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Open thread: Do you suffer retro project “monomania” too?

amber-shellacA pause to discuss my sometimes bothersome journeys down a rabbit hole that I will call retro research monomania. And to politely inquire, if you don’t mind sharing: Do you suffer this occasional obsession, too, as you try to get a retro design project done?

Right up front, I want to underscore that this is a serious post, no a ha ha I am making fun of myself post. I am not making fun, at all, of manias of any nature and especially, of a more serious nature. For example, I already know that I have perfectionistic, obsession-compulsion type tendencies that I need to manage to live in a well-balanced way. In one sense, these combinations of qualities have helps make me a pretty-able restorer of my midcentury home, as I can search search search search, intensely and tenaciously, for the just-right solution to whatever I’m looking for. The whole situation also has led to this website: I transformed my researching intensity into something positive — by sharing out what I find.

All that said: There are times when my brain becomes absolutely consumed with learning about a new topic… or hunting down particular products… that, well… I know that any strength, when taken too far, can become a weakness.

I came across the word ‘hypomania’ in something I read, and at first, I thought that’s how I’d describe my retro-research-obsession-tendencies. But then, I kept going and found the ‘monomania’ instead. 

Wikipedia defines monomania as:

  • In 19th-century psychiatry, monomania (from Greek monos, one, and mania, meaning “madness” or “frenzy”) was a form of partial insanity conceived as single pathological preoccupation in an otherwise sound mind … and
  • Honoré de Balzac describes monomania in Eugénie Grandet:

    As if to illustrate an observation which applies equally to misers, ambitious men, and others whose lives are controlled by any dominant idea, his affections had fastened upon one special symbol of his passion. The sight of gold, the possession of gold, had become a monomania.

Yes, I’ll go out on a limb and say I have “an otherwise sound mind.” But, that when I get goin’, my brain can get Gorilla-glued to a single topic/project/interest. I dive in. Deep. I devour. For how long? Days, or even weeks, until I get my answer — or until, I’m flat-out brain-tired.

Then, there’s a recharge period. Often, it’s months. If I’ve just done a big project, I’m like: NO MORE for a while, everything in this house is FINE as it is! 

But eventually, some absolutely tantalizing topic or idea gets my attention again, and I dive back in. 

tapa clothAt this moment, I am fairly monomaniacally-possessed about pulling together all the details for my Mahalo Lounge. I have collected some 100 fabric samples to decide upholstery for the sectional. My eyeballs have just about bugged out looking — online and then, via samples sent to me — at oranges, greens and animal prints — in weaves, chenilles and velvets — from various manufacturers daily for … what? … four weeks? Stories to come: Which should I choose?

Now that the pile of upholstery samples is in place and awaiting a final decision, I am beginning to switch my superpowered attention to searching craigslist and ebay and etsy for — what? — two hours? — every day looking for vintage bars and bar stools. This includes: where do I really want to put the bar; based on that, what design do I want; how about the stools; what color to go with the drapes and sectional.

I design ‘in layers.’ One decision gets made — then I move to the next. Still to come: Carpet or area rugs for the room; the decision on just how we’ll faux bois all the woodwork in the two rooms; choosing lauhala mat for the ceilings; get stuff up on the walls; the lighting plan. The lighting plan! That is going. to. vex. me. the. most. I am feeling maniacal — and a bit weary — just writing this list. 

vintage dollhouse christmas
Three of my occasional monomanias in one photo from Kate: Dollhouses, 1:12 dolls, and vintage Christmas ornaments. Way to go, doodle!

At other times since you’ve known me, I’ve also been monomaniacal about:

  • Vintage Christmas ornaments (for wreaths)
  • Vintage dollhouses and dollhouse furniture
  • Vintage dollhouse dolls (I discovered Erna Meyer dolls [affiliate link] and decided they were awesome, and Kate agreed — those are Erna Meyer dolls in her photo above)
  • Vintage Hawaiian dresses
  • Vintage Hawaiian dress patterns
  • Vintage caftans
  • Tapa cloth 
  • Of course: Vintage steel kitchen cabinets — the monomania that started the blog
  • In a way, I am monomaniacal when I am at an estate sale. I look everywhere. Every corner, every closet, every rafter. It’s like — I am in a dream — yes, delirious — when I am at the sale. I think there must be a lot of adrenaline or some such chemical pouring into my system before and during. It takes hours for the haze to clear. 

When I get my monomania looking for a product/project solution, I can spend hours and hours without stopping, researching these items. My husband, he is amazed at how long I can sit at a computer and work. When I am “into” something, I really need to work hard to focus on other aspects of my life. I have never been a foodie, never cared much about cooking; at these times, it’s worse than ever. Thank goodness for Trader Joe’s frozen enchiladas. Here’s my recipe: Nuke ’em according to directions. Then open a can of pinto or black beans, drain, and nuke them, separately. Then put the enchiladas on top of the beans and nuke for another 30 seconds. There’s enough sauce in the Trader Joe’s enchiladas to sauce up the beans, too. Nom nom.

I also love Amy’s frozen entrees, the mateer paneer, in particular. 

pinecone elves vintageI would not say that my occasional monomanias disrupt my life in any truly serious way — and in many ways, they bring me tremendous joy.  I also think that being able to focus intensely is part of both my nature, and my nurture. I an inquisitive and like to explore topics thoroughly — I have always been an excellent student. I majored in journalism — and the heart and soul of journalism is ‘reporting’ — that is: researching all angles. 

When I am being gentle and kind to myself, I consider my ability to research so intensely a strength that contributes greatly to my hobbies and enables my current vocation and job: Understanding, exploring and sharing midcentury material culture and through it, social culture and history. But, if I am also being honest to myself, I also know that sometimes it can get out of hand. I can get… burnout… the up… the high… then the down… the low… overload… and exhaustion.

I’m not really a goal-setter. But a goal for me this year: (1) Remember to pace myself; (2) very importantly, be sure to spend lots of time with friends and family; and (3) overall, aim for better balance — so I can live a long long time and keep exploring!

How about you?
Assuming you have a passion for midcentury, vintage, and/or restoration…
Do aspects sometimes become all-consuming?
How do you deal?

  1. Carla says:

    “all-consuming” – LOL, yep, I know that one. But the way I look at it, all-consuming is a gift, unless or until it becomes “all-the-time”. Look at all of the great discoveries and inventions down through history. They all required a certain doggedness and all-consuming interest to come to fruition. Certainly, to have created such a vast and valuable resource as this website would not have happened without your tireless, all-consuming researching!

  2. Elisabeth says:

    Flamingos. It’s flamingos, especially the lawn flamingos. Our lawn flamingos have teeny little halloween costumes. We put vampire and skeleton lawn flamingos out as well. Santa’s inflatable sleigh is drawn by, you guessed it! flamingos! Family have supplied framed flamingo pictures for our hallways and a hand-painted toilet seat of the Fantasia II “Dance of the Flamingos”. Latest is finding the perfect flamingo painting to go over the couch (facing the “Dogs Playing Poker” print over the mantel piece) in our 1957 mid-century modest house. We’ll fill in some more from there.

  3. Lynn Lukins says:

    Pam, you are definitely not alone! I do this all the time! I am a data analyst/statistician/researcher, so digging until I find the answers is what I do. This carries over to my renovation life as well. There’s a question- – e.g., what drapes will I get for my living room- – and I am not satisfied until I have the answer. I will look everywhere until I have certain answers: 1. Can I buy vintage? If so, where? 2. If not, can I get a retro that looks vintage and matches my stuff? 3. Do I settle for retro or wait, and search, until I find vintage? Of course, when I settle for retro (usually at more than I wanted to spend), I find vintage the next month! I go through this with most decisions about my home! And since it’s new to us and I am a bit of a perfectionist also, there are a lot of decisions to be made! Once the decision is made, I can move on and and feel like a weight has been lifted! I think it all goes along with generally wanting to explore all angles and doing things to the best of our ability. So I guess I’m also crazy in the same, good way!

  4. Karen says:

    So many things I agreed with and have experienced myself. It wasn’t until my late 50’s that I was diagnosed with ADD. And suddenly my world made a whole lot more sense. My first grade report card says “uses too much paper”. Who says that to a 1st grader? I have done and am affected by most of the things others have listed. Worse, I am a “rescuer”. I see things that I know others will pass over and eliminate as they either don’t know what it is or haven’t the imagination to see it as something else. It kills me to leave things behind that I know could be useful to myself or others but my pocketbook is empty and my house is full.
    Sometimes I’ll get into a state of flow (coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly in 1990) and, as you and others have mentioned, work for hours getting incredible amounts done, then go for months and do nothing productive.
    I’m always reminded of the guy with the suit in the Great American Hero saying it didn’t come with an instruction manual. I felt like that for a long time.
    It’s always nice to be with people who understand you:)

  5. Conni says:

    I love my old childhood memories and I have got many of those things displayed in my home. When people buy things for their shelves, mine are filled with memories. Pink plastic grapes I helped my mom make, my dad’s retro train that we played with as a child, old family cameras and a old Polaroid, the leather one that I demonstrated in stores in the 70’s , old clocks that I had as a child, old books that we read, old pictures of real family, old mugs from graduation and a stein from the high school Europe trip in 1970, and other things that have meaning to me. I usually display things that are my childhood and events important to me and my family. OCD does keep me going and in the end I love it! It makes me happy and reminds me of my sweet life as it has been in my youth. Say what you want they are treasures of more simpler times. Thanks for sharing there are many who can relate!

  6. Kathryn Nowosielski says:

    There was a time when the term OCD didn’t exist. It was “tenacity” and it was an admirable trait. On the other end of the spectrum is failure to complete or failure to start. So, of the above I’d rather be OCD. It’s a shame it’s an overused tag, put on people by those who don’t understand it’s real meaning. It has become a derogatory term applied, in many cases, to people who would otherwise be judged as lazy if they didn’t stick to a project to completion. Everybody is a psychologist these days. 😉
    In my case, the search and capture of the things I collect gives me great joy and satisfaction. And, “IT” is out there I just have to find “IT” That’s half the fun! So, no guilt trip here!
    We bought our 1957 dream house two years ago in MA and I wake up everyday looking and marveling at it. Pam, you really should come see it! It has original bathrooms with the “disappearing” soap dish/toothbrush/toilet paper compartments. And so many other great original features.
    So, stay OCD my friend! You’re helping a lot of folks out here!
    xo Kat

  7. Michelle says:

    Ohhhh yes! I can totally relate to being a monomaniac. We live in a French colonial revival home built in 1929-30. (after reading the abstract, I believe the house was started in ’29 but due to the stock market crash of that year, was mothballed until mid-1930.) There were art deco elements in the house as well as the more 30’s streamline look. Our upstairs bathroom is an oddball favorite of mine–it has cobalt blue penny tile in a greek pattern, but salmon pink tile, floor to ceiling along with American Standard salmon pink tub, sink and toilet. When our original toilet’s tank “exploded” one night (the tank cracked) and we had to replace it, I became a monomaniac looking for a pink toilet. I became obsessed with plumbing and bathroom fixtures, how they’ve changed over the decades, design preferences, color preferences over the years. I think anyone who chooses to buy an older home, one that was built any time before, say 1980, will eventually develop monomania. All it takes is some one or two small things, maybe something like a repair that must be made or a discovery under the rafters.. Or falling in love with old fruit table clothes and searching endlessly for a company that still sells table cloth material with a fruit motif.

    Right now (can you hear the banging?) we are having our very old kitchen cabinets removed–well, okay demolished–for new custom made ones. Part of me feels sad, even though they’d create a pile of sawdust every time a drawer was opened. One of the guys found a “Kitchen Maid” label on them. He also found a couple of old coupons, maybe from the ’40s or ’50’s. So, now I’m going to go look up the history of “Cabinet Maid.” I hope I can find some info. And I’ll probably spend an hour or two trying to find info on those coupons too.

  8. KStacey says:

    I hear that! I would be happy pretty much eating the same thing every day. I like to save my creative juices for things that stick around a while, cooking usually seems like a waste of time to me!

  9. Azura says:

    Monomania like this can be extremely useful!
    I’m a dealer in vintage/antiques, mainly costume jewellery, but pretty much anything. I spend hours every week going round junk shops, flea markets and auctions. Often I’ll find some interesting piece that calls to me but I otherwise know nothing about, then I’ll spend hours, days, researching it, time I’ll never make back in profit from the sale of the item itself.
    But!
    The time I’ve spent just adds to my professional knowledge, and makes me better informed next time I find something similar.
    It’s never time wasted. 🙂

  10. Kathy says:

    If you find joy in your obsessions, then there is nothing wrong with that. Many of the greatest and most creative minds in history had that, and it helps to have an understanding spouse when the mania hits.

    Mine is also history and all things vintage. My major was urban planning and historic preservation, but I have loved art and history since I was a kid and can spend hours immersed in one topic or another. I too have worked as a journalist and editor, and having a broad knowledge base does come in handy.

    Long ago, my roommate once called me the person with the most curiosity of anyone she ever knew, and likened me to one of those enlightened female intellectual flapper scientist types of the 1920s, which I took as a compliment. The flapper side has faded with the years, but I still have curiosity for many things, which makes me go down the rabbit hole to find the answer, which I know “must” be out there someplace!

  11. Dana says:

    It may be monomania, but it brings you a lot of pleasure, and brings pleasure to those of use who love reading your blog, so bring it on. I like that you have the energy and creativity to do what you do and we (your readers) are the beneficiaries!!

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