“We wanted no separation between our art and family existence,” she explained, “one flows right into the other.” They credit Bauhaus modernism and dual artist marriages, like Josef and Anni Albers, as inspiration. At the same time, Mr. Cheng admires the power of Instagram and the many skilled nonprofessional hobbyists who now post inspirational tableaus for their followers. “People have really started composing some beautiful photos,” he said. “I think it shows taste can absolutely evolve. But you have to be open to it.”
Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of the couple’s quality instinct is invisible: their patience. Tastemakers never rush to find accessories and fill walls. Today, the pair’s art hangs throughout; their Knoll and Paul McCobb furniture is gracefully mismatched. But it wasn’t always this way. The couple’s creative lifestyle can be deceptive, as each room collapses years of self-restraint into a single moment. “These objects came into place very slowly,” said Ms. Schmidt, describing their design journey. “We didn’t have a lot of money when we moved in. We just had white walls, art, books, and a kid’s table in the kitchen.”
In the experience of Noah Riley, an architect in Los Angeles, people too often equate quality with ideas of flawlessness. He’s known for residences that are California cool — as though Richard Neutra’s famous Case Study houses got a warm 21st century makeover. But too much of the same, Mr. Riley said, is boring. While every detail matters to him and his wife, Juliette Cohen, a writer, the couple isn’t afraid to range widely in their West Hollywood home.
And the result reflects their individual tastes — complementary, Mr. Riley explained, but not fully aligned. Both he and Ms. Cohen brought objects into their space that convey their personal aesthetics, joint decision-making and history, in reminding them of their parents. Taken together, their approach is a studied blend of past and present, which manages to feel spare and full at once.
There is the charismatic brass Gubi light over their dining table (selected together); the little resin sculpture, “Couch Surfing and Insomnia,” by Rosha Yaghmai (near the sofa of course); a pair of Gary Simmons boxing gloves (titled “Everforward”) from Ms. Cohen’s family’s art collection; the vintage corkscrew found by his architect father at a New England flea market, that looks Mr. Riley said, “like it opened a couple of thousand bottles over the last century.”
The couple also illustrate that a collection of only store-bought objects — no matter how thoughtfully selected — lacks something: good taste should be personalized. For example, one of Mr. Riley’s prized possessions is a wedding gift from his wife, a simple painting that she made of black numerals, on white paper that faces their bed. It is the longitude and latitude of their engagement location — reminiscent, to him, of an On Kawara painting.
Mr. Riley also built their plywood furniture throughout, “making small spaces feel and function like much bigger rooms,” he said. Ms. Cohen described the black and white patterned throw pillows in their kitchen, inspired by her first trip to the Rose Bowl Flea Market and how she stumbled upon the fabric vendors. “I became obsessed with the idea of making pillows for our house,” said Ms. Cohen, “never mind the fact that I had technically never used my sewing machine before.” The pillows were her first finished product with it.
Justin Norman is paradigmatic of the ideas in “The Quality Instinct,” that someone who has never spent any time around Whitney caliber art can teach himself to see like a museum director.
At 19, Mr. Norman left the home of the family that adopted him at 8 after social workers removed him and his five siblings from their biological parents. He got work as a bartender but dreamed of opening a skate shop, because skateboarding was his obsession. When he was 22, Larry Ryalls, the father of a high school friend (and now business partner, Eric Ryalls), requested help listing some of his furniture collection on eBay. Mr. Norman said he was “instantly obsessed with the midcentury pieces,” especially the iconic Mad Men chairs he’d never encountered in real life. The molded plywood of an Eames chair, he said, reminded him of skateboards.