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Alexandra Lange

The veteran architecture and design critic takes a deep dive on her aesthetic influences and wonders, can "taste" be unique?

Deeney: Everyone thinks that they’ve got good taste. Everyone thinks "Everyone thinks that they’ve got good taste, but I have got good taste …" (Pause) But I have got good taste.

My husband went to David Mamet’s play, The Old Neighborhood, on Broadway in 1997. When he got home he said, "David Mamet is talking about people like you." But I refused to take it as criticism. I have got good taste, my mom has good taste, my grandma had good taste (my other grandmother had good taste too, but different good taste).

This is my proof.

In my first house, purchased by my parents in Cambridge, Mass. in 1974 for the low low price of $50,000, I played with unpainted wooden blocks, I ate off Massimo Vignelli’s stackable melamine Heller plates, I sat on a blond wood directors chair, I lounged on a geometric rug from Mexico and I slept under a blue Marimekko Puketti duvet. My parents toasted with Ultima Thule and had dinner parties with international foods from Merry White’s Cooking for Crowds by the light of an oversized paper lampshade. Sometimes I was allowed to stay up late to serve the hummus with pita triangles.

This first house, a gray clapboard Victorian, was in the back of my mind when I began to choose things for my own house in Brooklyn. Ebay was my friend as I rebought the Heller plates. I hung a paper globe over the same oak dining table, now passed on to me. I put a geometric rug I bought in India in my daughter’s room. I searched high and low for those duvets–the originals got lost in my parents’ divorce–and had to settle for something less. Oh, we had some ideas of our own: Homasote pinup walls, Japanese printed cotton used like wallpaper, many, many built-ins. The former owners, 1950s graduates of Pratt, left a few treasures, like a pink pukka-shell lamp that I never would have chosen.

I drew from the Cambridge house because it wasn’t modern, but my parents (mostly my mother) had made it so by the items they picked and their arrangement in the rooms. Not everything was brand new, or 20th century, or from the same hemisphere. The ability to mix seemed to me the marker of good taste that didn’t come from a store. Or did it?

In 2003, I interviewed Jane Thompson for an article on preserving modern houses; she had been a key figure in the restoration of the Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, down to donating vintage Marimekko fabric from her own stash to remake Ise Gropius’s kitchen textiles. At the time I didn’t know much about Jane, but I did know she and her husband Ben Thompson had once owned Design Research, a Cambridge store about which my mother and grandmother spoke lovingly, 25 years after it closed. At the end of our conversation, I told her my family loved D/R, and if she ever wanted to write a book about it, she should get in touch.

In 2006, she did. Over the next three years Jane and I and many others worked to honor the store with the book Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes, published in 2010. I made the yellow Marimekko on the cover my social media avatar, never realizing how much that would come to define me as a writer. As more and more images from Jane’s slide collection traveled to my inbox, I realized you could have cut and pasted the store’s vignettes wholesale into our Cambridge house. As we worked our way through the chapter on products, I coveted everything. I felt like someone had opened the top of my head and attached Post-Its to my nerve endings: You like this because…

Those paper lamps, as cheap and chic then as they were now. The Scandinavian wooden toys. The Finnish glassware and Italian plastic and accidental modernism of American industrial products like the Chemex. Growing up my family couldn’t afford the whole lewk. We never had one of Ben Thompson’s delicious down sofas or chunky butcher block tables; we had a simple sofa from the Door Store, off brands, and antiques. Ladies who worked at D/R said graduate students would buy one Kaj Franck plate for each birthday. But the mix-and-match style was what made D/R special: better than a showroom, more accessible than a department store. You could go to Mexico (as my grandparents did in the 1960s) and get the pieces for less, but D/R made it so much easier.

Good taste was less personal than I realized. It did come from a store, a store that reflected its particular time and place: Cambridge, in the 1960s and early 1970s. Graduate students and young professors trying adulthood on for size. Their houses might have been from the 19th century, but the lives they wanted to live in them were more relaxed, more global, more hummus-and-pita triangles than jellied salad. Julia Child was our local celebrity (and I knew where her house was, around the corner from my father’s office). Julia Child bought her batterie de cuisine at D/R, too.

The idea of defining yourself as a young adult through your purchases seems very au courant. When I emailed my mother asking her if she had any photos of our old house she wrote back, tartly, "We didn't have smartphones then to easily take photos... nor did we obsessively document our lives and belongings."

Touché, Mom, touché.

But no photos doesn’t mean that she, and my grandmother before her, weren’t defining themselves through their belongings. The stranger realization is that neither she nor I rebelled against the taste in which we were raised, likely because my grandparents, Pratt-educated designers both, were well ahead of the curve. Once I began doing the research on D/R, I looked at their house with new eyes, suddenly able to see its accouterments as splinters of design history. On their shelves were the spiral-bound book from Alexander Girard’s 1949 For Modern Living exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, price lists from MoMA’s Good Design exhibits of 1951 and 1952, and 1967 furniture catalogs from Georg Jensen. Friends bought them Wegner wishbone chairs in Copenhagen; they bought black pottery from Dona Rosa in Oaxaca. My grandmother rebelled so we didn’t have to. My mom was right on time, and I’m hopelessly nostalgic. My first home and the first home I made for myself have so much in common. I had to write the book that told me what it was.

For Home Sweet Home, Curbed talked to 30 engaging personalities across a range of industries to learn about where they grew up and what home means to them. Follow Alexandra Lange on Instagram and Twitter, and read all her stories on Curbed.

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