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Don't touch Soaps, towels, candles - if you own things you never plan to use, you're not alone

By Julie Kirkwood, Staff Writer, Eagle-Tribune, January 21, 2007


See if this sounds like your household.

Renee Deal of Boxford goes to Yellowstone National Park and brings home a bar of soap shaped like a bear. She doesn't think much about it. The soap, clearly, is a souvenir.

Then one day she sees her husband lathering up the bear to wash his hands. She is shocked.

"I said, 'Why did you use the soap?'" Deal recalls. "He said, 'Because that's what soap's for.'"

It's a tension at the heart of many American relationships. One person clearly sees the difference between a pillow meant for sleeping and a pillow tucked inside a decorative, frilly sham. The other can't understand why you would hang a little towel in the bathroom if you're not supposed to wipe your hands on it.

Whether it's candles that aren't meant to be lighted, wine bottles for display only or decorative soaps, most people have at least one usable item in their house that is off-limits because it's a decoration.

Whether that makes sense or not depends on who you ask.

"If you could use it but don't, that's OK," said Barbara Reichter of Andover Interior Design. "There are probably a lot of things that we have around that are of that nature."

In the homes she decorates, especially the ones she stages for sale, decorative candles and soaps are just the beginning. She once set up a bottle of champagne and two glasses near the tub in a bathroom, and she has seen designers use elegant cosmetics or perfume bottles for bathroom dÉcor. And in model homes, she sometimes puts out gold-wrapped candy for a little gold accent.

"It's not meant to be eaten," Reichter said. "It's just there for effect."

The purpose of all this stuff is not to confuse or tease your guests, said Carolyn Lafferty, an interior designer with Images of Home Interior Redesign in Haverhill, who has been known to decorate with a fake fireplace, faux lemons and countless artificial plants. The purpose is to create a sense of comfort.

"If you walk into a room and there is no greenery or there is no focal point, you might not feel comfortable in it," Lafferty said. "You might not know why, but those are probably the reasons."

People set out these seemingly useful items for display for the same reason people clean when guests come over, she said - to create an illusion.

"If they're having their party and they're having a few people over, they're going to go around and give the illusion that maybe they live a cleaner life, maybe a more organized life," Lafferty said.

If that aspiration sounds as artificial as a craft-store palm tree, think about what you learn about a person by walking into their home.

"We enjoy surrounding ourselves with artifacts of our life's journey," said Lisa Bonneville, a fellow in the American Society of Interior Designers and vice chairwoman of Boston Architectural College's trustees. "They embellish our environments in ways that are pleasing to us. Maybe a shape, a color, a texture even, a theme or topic, they might represent a memory or even a tradition. What that says about us, it sort of reinforces a complete definition we have about ourselves."

Some people like the company of decorative objects, while others don't.

"In a house, people have the opportunity for much more personal expression," Bonneville said. "There's just much greater opportunity there."

Perhaps you display your great-grandmother's antique bureau or an old nonfunctioning grandfather clock because it's a family treasure, she said. These items are worth displaying because they mean something, even if you don't use them.

On the other end of the spectrum, people sometimes install state-of-the art kitchens in their houses that are essentially for show, Bonneville said.

"The homeowner may not cook, but it has a lot to say about the level of finish in their house," she said. "Also, I have clients who do this for resale value, because ... the room needed to be remodeled and of course, it had to meet the level of style of the rest of the house."

Although there's nothing wrong with this, Bonneville said, she also believes there's a case to be made for using those precious items you've been protecting and perhaps even scaling back on unusable decorations.

For one thing, design trends are moving toward a contemporary, minimalist look, Bonneville said.

Reichter agreed.

"The new trend in design is to have less doodads around," she said.

And for those things you're going to keep putting out, sometimes it's more rewarding to use them for their intended purpose rather than to protect them, Bonneville said.

If you have fine linen hand towels, for instance, your guests may not use them knowing how much work it would be for you to clean and iron them, she said. But is that process so bad?

"It endears your possessions to you if you have to care for them," Bonneville said. "If you had a linen hand towel out and you had to wash it because someone used it, that experience (of caring for it) enlarges your whole experience with it, rather than just sticking it back into the drawer until the next person comes over and is afraid to use it."

Sometimes as people get older, they decide to use their fancy china for everyday dining, she said. They figure they've spent enough years worrying about chipping it or breaking it.

"I think it's wonderful to use all your finest things, especially if you enjoy it," Bonneville said. "I think the more we use the things that we love, the closer we are to them."

Renee Deal, protector of the bear-shaped soap, said she's been thinking about that since her friend's house was destroyed in the Danvers explosion. Suddenly, it seemed meaningless to buy pretty notecards and tuck them in a drawer to save until the perfect occasion that never comes.

"It kind of makes you think, what's the point of hanging on to things and just never using them," she said.

The fact that Deal got upset about the bear soap is particularly funny because she's not the kind of person who puts out fancy guest towels or fake dÉcor, she said. She's actually a professional soap maker at Deal Farm Soap Co., who finds it surprising and a little disappointing when customers tell her they use her soaps as decorations only.

"I never thought about the decorative aspect at all," Deal said. "I just heard it on and off through the years, people saying, 'Oh yeah, I bought your soap and I haven't used it yet.' And I said 'Why on Earth not?'"

Don't use that ...

Watering can - Barbara Reichter of Andover Interior Design has an aluminum watering can in a bay window among the potted plants, some of which are real and some artificial.

"I hardly ever use it but it looks like it's there for a reason," she said. "I could use it if I ever want to. It's a nice shape. It's aluminum. It's very functional-looking. It becomes a vignette that way."

Decorative cooking oil - Renee Deal of Deal Farm Soap Co. in Boxford doesn't have much in her house that's not to be used, but one thing she does regret not using is a bottle of olive oil packed with herbs that somebody brought her from Italy.

"It just looked so pretty that I never even opened it," Deal said. She regretted it years later when she found the bottle in a cabinet with an expiration date of 2002.

Wedding china - Interior designer Carolyn Lafferty, like so many others, has fine china that she never uses.

"It stays in my cupboard," she said. "It's not even a China cabinet. It doesn't even show."

What useful items do you display that aren't really meant to be used? Tell us your story at features@eagletribune.com. Copyright © 1999-2006 cnhi, inc.




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