Fashion designer J. Wesley Tann had a piece of advice for the six women who signed up for his city-sponsored class on home decorating.
“The Dollar Store makes you look so good,” he told them. “You’ll wonder how you ever got along without it.”
Tann, an impeccably dressed octogenarian, has become an etiquette expert and event planner in Newark. He is now showing city residents how to make their homes more beautiful on a budget. The new class aims to bring city beautification indoors with small, inexpensive dashes of flair.
“Money is scarce, and people don’t realize that you can have beautiful things without spending a lot of money,” Tann said.
Money is tight all around — especially for the city of Newark, which in recent years has cut nearly 1,000 employees. The $2,000 required for the decor program comes out of the city’s recreation budget.
“This class offers Newark residents an opportunity to learn how they can create charming interior decorating without spending large amounts of money,” said Tharien Kareem Arnold, the city’s director of neighborhood and recreational services. “They will also learn personal skills and expand their creativity. I commend our Recreation team on developing and maintaining this class.”
Teaching by example
Tann, clad one recent day in a navy blue blazer with gold buttons, stood at the end of a long rectangular table at a recreation center in Newark’s Ironbound section. The six women watched as he pulled out a piece of turquoise fabric.
“How many of you know how to make a round tablecloth?” he asked.
He folded the fabric in a triangle and measured it from the center of the table over the side. He then took a string around the fabric like one would a compass, and said that is where you cut it.
“You thought it was difficult?” he asked his students, who jotted down notes. “Dress it up. It’s your house.”
A table, he said, should always have candles on it, and they’re best purchased at the Dollar Store. Cheap spray paint can dress up anything from a pumpkin to a cheap, peeling lamp. Even a dish filled with candy goes a long way to making a house a home.
Tann interspersed etiquette lessons throughout the class.
Born in North Carolina, he was sent as a teenager to live in Washington, D.C., with a family friend, the late Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and attended the International School of Protocol. Last year, he taught city-sponsored etiquette classes to Newark teenagers and their families, a program city officials hoped would improve their futures.
Setting the table
As he showed the women tips for making cloth napkins out of old materials, he launched into a lesson on how to properly set a table.
“Don’t ever let me see the flatware on the napkin,” he told the group.
“Really?” asked Maria Mirabella.
“It is always good to know how to dine,” Tann said.
The fork goes between the napkin and the left side of the plate, he said. The knife goes slightly underneath the right side of the plate, followed by the spoon. The handle of a coffee cup should always be turned at 4 o’clock.
Pillows are another inexpensive way to add flair, he said, urging the women to buy old pillowcases and sew pieces of fabric or lace onto them. He pulled out a yellow pillow with a white lace applique that he sewed on.
“It’s beautiful,” Diana Vargas of Newark said as she touched the pillow.
“Don’t be shy with pillows,” Tann said. “They’ll make your husbands want to jump in bed even faster.”
Inspired by class
Mirabella said she attended the class because she wants to redecorate her house on a small budget and learn how to make things.
“I’d like to be able to do all the things my mother did and redecorate my home on a shoestring. I’m retired,” she said. “And things are tight right now.”
After watching Tann reupholster a kitchen chair by affixing tightly pulled fabric over it with a staple gun, Mirabella said she was inspired to fix a seat in her vanity.
“And I think I’m going to start doing napkins. I want to start a tablecloth,” she said.
The class planned to take a field trip to a used furniture store to learn how to find items worth saving and repurpose them.
“I want you to open your mind, because you can do so much with so little,” Tann said.