Windows are fascinating holes: They are the eyes, ears, nose and throat of any given room. And window dressings are our rheostats for light, air, sound, smell and visual perception. In the modern world, windows are filled with glass, invented about 3,300 years ago by potters in Mesopotamia, within the area now known as Iraq. For its first few thousand years, glass, in the form of beads, bowls and vessels, was an exclusive commodity that ultimately fell under the control of the Roman Empire, which was busy civilizing the world. Glass wasnt used much as windows until the Middle Ages, when artisans worked with small bits and pieces to create the stained-glass windows of Europes great cathedrals. Primitive polished panes of glass didnt appear until the 17th century, and even then it was a skill closely guarded within secret guilds. Until the industrial revolution, the common man controlled the small holes in his or her space with shutters, woven flaps and animal skins. In the 20th century, the notion of picture windows, combined with central heating, air conditioning and high-tech construction methods, changed the nature of windows forever.
The advent of large glass has brought the outside in, a fourth dimension thats a major player in the aesthetic of any given room. A window can be as satisfying as any work of art, or as entertaining as any large-screen television. Windows define the negative and positive space we exist in, and broaden the emotions of a room far beyond its physical limitations. A studio with one window on the top floor of a Park Labrea tower facing Century City backlit every night by a pastel sunset offers a reality quite different from its counterpart on the second floor overlooking gates, a shrub or two and a courtyard.
Creating a window treatment is not just about decorating, its about function. Consider the cafe curtain, a useful garnish that came about when aging Paris was rebuilt in the 19th century. New stone buildings along the boulevards were constructed with endless ground-floor storefronts featuring huge panes of glass. Voila, there was now a cafe on every corner. These new fishbowls, filled with endless tables and chairs that sprawled out into the streets, were embraced by the bourgeoisie with great passion, and cafe society was born. The cafe curtain, a sheer fabric on a rod that filled only the bottom third of a window, allowed a bit of privacy while affording both patrons and passersby a view of each other -- a simple design that blossomed into a coy and clever social function. A century later, Lucy and Ethel put them in their kitchen windows, and suddenly cafe curtains decorated every home in America.
Whether a window offers a Malibu beachfront panorama of passing dolphins and bimbos, a Hollywood hillside power-view of the Los Angeles basin, or a palm tree outside a 50s dingbat apartment building, the responsibility of any window treatment is to comfortably frame its vision. To successfully address a window treatment, we can use the same philosophy that Europeans use to dress themselves: layers. With the right combination of shades, blinds, curtains, drapes and shutters, one can provide an environment with enough special effects to rival any adventure, musical comedy, two-hankie weepie or film noir one might want to live in.
I work at home in an open-plan office that extends into my living room. To the right of my desk is an old-fashioned wooden double-hung window of eastern exposure looking out onto my neighbors driveway, which has been transformed into a constantly flowering jungle. The view is breathtaking, the only problem being the intense morning rays that shine into my dual computer screens. I erased the glare with a simple set of floor-length black sheers framed by a valance and swags of shirred, cream-colored leather. The always-closed translucent curtains are a terrific trick. They block the sun beautifully, afford total privacy and allow a perfect view of my neighbors blooms.
Sometimes the best window treatment is no treatment at all. The opposite wall of my living room had a matching double-hung window that I refilled with a cheap pair of multipaned hinged flea-market windows that open out into my own garden. I beefed up the molding, added a deep shelf to the windowsill and gave all the woodwork three layers of tomato-colored paint. I see nothing but 12-foot walls of bougainvillea and the lazy speckled rays of sunset. A tour of the bedroom offers an entirely different scenario. Its here that I use my favorite window treatment -- very wide wooden Venetian blinds, which are simple, versatile, and available in wood finishes or solid colors. Venetians muffle sound, block out all light, and nothing is sexier in the morning than a sleepyeyed, half-naked body bathed in stippled, striped light. For extra drama and height, the blinds are topped by pelmits, a British term for shaped wooden valances. Mine are covered with moire vinyl applied with contact cement.
A few pointers to consider: When figuring out how many panels of fabric you need, use four times the window width, especially with sheers or lightweights, otherwise it looks skimpy. An empty, hard-edged room can easily be softened up by letting curtains gather and drape onto the floor about a foot -- its very Hollywood. Dont be afraid of stripes: Verticals can make a short room taller, and horizontals a narrow room wider. All fabrics should be well-weighted at the bottom to draw elegantly and hang well. Find some weighting tape (its a strip of fabric with tiny lead beads sewn in) and slip it into the hem.
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And dont forget about roller shades. Mesh shades come in a huge variety of porosities, and like most window treatments these days, can be hand-drawn, motorized or remote controlled. Black or gray mesh roller shades kill the glare and keep your indoor colors fresh. White shades reflect more light back out, but you cant see a damn thing through them. You get no light and a lot of mood with accordion black-out shades -- especially when theyre wider than the window, hung from ceiling to floor.
The possibilities are endless. Smoke a joint, have a cocktail. Do whatever it takes to understand your windows and treat your windows well. As for you descendents of Mesopotamia (and George H.W. Bush), make glass, not war.
IKEA is currently the best place to mix and match curtains, drapes, sheers, rods, finials, tie-backs, etc. without having to hock the family jewels; to learn more about shades, call Jack at Aero Shades, 8404 West Third St., L.A., (323) 655-2411, or try Home Depot.