‘You’re Better Than That’: Do-It-Yourself Decorating Tips

Jeffrey Bilhuber’s Design Basics, by Jeffrey Bilhuber with Annette Tapert. Rizzoli, 208 pp., $39.95

I’ve just spent three hours re-arranging the wall-to-wall bookcase in my dining room, bringing the spines of all the books into alignment with the edges of the shelves. This strange maneuver-which involved ditching many yellowed photos of our long-dead Springer spaniel-was prompted by advice in a new book, Jeffrey Bilhuber’s Design Basics . In Mr. Bilhuber’s view, clearing away my tchotchkes and lining up my books would establish “a clear, clean, and edited straight line that brings an instant sense of order”-and damned if he wasn’t right.

Jeffrey Bilhuber, for those unfamiliar with interior design, is at the top of the decorating heap these days, mentioned in the same breath as icons like Billy Baldwin and Albert Hadley by no less a person than Vogue editor Anna Wintour. He’s the avatar of something called American Modernism, a style considered-at least in the design world-to be simple, clean and unpretentious. (Adjectives such as “simple” and “clean” are relative, of course; the gorgeous rooms pictured in this lavishly illustrated book are decorated to the max and-to the undiscerning eye of this average Manhattanite-bear the unmistakable imprint of gay guys with incredible taste.)

The thesis of Mr. Bilhuber’s book is simple. “Dear reader,” he says, “anyone can understand and use the concepts of great design.” A lovely idea, all right, but it initially struck me as naïve-like thinking that anyone can be model-thin or grow up to be President. After all, haven’t advances in genetics confirmed that a lot of what we can and can’t be is hard-wired? And Lord knows recent events have shown that some people get to be President largely because their fathers were. As far as I can see, our body types, our taste in area rugs and our foreign policy all bear sad witness to the unevenness of life’s playing field; to believe otherwise is just to ask for trouble.

Yet Jeffrey Bilhuber, God love him, remains an optimist. And amazingly enough, reading his book will almost make you believe him. In chapter after chapter, he exhorts us to trust our instincts: “We’re all capable of making the perfect flower arrangement,” he says, busily explaining exactly where to cut the stems of roses and what sort of vase to use. He bucks us up even while warning us not to put “predictable and boring” paired candlesticks at each end of the mantel: “You’re better than that.”

In the course of bolstering our self-esteem, Mr. Bilhuber provides relatively practical advice for spiffing up even the dreariest digs. Use grass cloth or textured wallpaper in the living room, and then you won’t have to bother patching holes when you move the pictures around. Install wide baseboards to draw the eye down if you want your ceilings to look higher. Don’t try to judge paint from a chip; buy small cans of several shades and cover sheets of poster board with each shade. Only when they’ve been propped against the wall for a couple of days can you begin to think about making an informed decision.

Even if you’re not redecorating, Mr. Bilhuber is a lot of fun to read, as opinionated and sharp-tongued as a decorator on a reality-TV show. (According to a profile in The New York Times , an erstwhile associate is one of the Queer Eye stars.) Loose slipcovers, Mr. Bilhuber feels, have “the allure of a pajama party in a nursing home.” Eclecticism stinks: “Why don’t we just go home and put all of our furniture and objects in a Cuisinart, give it a good chop and whirl, and call it good design?” he snaps. And blowing the decorating budget on custom cabinets, Wolf ranges and Sub-Zero refrigerators is so haute bourgeois and dull. If you must freshen that utilitarian room, buy a can of paint and get some new drawer pulls at Gracious Home. Or choose the glossier option: “Why not just go out to dinner, for God’s sake?”

Of course, the dirty little secret of this elegant book is that advice on a printed page can take you only so far. Really beautiful rooms take shape only with hands-on attention from somebody like Mr. Bilhuber-and from what I can gather, that’s not going to happen to you or me. Why would he bother with the likes of us, after all, when Anna Wintour and W editor Patrick McCarthy are clamoring for his attention? Even if we got past the receptionist, we couldn’t afford him. Though Mr. Bilhuber is discreet about the dollar value of his services, he does allude to clients “shelling out regular checks in the $5,000 to $25,000 range” in the course of redecorating. Other clues to the nature of his preferred clientele lie in throwaway sentences: At one point, he concedes that “perhaps you don’t need seating for twelve in the dining room.” And it’s probably no accident that Mr. Bilhuber’s publicity tour will take him to Bergdorf Goodman, Christie’s and Neiman Marcus instead of Borders and Home Depot.

Mr. Bilhuber is so eager to help us that he ignores the flaws in the be-your-own-decorator reasoning, but it emerges unbidden when he describes the decorator-client relationship. “A good design professional seeks to sketch a portrait of the client’s life that is cohesive and coherent,” he says, adding that “learning to be a designer is learning about yourself.” But isn’t that the problem? Most people’s lives are fragmented and incoherent, so even with all the optimism in the world, how can we create spaces that aren’t? What if I know enough about myself to know that I have no clue what goes with what and no particular aptitude for figuring it out? Does that mean I can’t have a living room as pretty as the ones in Mr. Bilhuber’s book?

Probably, dear reader. But you and I can follow some of his advice, like turning the TV off and the music on, or putting flowers on the bedside table even if we’re not expecting company. And it’s funny, but I find the edited straight line of my bookshelves remarkably soothing, all by itself.

JoAnn Gutin is a science writer and editor in New York.