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Balls in Bowls



Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works. — Steve Jobs

Just as the modern woman doesn’t go on a first date without a new dress and a bikini wax, a home shouldn’t be on the market without a little sprucing up. I don’t mean dusting a few shelves and putting away the dishes; this wasn’t cosmetic, applying cover-up here and using blush to accentuate there — this was invasive surgery. At least that’s what it felt like. Drawers were gutted, a cavity in the wall was filled, and a complete clutterectomy was performed. But that wasn’t enough.

“What’s a ‘stager’?” I asked David after he told me our agent was going to bring one by. “Is that like when a furniture store wants to use your space as a showroom for the stuff they’re selling?”

“A stager is someone hired by the realtor or seller to come in and rearrange your home to maximize its perceived value,” David said. I knew he’d have an answer. He may not be a Home Depot–loving weekend warrior, but when given the chance, David will sit through any program that airs on HGTV. I use those times to work on my Angry Birds score. Watching people paint, build, and garden is like watching migrants pick strawberries — boring and depressing.

“I thought they only used those people on empty houses. What can a stager offer us?” I couldn’t imagine anyone whose design sensibilities could surpass my man’s. David’s not just an artist but also a minimalist — after he cleared out 36 boxes of excess, there wasn’t much left to rearrange.

“Who knows? He might be able to suggest a better way to position our sofas,” David said.

The first phase of staging involved the stager — I’ll call him Mike — visiting our home to “get a feel.” I was pleased with his initial reaction to our domain, which involved oohs and aahs. So far, so acceptable; that was, until his perception of what it should be like to live in our home went flying off on a tangent, leaving a trail of plaid in its path.

It began outside, on our 360-square-foot skyline-view terrace. Mike was disturbed that he could see our bedroom through the windowed wall. “You need to get rid of that dining table. This area should be more an extension of your bedroom than anything else; you don’t want people thinking that one of you might be laying in bed while the other is out here entertaining.”

“Why would one of us have a party if the other one was laying in bed? It’s a corner penthouse — the idea of entertaining on a rooftop patio was one of the reasons we bought this place,” I said, testily. I caught the wince on David’s face and forced a smile. “But, sure, whatever you think. You’re the expert.”

Mike wanted to add two chairs to our bedroom. “We just want to demonstrate the use of all this space,” he said. “I don’t know if I have anything that can rise to the level of the rest of your things.”

“Aren’t you working with a store to provide furniture for staging?” Mike shook his head. “What? You just, like, have a garage somewhere full of stuff?” Mike nodded. So…we were relying on his taste, I thought. His taste. If his white sneakers and JCPenney shirt tucked into way-too-faded jeans were any indication, taste was not his strong suit. The same guy who thought it was odd to entertain on a terrace now wanted to put two chairs side by side, facing the foot of my bed. As if it wasn’t creepy to have someone lay in bed while two people sat and stared at him. Awesome.

We went into my office next, the room where I read and write, where I am most at home, my sanctuary. “We should get rid of that chair,” Mike said. “I have a chaise we can put against that wall.” I bristled at this but remained silent. That was my reading chair, the one piece of furniture I kept from my life before David.

When it was suggested that I replace my major source of inspiration — a beautiful four-foot-long painting of books, tea, and a vintage typewriter — with a mirror, I decided I hate stagers. “As much as I love to look at myself, that’s not going to happen,” I said. At least that’s what it sounded like in my head. In David’s version, I decorated my opinion with a variety of colorful words and phrases.

Back in the entryway, Mike pondered a piece he called a table but was really a sculpture that resembles a table. “What if we put those two stools underneath this table to demonstrate how much space is really here?”

“That’s a sculpture, not a table,” I said politely. It was a common enough mistake.

“Well, we wouldn’t put anything on it, just under it,” Mike said.

“You want to stack stools under this piece?” Mike nodded. “Great. Why don’t we also hang this painting in front of that photograph? That’d be good. Let’s obstruct all of the art.” I was no longer trying to suppress my outrage. It wasn’t just that Mike’s taste was terrible or that he was more accustomed to decorating 1920s bungalows than contemporary lofts — it was my awareness that I was no longer the authority on my surroundings; that this was the beginning of what would soon be an invasion of my home, with people treading in and out until one of them made the offer that will take it away from me for good.

David seemed calm for the most part. He agreed with Mike about the positioning of our sofas (parallel, rather than angled) and that we needed larger chairs in front of the TV (to better match the size of our sofas). But when Mike declared his intent to tart up a table with a large bowl filled with decorative balls, David could no longer contain his cool.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t do balls in bowls. They’re pointless.” Then, as if he was concerned he’d come on too strong, David added, “It’s just a pet peeve of mine.”

Later, after Mike left and David and I were ranting about how difficult it had been to keep our hands from our ears while he was giving suggestions, I asked David what his deal was with balls in bowls, which I had considered less offensive than the empty, wire-mesh floor vases Mike suggested (and we nixed).

“Balls in bowls is just a page out of the lazy interior decorator’s playbook,” David said. “For some reason they feel that a basket of brown papier-mâché balls is the universal solution to successfully decorating any room. I blame HGTV.” He sighed heavily and gave an exaggerated, angry roll of his eyes. It felt good to know I wasn’t alone.

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