Over the past decade there’s been a quiet revolution in the way people decorate their homes, as conservative tastes handed down from mid-century modernism have given way to an explosion of vibrant colors, patterns and textures. Mark Chamberlain has had a front row perspective on the whole thing, not only as an in-demand designer and painter specializing in vividly patterned floors and walls, but as a blogger who – for eight years – maintained a column on Apartment Therapy where he urged homeowners to take more risks with the way they treat their spaces.
Chamberlain has a BFA in art as well as a fine art career, but he’s never thought of interior design as something less than worthy of the same type of respect people pay more “serious” art forms. “People have been adorning their walls with scenes of daily life and spiritual life since the caveman,” he points out. Design and fine art, he says, are two sides of the same coin. “The inspiration is the part I love,” he says. “Sometimes a designer will come to me with a swatch or a tear sheet out of a magazine and says, ‘Make me this.’ It’s the same thing as fine art. It’s all creativity.”
In his Apartment Therapy columns, he’d use seemingly quotidian concerns – like what color to paint your living room – as starting points for passionate discussions of art history, color theory and the nature of the creative impulse. He explained why things like the color of our living room walls really matter and, in the process, helped change the way many of us look at the spaces around us.
“I was in it on the ground floor,” Chamberlain says of this sea change in design sensibilities. “Twenty years ago everybody just wanted to paint their living rooms beige or powder blue, and that was fine. Now with the internet and ‘shelter porn’ and just this explosion of images, everybody has unlimited access to unfettered glamor. And everybody wants some of it. Paint a room dark black glossy? No problem. Wallpaper it chartreuse? No problem.”
It’s not just trends that have changed, Chamberlain says, but Americans’ whole way of approaching home decor. “People are much more adventurous,” he explains. “It used to be the wives and her designers, and the husband’s job was to shut up and pay the bill. Now men are involved in it. It’s really been a design revolution. That was very fun for me to be involved with. I’m not going to sit here and say I started trends, but…”
Chamberlain says that his job as a writer was “to provide inspiration,” which included sharing some of the skills that DIYers could use to give their homes some of the same glamor he’s made his professional trademark. His advice boils down to a few simple points. “Find your inspiration,” he explains. “Decide how talented you are. Can you hand paint stripes yourself? Do you have to tape them? Match your talent to your project. Look at pictures, Google what other people have done. Go to Barnes & Noble and flip through design magazines. Just dig around. Listen to your inner voice. If your inner voice says, ‘I want a blood red dining room,’ listen to it.”
He also advises against listening to hand-me-down knowledge from the previous design era, like the myth that dark colors make a room feel smaller. “I do plenty of rooms in the darkest midnight blues, dark charcoal grays, dark brown, off-black,” he says. “One very counterintuitive thing is that if you have a small room, like a foyer, people say don’t paint it dark because it’ll get too small. Sometimes the exact opposite happens. It gets vast like the night, more important, more precise.” (The key, he says, is to spend the extra money for the highest quality paints.)
His favorite advance in design over the course of his career? Do-it-yourself wallpaper. “Anybody can make a painting, manipulate it, turn it into a .jpeg, give somebody a disk, and they’ll print out your own wallpaper for you,” he says in amazement. “That would’ve been impossible when I first started thinking about this 15 years ago. It would have cost a fortune. Wallpaper used to be one thing. Now there’s a lot more options.”
Chamberlain has used his favorite technology to turn six original paintings inspired by 1940s wallpaper patterns into digital wallpaper for the new Sonos flagship store in SoHo. Is it fine art? Design? If you’ve been paying attention to his career, you’ll know that there’s really no difference. Whatever it is, he says, “It sure beats waitressing.”