Aspirational vs. Memorial Decorating
I enjoy walking in the early evening hours around Minneapolis lakes. Sure, the lakes glisten as the sun sets, but what attracts nosy-me are the lit windows in the stately homes. Before nightfall, a walker can peek into the illuminated living rooms of its fortunate inhabitants and glimpse the decor. This same curiosity fueled me as Leslie and I headed to St. Petersburg, Russia and Stockholm. How would people live there?
Could we peek?
In St. Petersburg, we rented an apartment with minimalist decor and maximum doors. Was there any symbolism to the tiny apartment with seven doors? We also spent time in Vera’s home in suburban Razliv (also home to one of Lenin’s hideouts), Vera’s brother’s apartment, and Volodya’s apartment. My first impression of all three homes was ungepachen,“over-decorated.” Over time, I thought about the home we had grown up in and I began to see similarities. Our Columbus home and the St. Petersburg homes we visited were akin to stage sets proclaiming, “Once we had nothing, now we have everything.” The homes bristled with newness—the newest appliances, newly procured antiques, new technology in the bathrooms, new furniture.
While we didn’t talk to Vera directly about her decorating style, we listened as she told us how she decorated her brother and sister-in-law’s apartment because she could do it best. And when we saw the apartment in the outer ring of St. Petersburg, her hand was evident in the special touches everywhere from the highly decorated bathroom door to the gleaming kitchen. It was also clear that in Vera's eyes, her sister-in-law was not as grateful as she should have been. Vera kept reminding her, “this is how you should live.”
Suddenly, I was back in Columbus with my mom and her sisters-in-law debating the merits of various interior designers and how one "should" decorate. When I thought of our living room, I didn’t think about plopping down in a chair and enjoying the space, but I thought “museum minus the ropes.” We were only permitted in the living room on occasions unless we were practicing the piano. And how would Mom know we’d been there? A pillow would need to be fluffed or a decorative piece was out of place. Leslie and I could probably count the number of times we were in the room paradoxically labeled the “living room.” Vera’s home and that of her brother and sister-in-law did not include an off-limits room simply because there isn’t that kind of space available in a St. Petersburg apartment.
The formality of the spaces was intimidating and made me think “aspirational,” rather than inspirational. I understood that when Vera was growing up in Leningrad, there was defitsit—everything was in short supply. They were lucky to have a small sculpture and a piano. Anything else, even if it could have been procured, might have been judged “bourgeois” by Baba Lyuba. Perhaps Vera was engaged in aspirational decorating. Her Razliv home may have compensated for all the cracks in the plaster, the Soviet appliances, the lack of an esthetic, the endless defitsits of her childhood home. It was this new home that could reflect success. Unfortunately, this home was burned down once and had to be completely rebuilt. Leslie tells me that the Cayman home, built after Vera’s success was established, is more relaxed and sleek, adapting to the island environment without trying to impress.
It was Alisa who first brought up the idea that interior decorating revealed more than just a person’s esthetic. One’s esthetic style displays the interior of a person’s consciousness and memory. Alisa is attuned to art and, if you have already read our book, you know schlepping framed artworks from Leningrad to Stockholm was a no-brainer for Alisa. Because she is so sensitive to her environment, Alisa’s Stockholm apartment reflects her historic attachments on the main floor, and Rolf’s esthetic on the second floor. As soon as we entered the Stockholm apartment in its World Heritage Neighborhood, we felt each piece had been carefully curated for its spot in the room. Bella, Alisa’s mother, on the other hand, had managed to replicate her Leningrad apartment in Stockholm. It was filled to the brim with mementos of her life and the furniture had the bulky presence of the Soviet past stamped upon it.
Bella’s apartment reminded me of our paternal grandparents’ many homes. While their substantial furniture seemed to fit perfectly into their Broad Street home, with every subsequent move, the furniture seemed to creak and protest its new location. Heavy mahogany in Tupelo, Mississippi.--it was more than the little tract home could bear. The same furniture returned to Columbus and was placed in a modern home in Eastmoor. The couches and chairs and tables seemed like they arrived at the wrong destination and struggled to fit it. Now, when I visit my cousin in Omaha and see our grandparents’ furniture in his newly built home, the furniture looks satisfied and at home.
Like me, my cousin decorates by collecting what others would replace. My home is filled with what didn’t sell at my maternal grandparents’ house sale. I have sofas, chairs, tables, bedroom suites, lamps. Even though the furniture is vintage 1920s, I determined that it suits the house because I like sitting on furniture that carries memories. I understand that for Vera and Alla the memories of their Soviet lives is not a pleasant one. Both women remember the hardships their parents endured and they have created their own new worlds where they can shuck their shoes in the evening and breathe freely.