My first design crush

EclecticCountryCoverDisclaimer: Not everyone takes decorating their home as seriously as some of us. You may read this and think, “Oh, Janet has really gone ’round the bend.” Or, you may see yourself. I love this part of making a home: what goes on the mantle, how bookshelves are arranged, how to show off a collection of whatever it is you collect. That’s just me!

As soon as I discovered last fall that Mary Emmerling had a new design book out, Eclectic Country, I clicked on Amazon and ordered it. She was my first design crush, and I still love her evolving style.

Emmerling turned the design world on its heels in the late 1970’s when her New York loft furnished with rustic country tables and baskets alongside white slipped sofas was featured in House and Garden. From there she went on to become the decorating editor at House Beautiful and to write her first book. American Country, published in 1980. My design taste went right long.

Although I was not initially equating this style with one specific designer, I carefully studied this new country style that was so much fresher than my mother’s traditional Early American. (Sorry, Mom.) I was a young married with no budget but plenty of imagination. We lived in Central Illinois then, and garage sales and estate sales yielded a treasure trove of oak dressers, copper boilers, and old dishes. I hung quilts on the wall and used them as tablecloths (I still do this). I started collecting baskets.

Eventually I found the pages of Mary Emmerling’s Country Magazine and Country Living that featured her look and her first books told me how to use my early finds. I made curtains out of sheets and a shower curtain from a quilt top. I started collecting vintage tablecloths and fabrics, turning them into valances and pillow tops. I convinced Steve to cut down an old oak kitchen table to re-purpose as a coffee table.

I have no doubt that my family and friends found my style to be “quirky” at best, but I was learning a lot about scale and balance, about which pieces could be refinished and which couldn’t, about the power of paint and wall paper, about quality and trading up for something better. Some of those early pieces are still part of our household, like the coffee table and the quilts. Others I sold in favor of something I liked even better.

So, when her book came, I settled into my favorite chair and proceeded to enjoy the story of her evolving style, from the 70’s until now. Since then I have gone back more than once to enjoy her insights. When I started his post, I started re-reading some of her other books. Her ideas and insights are just as fresh today. In Quick Decorating Emmerling broke down her approach to arranging shelves. I have to admit I have read this many times and used her advice. It always works. The same can be said for her take on creating tabletop vignettes.

This is a spread from Quick Decorating, describing how these shelves were arranged to be interesting, balanced and useful.

This is not furniture store or showroom decorating. It’s personal, and that’s the appeal for me.

One of the things I really appreciate about Mary Emmerling’s style is her willingness to blend both high- and low-end pieces, like the gilt-back chairs below next to wicker trunks. I realize this would be tiresome throughout a house, but the tension between the two is eye-catching. And I think occasionally pairing rustic pieces with formal makes the formal pieces more approachable. It also “classes up” the less formal. A silver pitcher of garden flowers on a pine table not only looks pretty, but allows you (me!) to use the silver pitcher!

Sample ME page
I love the gilt chairs and the candelabra on the dhurrie rug, with the wicker chests. From Quick Decorating.

Another thing I love about Mary Emmerling is her practical side. She shares her lists, not just of furniture and accents, but of practical tools, too. In Quick Decorating she describes her stylist’s kit, which includes pins, tape, scissors, etc. (In mine I keep various picture hangers and hardware, a tape measure, plate holders, and those foam pads to help you move furniture around. If you are going to start arranging or rearranging, you need to be prepared!) In Romantic Decorating her lists range from romantic fabrics (toile, velvet, etc.) to architecture (half-timbered walls, French doors) to movies (The African Queen, Brief Encounter, Casablanca).

But Mary Emmerling’s practical approach goes beyond tools. It’s about the way she has adapted her style to meet her changing taste and locations. She’s made her country look work in New York City, the Hamptons, Florida and Arizona. She tweaks it, adds and subtracts pieces, and keeps her “basics.” And I think it’s this versatility that her many fans appreciate. This is a personal look, with beloved collections, genuine pieces of Americana whether they are Navajo blankets or advertising tins, hay forks or crosses and Santos. It’s certainly not dependent on square footage.

If you’re a decorating geek like me, like country style, or just want to see what I’m talking about, try one of these books (or one of her others!). And have I mentioned that the pictures are always awesome? These are the titles i have in “my library.” There were more, but I have “loaned” a few out.

  • Mary Emmerling’s American Country South, text by Carol Sama Sheehan, photographs by Langdon Clay, 1989
  • Mary Emmerling’s American Country Cottages, text by Carol Sama Sheehan, photographs by Joshua Green, 1993
  • Mary Emmerling’s American Country Details, text by Carol Sama Sheehan, 1994
  • Mary Emmerling’s Quick Decorating, text by Jill A. Kirchner, photographs by Michael Skott, 1997
  • Mary Emmerling’s Romantic Country, text by Jill Kirchner Simpson, photographs by Michael Skott, 2004
  • Eclectic Country, text by Mary Emmerling, photographs by Reed Davis, 2015

What about you? Is there a design personality out there inspiring your living space? I’d love to hear about it!

See you next time!


4 thoughts on “My first design crush

  1. One of my favorite of your posts so far! I know you’re not surprised that I would love this one! You know I’m as crazy and intrepid about designing and decorating as you are!



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