Finding Aesthetic Meaning in the Mundane:

Senior Citizens Reflect on their Decisions Regarding

Draperies and Displays


Mary Stokrocki

“As you look up at the . . .[curtained windows with the colorful bottles and hanging plants], you can't help wondering about the people who live there” (Xingjian, 2000, p. 17).

Dedicated to my dad, Walter Stokrocki, who passed away June 1, 2010


Dad was in a Wheelchair the last years of his life and this was his Window View out to the World Outside

People need views of nature and art to counteract barren house walls to stabilize depth perception and mental health. A window view of the natural environment is preferable, and people select and decorate their windows to make them “something special.” This semiotic study focuses on what and why senior citizen neighbors select to decorate their windows and then seeks to determine meaning in these mundane domestic forms. Sheer and café style curtains were the most popular because they were easy to hang and maintain and they allowed some privacy with a view of the greenery outdoors. Gender differences were noted with women mostly making decisions about window treatments. Bottles were the most interesting displays when I elicited responses from the participants that I interviewed. I showed them my photo collection before I left. They reacted to the colors and how the window framed the scenery outside. Finally, photographing window treatments/displays as still life made the ordinary things/views, extraordinary and enabled people to reflect on the humble artful things in a different way. Afterwards, the draperies seemed less important and the entire still life or genre scene, an artwork that depicted a household scene, became inspirational for further discussion. The human eye is an incredible organ that needs diversion to make living worthwhile and people may need to share their interests and views to make life less lonely.

When was this study conducted?
My interest in window treatments started the summer of 2007 when I was helping my dad recover from a stroke. My sister and I moved him to a first floor apartment and he needed some kind of curtain, which my sister correctly referred to as window treatment. In the past, I was not particularly interested in such paraphernalia and my 87-year-old dad couldn't care less, except for privacy. Later, I asked my dad again how he liked his curtains. He complained, “Why do you ask me all the time if I like it? I can see outside [at the top] and that is what's important.”

My sister sent me out looking for sheers and a compression rod. I didn't have any experience with these things and I didn't like the ones I found and returned them. She then suggested looking for café curtains that cover half the window and finally bought the Tab Top Window Tier r[® by Othello that was made of natural materials and woven like an accordion hanging. They were suspended with ties and connected with buttons to the hanging fabric made of 90% straw, 10% cotton border & ties from (Excel Home Fashions Inc., 295 Fifth Ave, New York 10016 but made in India and purchased at JC Penny's. When installed, they actually looked great! When sunlight hit the material, it glowed and the plants also turned a vibrant green that repeated in the tree branches outside the window (FIGURE 1).

Why Are Window Treatments Important?
Window treatments and displays are part of our vernacular culture. Erickson (1976) described visual expressions, such as personalized _mailboxes, garden sculptures, and window decorations, installed in _and around homes in Eastern Pennsylvania. She found holiday window _decorations were common and reported an interview with a woman whose _seasonal decoration process involved changing drapes according to _holidays, for example, red drapes for Valentines Day and green drapes _for St. Patrick's Day.

More specifically, people developed dividers, partitions, and screens of various kinds to maintain privacy from the outside world in their homes. They perfected the transparent glass window to keep the air [cold, hot, windy, dusty, etc.] outside, to let light and air enter, and to permit a view of outdoor scenery. Today window treatments and patents range from: no-sew, and pressure rods [no screw rods], customized and preformed, multipurpose valance assembly, varieties of daylight control, artificial illumination, and sun glare (Kaluza, 2007) Curtain styles range from swag, French, shear, or café-sized. Other stylistic possibilities include the rope-and-pulley as well as the earlier-manually slid versions. Considerations also entail blinds, shutters, screens, tinted films, and other means of blocking light.

As a form of mental health stabilizer, a window view of natural environment is preferable (Frumkin, 2001), as opposed to no window view at all, or to a window view that is not of a natural environment?]. In order to enhance the virtues of windows, people have sought to dress them in various ways with diverse décor. From 1870-1920, Women preferred _______ Wall and Window Treatments (Gordon & McArthur, 1986). The dominant weather, major region of the country, and leading economic class affect preferences. Nowadays people seem to prefer more light depending on the area of the country with no coverings. What are the current preferences among senior citizens? How and why have tastes changed in window treatments in comparison with however it is that senior citizens currently prefer to dress their windows?

Why this Context?
During the summer of 2007, I helped my dad who was recuperating from a stroke. While I was living with him in his small apartment for two months, I gained an appreciation for the life-world of a shut-in and how important a window with a view of nature is for these people.
The observed context is SS Apartments in Poughkeepsie, New York . St. Simeon's provides decent, respectable, pleasant, well-maintained, and affordable housing for people of moderate means who are 62 or over. St. Simeon Second Mile Corporation is a privately owned non-denominational, not-for-profit housing company. The organization consists of 100 units of section 236 housing. SS1) opened in 1972, has 100 apartments, 7 buildings and is managed under the direction of the New York State Division of Housing & Community Renewal. I focused on complex St. Simeon Second Mile complex, which has 18 apartments, both studio and one-bedroom (Nubian Directions II, Inc., 2003). I interviewed 10 tenants, seven women and three men, for eight weeks in the summer of 2007 who were my dad's neighbors in the same complex at St. Simeon Second Mile. I got to know these wonderful people who helped me survive as a lonely caretaker. So I want to honor them.

My dad and mom moved here when dad retired in 1982, 25 years ago. Now he lives alone since my mother died five years ago. His building is a two-story red brick complex and he has a one bedroom apartment. We moved him from the second floor to the first one after he had a stroke. He now mainly uses a wheel chair and walker, and no longer drives. His complex had regulation shades, but the newer buildings use Venetian blinds.

During the next 8 weeks that I spent as the Home Care Nurse/Companion for my dad, I would rise every morning at 7:00 and go for an hour walk before he would rise. This was my escape and sanity. I slept on the coach and looked out this window as my main window to the outside world. Outside were several Beachwood trees and the “green” color motif was connected to t he plants in front of the curtains. My dad always loved looking out the windows to see nature that consists of plenty of green trees, squirrels, and deer.

What Questions Did you Ask? When I was caring for my father, I would go for a long morning walk through the community complex before my dad arose. I mostly saw the window treatments and occasionally knickknack on windowsills. I wondered about the people who lived there. Eventually, I met many of the neighbors and started to ask them for advice about the window treatments that I had to put up for my dad and information about other helping my dad. Finally it dawned on me to actually study the window treatments and displays to see how people “lived with them.”
The questions were wonderful icebreakers, .as we learned from each other. Questions that I initially asked were: What kind of window treatment did you use? Why? What did you display in your window? Why? What kind of art is this? Why talk about these everyday art forms? Some emerging questions were: What style was your drapery? What type of lace did you select?


This semiotic study focuses on what and why senior citizen neighbors select to decorate their windows and then seeks to determine meaning in these mundane domestic forms. I mainly described my observations, photographs of windows in 18 apartments and interviewed neighbors. The first time was very informal, the second time was to obtain permission and to clarify their answers, and the third time I sent them copies of the study for their responses. Not every did, but their opinions were very enlightening for me. Whereas this is not a scientific study, the descriptive elements go beyond “boring” parts to the “heart of the matter.” They questionnaires serve as “icebreaker,” contributes to emerging questions, and opens windows into people's lives.


Quantitative quick appraisal seems cursory and mundane, but follow-up interviews of participants revealed meaningful semiotic decisions.

What kind of window treatment did you use? Why? Window treatment results ranged from the most popular: sheers (8/18, 50%), to café curtains (4/18, 22%), to empty windows (4/18, 22%). Interviews initially revealed that these draperies were easy to hang and maintain. Searching by components (swag, valance & tier, panels, café, or scarf, I discovered that sheer panels were dominant because they required a single curtain rod at the window top. Next café curtains had a simple tab top mounted with a pressure rod, such as the woven one that hung in my father's living room window. They allowed for privacy with a view of the greenery outdoors. Several people matched window treatments in both living room and bedroom because this practice was an economical savings. Windows on the second floor usually had no coverage other than a valence. Some people don't fuss over anything special in their windows. My findings tend to be more of a feminine appraisal since women most of the decisions.

What style was your drapery? What type of lace did you select? After learning about the different styles of lace curtains, I asked participants what décor they used (country, Victorian, cottage, contemporary, reproduction, traditional, theme, or holiday. Commercial thematic favorites were shore, mountain or garden; but neighbors did not use this category. Summertime seems to draw out the simplest style. Participants were not aware of these options and seemed to prefer the contemporary minimal look. When asked what type of lace (Scottish, ring, string/fringe, sheers, embroidered, or crush), preference for sheers [plain translucent) style was prevalent. For the women who used lace curtains couldn't distinguish the type of lace beyond some kind of “embroidered look.” For example, MP's butterfly pattern and KO's voile embroidered sheers.

What material was the fabric? Since it was summertime, curtain materials tended to be lightweight cotton or synthetic. I later learned that the term “voile” means a lightweight, translucent fabric. Different varieties were twist, crinkled, crushed, and jaguard, scarf valence. No one responded to any of these categories. The dominant material was sheer. One shop on eBay boosted that its long drop, voile curtains were bestsellers (Karens Curtains, 2006).

What do you display in your windows? Why?
People displayed a great variety of objects in their windows. I noted four bottle arrangements, several nostalgia items, and various religious protections. One lady valued a glass cardinal, bird sun-catcher. She reminisced, “My sister collects them and now I have her collection in her memory. CM displayed such knickknacks as a plant in a vase, a Classic Keepsake® photo transfer picture of her grandchildren when younger, and a silkscreen logo of the musical group DEF Leppard. JD's windows featured her son's beer steins: a cowboy chuck wagon, an airplane mug depicting the Wright Brothers flight from Dayton, Ohio, and a German mug of a man playing a musical instrument. The beer steins all commemorated some of important events in his life for her to share [FIGURE ).
Bottles were favorite repeated objects in three windows. Usually bottles signify a fondness for certain kinds of beverages, as they are apt to in college dormitories and behind tavern counters. Some are commercially produced beverage bottles, with or without labels, or vessels that are sold without contents to serve as decorations or vases. These bottle arrangements revealed interest in the bottles' formal qualities, mostly color, as opposed to associations with liquids. RS explained how he needed color in his room, so he copied someone else's idea about putting glass bottles in my windows. “I found three colorful, tall, different-shaped bottles in the dollar store and loved how the sun hit them and the green trees surrounded them,” he recalled (FIGURE ). He pointed out how he “picked up the color accents [red and green] in the rug. One bottle had pin stripes running through it.”
Religious objects for protection were frequent. I noted several items: statues, crosses, angels, and candles. One elaborate arrangement featured statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and St. Joseph from the back view and candles on the side {Figure ). Since the 90-year-old neighbor was asleep, her daughter noted, “Mom values these images as protection and devotion.” Indeed, the angel hangings seem to bring joy in the window. “Even my small stained glass window emits multicolored light that enlivens my soul,” reflected another participant.

Pop culture objects on display included media items (smiley face, Betty Boop dolls), nostalgia (home-sweet-home hanging of stiffened Heritage® lace accents), nature themes (birds, cats, and butterflies), and patriotic (U.S. flags) and gender (gay-rights) flags. The most interesting collection was Mary's Betty Boop dolls. She showed me her favorite example, which she called “Jazzy” [Betty Boop]. She told me, “Look at the details, such as the fine painted lines in her [thigh-high] stockings and top hat.” “Even my granddaughters send them to me.” She showed me her entire collection; notably a bookshelf of dolls, cookie jar, glass slipper with candles inside, and even shower curtain. She exclaimed, “All these things make me feel good!”

After I showed participants my photos, they unanimously reacted to the colors, and how the window framed the scenery outside. Afterwards, the draperies seemed not important any more and the entire still life or window genre scene became inspirational for further discussion. Director Alice reminded me, “Your parents always surrounded the window with greenery-several beautiful plants that I never forgot.” Without the greenery, the window treatments and displays seemed empty.

When wondering about the kind of people (older senior citizens, who live in SS's, I discovered that they were 70/80- years-old, mostly women, lonely and bored, at least in the observed section. However, if art is “making something special,” according to Dissanayake (1988), then most of these neighbors have succeeded in making some artful decisions and collections of window décor.

Simple preferences. Preferences for window treatments tended to be functional and conservative and with some displayed keepsakes. Drapery preferences were white in color, translucent, simple and patterned, washable no-iron curtains. In this case, the material tended to be synthetic. Neighbors tended to prefer these paneled sheers for that “light and airy” look. One shop on eBay boasted that the long, drop; voile curtains were bestsellers (Karens Curtains, 2006).

Window to the spiritual. I sent this article to the participating adults and most respondents acknowledged the need for privacy, but they needed the view of nature--“the greenery” as one person noted. Another person commented, “I use simple shades because the scenery is so beautiful!” A third person added, “I need the green to feed my soul,” stated another person. For many, the color green is means hope and rebirth and white is a symbol of purity. Window treatment choices went beyond perceptual pleasures and verged on a spiritual plane because the colors and fabrics “lifted peoples' spirits,” reflected one woman.
Gender differences. More women then men made decisions about window treatments. “Women of this generation who were mostly housewives by occupation usually made decisions regarding the home décor,” commented one of the ladies. She further informed me, “I'm not the domestic type who cares about these matters. I was a worker with two jobs for 30 years. I had two jobs and had no time to fuss with such things.” Unfortunately not many men live here and those that do are more independent, reticent, and hard to find [like my father and my uncle]. They are not interested in such decisions and allow their female caretakers to dress their windows or put up the bare minimum-plain white shears. In isolated areas people even may prefer no window treatments at all to ensure the natural environment continuity into the house. Protection was a major theme, both physical privacy, from the cold or too much light. On the other hand, invitation of nature and people was an opposite feature to deal with. My father said later that he liked the woven curtain fabric because it was more interesting and liked the photograph colors immensely, “Wow, is that something!”

How did my research affect participants? In the afternoons when my dad took a nap, I would walk outside to talk to my neighbors and listen. Participant neighbors were always so compassionate and asked how my dad was because they knew him in passing for many years. Many ladies were so incredibly bored they told me that they welcomed a friendly question. In fact, one neighbor asked me to sit down one day and talk to her outside because “no one would” and she was “so lonely.” Others were fascinated about what I was doing. We all learned about the different aesthetic categories available and peoples' diverse decisions. Responses may not be incredibly profound, but the task offered all participants “a fresh outlook” on mundane items that have artful implications.

Ask detailed questions. Perhaps I should have asked more detailed questions, about such things as the drapery pleats (tailored, pinch, inverted, goblet, other) or about valence types. Since I was unaware of this information at the time, and no one suggested that such distinctions were important to them, I felt that the importance of such issues might be important only to an audience with a higher income, relevant for the luxury-minded person, and not relevant in this context.

Why should art educators care? First, art classrooms need flexible window treatments to admit/close light and keep cold out. Art teachers may need to order systems to regulate these basic needs. Since contemporary art education serves ages ranging from the womb to the tomb, and classroom walls have opened to include online classes at home, people need views of nature to counteract barren walls, and to stabilize depth perception. Finally, photographing window treatments/displays as still life makes the mundane things/views, extraordinary and enables people to reflect on humble, artful things in a different way. After completing my study, draperies seem less important than the entire still life or genre scene as a whole, an artwork that depicts a household scene- became fodder for further discussion. The human eye is an incredible organ that needs stimulation to increase our understanding that living is worthwhile, and people need to use such means to share their interests and views to make life less lonely. As American sculptor Hirim Powers s(1805-83) said, “The eye is a window into the soul.” [See]. Mundane objects become less mundane and more meaningful when people share their aesthetic decisions. Without the greenery, however, a window treatment can be drained of the power it otherwise has to renew our spirits.

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*** Special Thank you to Alice Scileppi-Douglas, Deputy Director; ST. SIMEON Properties 700 Second Mile Dr; Poughkeepsie New York, 12601