In Defense of Bare Walls

Whitney Carpenter challenges the last step toward adulthood: hanging framed photographs in her home.

Photo by Dave Durden

I like to tell people that I have three framed photographs in my home, but if I’m honest, three is probably a stretch. I do have three photographs in my home, one graduation portrait for each of my sisters. But they’re all in the cardboard envelopes they came in, the kind that are embossed to look like a frame but that inch closed over time, first covering the picture and eventually toppling over.

I actually have nothing hanging on my walls at present, but I know I should do the mature thing; I should buy frames, hammer some nails into the wall, and hang the pictures up. It’s a fitting gesture and timely, too, since I’ve spent the last few years moving various aspects of my life into the “adult” category. I’ve got an adult job now, complete with adult health insurance, and two pairs of clunky, adult-like “professional” shoes. I could probably indulge in a little home décor, but the transition worries me. How do you go from having no framed photographs to having three without being horribly awkward about it?

Where wall décor is concerned, I’m in a stage as awkward as the one immortalized by my own graduation portrait. I was a nervous, slouching teenager, and my yearbook photo is a testament to the terrible things that can happen between a badly cut fringe and a set of aquamarine braces.
Unfortunately, all three of my sisters took portraits that transitioned directly from endearing to gently dated. Sibling snarkiness aside, they’re great photos, dripping with a sincerity that belies the eerie whiteness of their smiles and that unnatural tilt of the chin. They’re definitely the kind that belongs on a wall.

Hard as it is to believe, my trouble hanging these photos has less to do with the vast difference in cringe-worthiness between my graduation picture and those of my sisters, and more to do with a general lack of aesthetic commitment. Blank walls may seem clinical to most folks, but I maintain that my walls are only as blank as my resolutions. It’s one thing to decide that you’re too old and too classy to maintain the ironic faux-décor of the collegiate youth — I don’t keep the cardboard palm tree from my beach party up year-round anymore. But it’s another thing altogether to realize you’re someone who takes themselves seriously enough to hang pictures on the wall, especially professional portraits. In doing that you admit that you’re settled; you’ve ascended to the kind of renting that empowers you to put holes in the walls. And after that, there’s no going back to the carefree days of mixology how-to posters.

Like it or not, when your furniture is a medley of things your mother didn’t want and things your boyfriend couldn’t be persuaded to part with, deciding to add wall décor is a statement. A single framed portrait in a house of otherwise blank walls doesn’t blend or mesh. It’s awkward and shrine-like, a flare calling for improvement. Nailed irresolutely above your battered plaid couch, a framed photo emits an unblinking, critical aura — suddenly the lamp needs replacing and your baseboards look dusty. Once you start it’s instinctive to plow onward, gaining speed and throw pillows at each turn. You’re now a gawky adolescent of the interior design world and there’s nothing to do but grit your teeth, brandish your credit card, and wait it out.

This may seem a little over-thought, but my paranoia isn’t entirely unfounded. I’ve seen havoc wreaked upon the homes of friends who waited until they had something impressive to display — like a ski boat or a baby — to hang a framed photo on the wall. For some of my slovenly pals, a heavy silver frame and sepia wedding portrait bred instant dissatisfaction with their apartments. There’s something unsettling, they tell me, about centering a matted print above a tangle of Xbox wires and someone’s grandpa’s green velvet recliner. For many of these couples, a display of wedding pictures became an epicenter of classiness, leaving destruction in the form of L-shaped microfiber couches and matching dishtowels in its wake. Futons don’t stand a chance against the enhanced sparkles on the rings in professional engagement photos.

It would be easy to excuse my nostalgia as a coming-of-age sort of spasm, but I prefer to think my reluctance is about the transition and not the end result. It’s shallow, I know, but I’m not eager to reenter a stage of awkwardness and groping compromises. I’d prefer, through some miracle of social graces or a credit line at IKEA, to transform overnight into a confident person with busy, homey walls — a person fully worthy of three graduation portraits. And I know that like in all really important transformations of the intermediary stage, when I have some beige microfiber couch but still use beach towels as curtains, it’s bound to be pretty damn ugly. But at least no one wants to take a picture for the yearbook.

Photo by Dave Durden

Whitney Carpenter is a would-be writer who spends her time starting great cubicle conversations with questions like, “Which soda do you think is the classiest?" She blogs the mundane at Little Nearer.