HOME DESIGN : Interior Lives

Reed is Style Editor of The Los Angeles Times Magazine.

For the past ten years, Southern Californians have been obsessively interested in home design. This is not surprising: "style" runs a predictable course. In the teenage years through the twenties, your average person is usually interested in personal adornment--clothes--and by extension, the accoutrements of a successful personal appearance: watches, fancy datebooks, prestigious cars. In the thirties years when a career has been launched, private rather than public values become important. This usually means an attempt at decorating an apartment. Then comes the desire to own (and redecorate) a house--the stage now commanding the attention of the baby boom generation.

No matter at what stage you find it, however, style is expensive, especially home style. Chose the expensive bathroom fixtures and there goes the vacation. The fact that the eight international style books produced by writer Suzanne Slesin and designer Stafford Cliff combine home design with armchair travel may be one reason why they continue to fascinate. Another reason, of course, is that they have what's known in the decorating business as "sigh" quality. These books show beautiful, real life interiors, demonstrating what some decorating magazines have learned and many decorators have not: that a perfectly decorated room, or a room without a sense of the owner, looks cold and forbidding no matter the weave of the fabric or the cost of the chairs.

This year, the duo have brought forth two splendid works--Indian Style, photographed by David Brittain (Clarkson Potter, $45), and Spanish Style, with stylist Daniel Rozensztroch and photographer Gilles de Chabaneix (Clarkson Potter, $45). Both are books about true style--that is, they show a look, not a pricetag.

The cover of "Indian Style" tells the story. It pictures a small, ochre-colored house in the walled city Jaisalmer. Laundry is draped over a second floor balcony and a hasty coat of turquoise paint dribbles down the architectural details. It may be the house of a poor family by our standards, but it is gorgeous. And then some 700 photos peer inside maharajas palaces, Kashmiri houseboats, even painted mud huts in the countryside. One photo simply shows a tall English cupboard unceremoniously topped with cardboard boxes. Perhaps better than in any of their other books, Slesin and Cliff convincingly demonstrate that elegance and sophistication doesn't have anything to do with money, yet the owner of a mansion as well as an apartment rentor will carry away ideas.

Likewise the just-off-the-press "Spanish Style" is a visual tour de force behind closed doors. For the most part, interiors are pin-neat; you can imagine stylist Daniel Rozensztroch working behind the scenes to arrange lemons in compotes and straighten a collection of antique iron keys adorning a kitchen wall. And as they have begun to do in "Indian Style," Slesin and Cliff expand their coverage beyond interiors with a bit of Spanish history and color.

Similar in format to "Spanish Style," Miami Hot & Cool (Clarkson Potter, $35) by Laura Cerwinske and Steven Brooke pokes through a variety of Florida houses from the beach to the everglades. Though smaller in scale than the Slesin-Cliff books--there are 400 photos compared to some 700 in "Indian Style"--"Miami Hot & Cool" is directly revelant to home decor in Southern California. Glancing at the modern beach cottages with their collections of Bauer ware, you almost think you are in Southern California. But then there are memorable places--and important decorating lessons in use of color, for instance--in homes such as a tropical tree house raised high in the palms of the Florida Keys.

If cool minimalism is to your taste, The New Moderns by Jonathan Glancey and Richard Bryant (Crown, $35) is an international survey of new residential architecture. Interiors are constructed to take advantage of light and provide ample open space; there's no Post-Modern fussiness here. Although these interiors are extremely difficult to photograph because their simple and unadorned geometric shapes don't impart the warmth that the residences have in real life, Bryant's photographs manage the task quite well.

Remarkably, Mary Emmerling's passion for the American country look never becomes cloying, making it appealing even to fans of modern minimalism. Her latest tome, Mary Emmerling's American Country Classics (Clarkson Potter, $40) updates American Country, her classic work of ten years ago. Some of these interiors are familiar to readers of decorating magazines--for instance, the Malibu residences of Bruce Dern and Peter Guber's Aspen lodge--but this book is a fine montage of country styles, running the gamut from pure country to Western cowboy.

As though to fill the shelves of newly renovated homes, the season also brings an excellent book on collectibles. Jaya Jaitly and Kamal Sahar's Crafts of Kashmir, Jammu & Ladakh (Abbeville Press, $55) is an intriguing look at a variety of crafts from this richly creative area of India. The jeweled nose rings and silver necklaces almost make me wish that personal adornment--not family habitat--was my own stage of Style.

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