Thank you for all of your kind comments yesterday, and for just indulging me, in general. Talking about your process is sort of like telling someone about the dream you had the night before: You're sloshing through, explaining as much to yourself as to anyone else, trying to put your finger on exactly what it was for a moment, in case there's something there you might need to know. . . .
As I've been scoping out the house for locations—almost all of the photos for this book, like my first one, will be taken here in our house, with our own paint colors and furniture (with all its nicks and scuffs), with our own stuff propping shots, with our own beds and chairs and cups and pup in the background—I've been noticing how much the paintings of Swedish artist Carl Larsson have influenced our home, and my sense of the spaces I try to create.
I first encountered the work of Carl Larsson (1853-1919) when I was a freshman at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, the small liberal arts college that both Andy (and his mom, his dad, his sister, his aunt, his grandparents, his great-aunts and uncles, and maybe other relatives I don't even know about) and I went to and where we met, almost twenty years ago now (egads).
(I should pause here to say how much we love— like LOVE love—our school, and what a special, awesome place it is in too many ways to count, if you're looking for a great school to go to or to send someone to.)
Tucked into the hills on the east bank of the Mississippi River, Augustana was founded in 1860 by Swedish settlers, and its Scandinavian heritage is keenly felt in every aspect of place, from philosophy to decor. I was raised in an Italian-Catholic family, but my father was a Scandiaphile—he maintained a lifelong interest in Norse legend and culture (our dogs were named Odin and Loki), and his childhood best friend (my godfather) was a Swede, and it was my dad's idea that I go to school at Augustana. I just wanted to go to a small, pretty school in a small town. But people said it was a good school, and when I visited it seemed very nice, and it was very pretty, so off I went. One day, early on, in the bookstore I found a postcard:
Though I had never heard of the artist, I thought it was such a sweet painting, and for years I had Flower Window hanging on my bulletin board. (Years later I realized that if anyone has seen one of Carl Larsson paintings, there's a good chance it's this one!) At Augustana, I wrote my senior thesis on the painters Arthur Rackham and John William Waterhouse, and in that I explored how the domestic details—the calicos and cups and saucers—in those artists' paintings contributed to the realism part of the magical-realism they evoke. I was always interested in this notion. I need to look for that paper and see if I still have it. It was a year-long research project that I really loved writing.
There was a big bay window filled with geraniums at the south end of the hall on the first floor of Old Main, and that's where the English Department was. I worked as a student assistant for all four of my years there. I loved the department secretary, Joan Robinson, light as a bird, full of nervous, flitting energy and a million belly laughs. She had been there for many years, and was older than my own mother, but we hit it off fantastically, and my friendship with her and many of the English department faculty was a huge part of my happiness at school. Grinning, twinkly eyed Dr. Tweet (who looked like a character in one of the folk tales he loved, and who once, when he was cleaning out the garage, gave me the best three-speed bicycle I have ever, ever had) held court most afternoons on the sofa outside the department—he had a huge fan club of students and professors alike—and he tended the ancient geranium collection, and taught me that the plants liked to dry out and then be given a nice, long drink. I see now that he was probably conjuring Larsson's painting. It was always warm there. It was always quiet, and friendly, and filled with laughter, and learning. When I think of some of my happiest times, I think of that bright corner, and those flowers, and those friends, and how my life changed then.
Though the years, and especially now that I am so far from that time and that place, I see that Larsson's paintings have heavily influenced the kind of home I have tried to create—those delicate, clean colors; the many blues and greens, always punctuated by red; the windows; the tiny details that seem to matter; the people and pets given space to linger; the warmth and calm—all those things so vital in Larsson's paintings seem to guide my vision of homemaking.
By his own account, Larsson had an atrocious childhood, filled with poverty, neglect, and hardship. At age 30, he married artist (and skilled needlewoman) Karin Bergoo, and five years later her father gave the couple a small house, Lilla Hyttnas (Little Furnace), in the country. I love this description of how the house came to be the Larssons. Carl and Karin would have eight children of their own, and go on to lovingly design, add on to, and decorate the house for the next several decades, making it one of the best-loved artist's homes in the world. In hundreds of watercolors, Larsson documented the everyday domestic activities of his family and homelife against the backdrop of Lilla Hyttnas, and in those happy images it's clear that the house is both his canvas and his muse. I love this idea—that place, and space, can change your life—and I know it is true for me, as well.
I didn't really realize I was doing it, but when I looked at all of the photos from the shoot, I could see that in some way I'd been channeling, and pulled out my Larsson books to look. Sure enough. I see it, and am pleased. All those influences surface, like watching a photo in the developing tray: I come from places, and people. I see them there.