Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Seeing Black

If you’re feeling queasy from all that pink and red on Valentine’s Day, this may be the antidote:

In 1976 Mrs. Chatterbox and I told ourselves that the old San Francisco apartment we’d just rented made up for being small with an abundance of character. It had old-world tile in the kitchen and bathroom, a vintage slot in the door for the delivery of milk bottles, and from the roof you could make out the top of the Golden Gate Bridge if it wasn’t foggy or rainy, which was most of the time.

When we first arrived in San Francisco, Mrs. C. quickly landed a job with a CPA firm, but my art degree made me about as hirable as a shepherd. I walked the streets day after day looking for work, without success. One day I returned home after a futile job search and took out my frustration on our cramped apartment and meager furnishings. An idea for dressing up the place popped into my head. Our Goodwill furniture would look more like an eclectic blend of shabby and chic if I painted the floors…black. I could take inspiration from nearby Chinatown and paint Chinese motifs on the walls. I grew excited by the thought of using my design ability and artistic skills to perk up the place. New furniture was out of the question but we could still have a “trendy” interior with Chinoiserie—mixing Chinese elements with Western ones.

The nice landlady informed us that there were hardwood floors beneath the radiator-stained rugs and we could pull them up if we wanted to. She said nothing about painting the floors black, but I was sure she wouldn’t mind; heck, she might even lower our rent when she saw how fabulous our apartment looked. She might even hire me to paint the other units in the building, and God knows I needed a job. In retrospect, I wish Mrs. C. had talked me out of it, but back then she deferred to me on all things artistic. She didn’t object. She’s much smarter now.

I went to the store and bought oil base enamel paint, black as tar. I piled our furniture in the only bedroom, pulled up the rugs in the living room and tossed them in the hallway near the elevator. Then I began slapping down the black paint. When I finished the living room, I was pretty proud of myself; the room now seemed to have shrunk to doll house size but it looked cool, sort of Chineeezie. Mrs. C. and I settled back and waited for the paint to dry.

We waited.

And waited.

Then we waited some more.

I might have bought the wrong type of paint, or maybe it was the cold damp air (we had to keep the windows open because the paint fumes were giving us headaches) but the paint refused to dry. Two weeks later the paint was still tacky. Our cat took to tiptoeing into the living room and rolling around on the sticky black goo. Her fur stuck to the paint and eventually it began to look as though we were growing a Chia Pet carpet.

One day the landlady knocked on our door, irritated that our old carpeting was blocking the elevator. When I opened the door she peered inside. Her eyes widened and she hit the roof, upset that we hadn’t asked for permission to paint the floors. She ordered us to remove the paint IMMEDIATELY. I started scraping with a kitchen spatula, but the paint, while still tacky, had adhered to the floor. I rented a circular electric sander but I was unfamiliar with the deafening machine and left it too long in one spot, resulting in what looked like crop circles on the oak floors. Our landlady didn’t comment on the circles, but she scowled at me whenever our paths crossed and I figured we’d overstayed our welcome. We moved out—and in with my parents since I couldn’t find a job.

My attempt to make our San Francisco apartment trendy was a disaster, and ever since then whenever I see the word chinoiserie I see black and think of a four letter word.

What's you biggest interior design mistake?


  1. I try not to do any interior design work. Hang a few poster-sized collages of my nature photos, tack up a shelf or two, and call it good. But whoever designed the kitchen in my apartment made more than a few mistakes. There's hardly any space in it at all for storage and some of the cabinets are so narrow you couldn't fit a pack of gum if you put it in sideways. It does force me to economize on the crap I keep in there though so that's a bonus.

  2. I love this!! It reminded me of when we were first married and my hubby took a whole day off from work to clean our kitchen floors as a surprise for me. Bigger surprise was coming home to see him using a brillo pad to clean our year-old no-wax floor. Yeah, he removed all of the finish - but I stopped him before he had finished - only half of the room had that new dull glow!! He was so proud that it was hard to tell him just how wrong he was!

  3. I don't really have an interior design mistake. However, from reading this, it is just another affirmation that what one person thinks looks cool or good is way different from what another person may think looks cool or good. I extend this to writing because books, like interior design, can appeal to some while lose others.

  4. I got the bright idea that I could take the paint off all the cabinets in my kitchen and leave it natural. I started in one area to test the process out. Turns out I hated it. Too much time, too much scraping, too much of a mess.

    So I stopped what I was doing and decided to paint it back to the original color, or what I thought was the original color as I grabbed a paint tin from the garage. After painting I realized it didn't match anything else. I didn't have the original paint after all. I would have to repaint the entire kitchen.

    While I was repainting I decided I would remove the ugly wallpaper border the previous owners installed. But I had trouble removing the paper, until I bought this fancy wallpaper remover tool. It took out a chunk of the drywall. I had to buy some glob to fill in the hole that was about the size of a golf ball.

    I eventually completed repainting the kitchen to be all the same color and a carefully placed picture now hides the hole that once was.

  5. "...and from the roof you could make out the top of the Golden Gate Bridge if it wasn’t foggy or rainy, which was most of the time."

    What, it wasn't foggy and rainy? Where in thecity did you live?

    "What's you biggest interior design mistake?"

    Thinking I could put a window covering up in the barracks when I was at TI going to radar school.

  6. I seldom stick my neck out far enough (decoratively speaking) to make a mistake. I have hung wallpaper before, but I didn't pick it out.


  7. After My Dad died, we were going to put his place on the market. His bedroom needed some sort of overhaul, so I got it into my head to make it bright and cheerful. It had been sort of an institutional grey/green, but I painted two walls that sat opposite each other a sky blue, another a bright yellow, another a bright green. I thought it was sort of groovy, but MY WIFE and My Aunt both thought I had lost my mind. After looking at it for a couple of days, I agreed. It looked as though a kid's toy box had exploded. I re-painted all in a toned-down beige.

    By the way, I think you'll get a kick out of this: When I read your opening line, at first I thought it said, "If you’re feeling queasy from all that pink and red on Valentine’s Day, this may be the artichoke" I don't know why that strikes me as hilarious, but it may have something to do with how much I enjoyed the 70's.

  8. Buying this house, which we didn't know was unfixable. Your story is better.

  9. Your plan sounded good, at least! I'm horrible at decorating!

  10. I once dragged a sort of bookcase home from work and decided it needed a nice coat of Chinese red paint. So I painted it, in the living room of my rented apartment, with a can of spray paint, while it was sitting on a couple of newspapers on top of wall to wall carpet. Y'know what? Those spray cans have a pretty good range. When the paint dried and I moved the bookcase and picked up the newspapers, there was a nice rectangle of not-so-faint red paint on the carpet. I think that was the last time I painted anything.

  11. Yikes that's just plain awful. My mother painted the living room walls fire engine red once. Made your eyes burn. I decided then to stick to the basics and not go for the weird colors.

    Have a terrific day. :)

  12. My husband brought home a chest of drawers from a second-hand furniture store and put it in our then-three-year-old son's room. The room became five degrees colder that the rest of the house, summer and winter. A few years later, we moved that chest to the basement. The boy's room returned to normal temperature. But the lights in the basement took turns going out. Not burning out. Just not working for several days at a time. One would come back on, then a new one would go dark. After the light situation seemed to remedy itself, I saw a headless man standing by my TV. We still have the chest. And lots of walking noises when no one is there.

  13. Oh, how funny. That poor landlady. I'll bet that floor never saw the light of day again but remained covered with carpet until the proverbial cows came home. I have no interior design gene. When I move into a new place, I look for existing nails and hang pictures on them. And Suldog...a funny guy...I suspect that his enjoyment of the "artichoke" line had more to do with HOW he enjoyed the 70s, rather than how MUCH he enjoyed them. :)

  14. You know I think the black floors actually looked really good... but ya land-ladys probably wouldn't be huge fans... Curse you land-ladys everywhere for ruining floor art!!

  15. Well, now, not to be rude about it,or anything, but you sound like the tenants from ...

    Oh, no, I won't say that. (Now you'll never know what I was going to say) I did laugh at your story though.

    I have now subscribed to your blog (thought I'd done it before) so now I won't miss any more of them.