But physical, visual and emotional comfort, Niles says, can be measured in terms of quality, not just quantity.

"The finest materials, impeccable craftsmanship, and furnishings and accessories chosen with a connoisseur's eye" can, even in limited amounts, convey a sense of warmth, luxury and the look of abundance. Spaciousness, which comes from editing furniture, accessories and artwork down to a can't-live-without level, is a bonus.

It consists of just two easy chairs and a shared ottoman, but the sitting area of a Washington master bedroom by designer Mary Douglas Drysdale, for example, immediately conveys a sense of long-lasting comfort and intimacy.

Then again, like timeless style itself, minimalism is a matter of degree, and there is room for personal preference. The addition of an area rug, a side table or a lamp is always an option. Clutter, on the other hand, is a distraction.

"It's really a matter of winnowing and culling and discriminating," Niles says of the process of achieving a timeless room. "The idea isn't to get down to the absolute necessities, but to live with only those things that are deeply meaningful, look right and that serve you well."

In that regard, timelessness may be an idea whose time has come, coinciding as it does with a trend toward simple living, a trend fueled by a population that is aging and, after the acquisitive '80s, thinning its bloated inventories of household goods.

Then again, pared down doesn't mean pared to the bone. There's still room for those requisite elements that give a home a distinctive personality.

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