Designer advocates lifetime furnishings for a first home

It doesn't take a lot of money, says California designer John Wheatman, to produce a pleasing, long-living interior that can go on growing and being modified over a lifetime.

"At today's inflated prices, who can afford many $3,000 sofas or purchase whole roomfuls of furniture?" inquires Mr. Wheatman, who sympathizes particularly with young couples and singles struggling to furnish first homes.

He assures these young people, and students in his university extension lecture classes as well, that it is still quite possible to put together rooms of flexible furnishing that will work well today, move on later to different settings in other homes, and go on giving pleasure and satisfaction.

His basic idea is that you begin, with your first home or apartment, to build a neat package of carefully selected, high-quality "separates" to which you will keep adding over the years. He borrowed the concept from the fashion industry, and the same principle applies. You try to buy each new object to go with something you already have. And you save up, he advises, until you can make a purchase of real substance.

"Once you have mustered your courage to buy a really good piece and get it paid for, you forget how much it cost. You simply enjoy it and seldom ever tire of it," he says.

Mr. Wheatman's approach to interior design is one of calculated simplicity. He blends classic contemporary and Oriental forms with the natural, subdued earth tones and textures of the Pacific Northwest. He likes to adapt the Japanese "shibui" concepts by assembling intrinsically good elements with a sense of restraint and balance.

It is not surprising, then, that the basic furnishing "separates" which he often recommends to couples include three tansus (clean-lined Japanese chests made of pine or other soft wood trimmed with black wrought iron), a good box spring and mattress which can be used for both seating and sleeping, a large round angle-iron coffee table with a glass top, an occasional chair, and one lounge chair and ottoman.

One tansu, he says, could be used as an end table to the studio sofa. He would place the other two tansus at right angles to each other in the opposite corner. Tansus, made in Japan around the turn of the century, cost about $400 each in San Francisco today. These storage units, with such a distinct decorative character of their own, could go on being arranged and rearranged in different rooms and homes for years to come, says Mr. Wheatman.

If this interior designer were furnishing his own first apartment today, he says he would probably pay $750 for a rattan chair by Maguire, over $2,000 for the chair and ottoman, and perhaps $800 for the round coffee table. If you are thinking you see no bargains in all of this, he hastily says he expects everything to last 30 or more years.

Mr. Wheatman points out that he and his wife, Mary, are still enjoying many items they bought 28 years ago when they married, including a rattan and suede Maguire chair, wool rugs, and basic upholstered pieces (which they have had recovered a time or two).

"We decided long ago," he says, "that it was far better to have a sense of continuity in our home than a sense of being in vogue. We consider that the soul factor is the constant factor. And we both agree with Hope Foot, a great teacher I had at the University of Washington, who said that an interior wasn't just something you see, but something that you feel intensely. 'You must feel something important,' she said. 'Warmth and love, of course, but also you must also feel the smoothness of crafted woods and polished stones and ceramic glazes , and the rough textures of antique bronzes, and woven textiles, and timbered walls.'"

Mr. Wheatman says that, to him, the challenge of decorating to is make a little say a lot. "It's not what you have but what you do with what you have that counts," he says. He likes particularly to spotlight one beautiful object, such as a handmade wooden bowl made by a California craftsman.

In a house otherwise carpeted with all wool (he advocates wool above all over fibers), he brings a note of contrast by covering one room with natural sisal. He rarely uses more than a woven wood shade on the windows that he decorates, and he tells young couples to make their own sofa and floor cushions by buying double, queen size, and king size pillow casings and stuffing and covering an assortment for them themselves.

He also shows them how the right background color on the walls can make a room look half furnished, while possessions are stil sparse. The rich dark purplish brown, with white woodwork, applied to his last San Francisco "showhouse" room, proved his point. A very large painting will also help make a thinly furnished room look complete, he says, and a large framed poster can have the same effect. He prefers a frugal, though not austere, look to a plush, overfurnished one. Mr. Wheatman is a partner in Cole-Wheatman Interior Designers Inc. of San Francisco.

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