Wednesday, October 7, 2015

So, we went to Maine

"Barny, I'm trying to write"
  "I help" he said

Morse-Libby House, Portland ME
Italianate Style, 1860 
Architect Henry Austin

To have license, as an individual member of a group at a reception, to roam around an historic house without benefit of docents is a real privilege, believe me, for not to have to listen to the irrelevant and worthless tales of the lives of original and subsequent homeowners is a blessing. Some like to listen to that, I find it a waste of time – give me a caption, a QR code or the like, dump the docents and I'd be happy as a pig in muck, as it were. 

The Turkish smoking room has been fully restored and like all restorations cannot avoid a feeling of inaction – it is as if it awaits a layer of nicotine (many layers of which were removed in the restoration), an echo of male laughter, a glint of polished leather on a footstool, the glow of a cigar and the blue smoke layer swirling around the gasolier.  So brightly lit was the electrified gasolier that evening it seemed someone really was trying to keep a ghost or two at bay. Romance aside, I was reminded that with gas lighting, the fire of diamonds was dulled and only returned with candlelight and, eventually, with electricity. I was glad I left mine in the vault. 

Museum managers need to attract visitors to places and buildings so much in need of upkeep and repair that, inevitably, a decision has been made to attract income from anyone who will pay the entrance fee (I know I'm being simplistic but for the sake of argument, etc) but for those of us who know something of the interiors, furnishings and styles, and do not wish to listen to the kind of populist crap soliciting "oohs" and "ahas" from the gum-masticating congregation with which one finds oneself, the problem is avoiding it. I do tend to wander off and risk being taken to task for stepping out of line (always infuriating to someone) rather than not visiting the places. 

The small dark rectangle towards the top of the left-hand panted panel is not a shadow but a remainder of the original scheme darkened by nicotine, dirt and time

The Pompeiian bathroom (restored) with its rebuilt "thunderbox" water closet and beautiful oilcloth (?) floor

I remarked to some people that much of what I saw in the house – the smoking room and the Pompeiian bathroom especially – brought to mind an English decorator called Geoffrey Bennison and was shocked to find no-one had heard of him. Tail between my legs, I went in search of Rory, found a discussion about religion instead, downed half a glass of white whine and was out of the door, husband on my arm, texting the dog-sitter, and headed to dinner.  Over a glass of bourbon I nattered on, eventually reaching the conclusion that we all have our specialties and … faced with a plate of lobster and gnocchi none of it mattered anyway.  

An effect of light I find so attractive and which the camera lens always resolves more clearly than my eyes allow 

On my Instagram I remark that it took two World Wars and a Modernist coup in schools of architecture to almost wipe out this type of decoration – a gross oversimplification, I know, but Instagram is not a place for essays, blogs are. 

I have used Instagram for itself and as a reservoir for ideas for essays for the blog and now that my whippet Barny is settling down to a less-demanding, if still-exhausting, teenagerdom (at 7 months old) I shall write about what interests me – and it's not always interior design – if spottily.

A lovely trompe-l'œil cartouche, one of many, which I hope will be left in its faded, unrestored state

Friday, September 25, 2015

In Maine

    Rory and I are in Maine for a few days with the Decorative Arts Trust

Monday, September 21, 2015

It had to happen

Oh, someone is being waggish, I thought, on seeing shelves of books, spines to the wall! But it seems not – shaming books has made the big time if only around here. First it was karate-chapping pillows into submission, now it's books being given time-out– we've been 'ere before, thought I. 

But no, for it seems in my rush to find fault I misunderstood the purpose behind what I saw. The writer of the magazine article explains that "The massive Donald Sultan painting commands attention in the family room, where bookshelves provide an architectural and decorative frame to the impactful piece." Though the books themselves are not mentioned, it is clear their role is nothing more than filler in a larger and admittedly beautiful scheme by a good decorator. In fact, they are nothing more than accessories – frankly, white boxes would have done the job just as well. As an aside, I wish people might see the symbolism in what they create for there is a subtext to be understood, be it intentionally written or not.

What one might consider "accessories" have personal significance. The clock. bought as a souvenir of our time in Amsterdam, and the candlesticks were resoluut afgeprijsd in a small shop in the Kerkstraat behind where we lived. The bottle, by Janet Darnell Leach, wife of Bernard has long been treasured

It is hard to say what personal significance a Yaruba crown has for a white northern European beyond the play of light when it seems to emerge from its background. I like it and, believe me, if it were merely a filler of space, I would not have got through the door. 

For me, even the term "accessories" in the context of interior decoration is laughably wrong even though we all use it – it grates in the way "disinterested" is used when "uninterested" would have been correct. Decorators talk about the final layer that pulls it all together or the jewelry of a room, decorette/bloggers take up the refrain and before we know it, there are whole industries geared to producing objets each lacking any charm beyond the glamour loaned by the designer/celebrity name attached to it. Without that borrowed glamour, resin or faux-shagreen is just plastic.

If one looks at synonyms for "accessories," perhaps the most positive is "adornments," with "embellishments" a close second with negativity already implicit. "Doodads" and "trimmings" take it downhill and at "bells and whistles" the bottom is reached. Nonetheless, "accessory" is accepted and you'd think we all know what we mean by it – but I'm not sure we do. Not being one to give in to my feelings of distaste, let me just say that if the equating of decoration with fashion is not as glib as it might seem, then the advice, allegedly given by Coco Chanel “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off" applies equally well to accessorizing a room. Mind you, taking something off, in today's fashion world, might mean … well, it hardly bears thinking about.  

The marble bowls were bought thirty years ago in de Bijenkorf, Amsterdam. The shallow, wider one meant for fruit, the other for bulbs, they have stayed the way they were packed to cross the Atlantic. They look better on the carpet which will return from the cleaner when Barny is full-grown and the room is re-done.

The Indian coverlet is, I hope, a temporary catch-all for dog, dog toys, dog hair, chewing-thingies, and anything that Barny seems to like to accessorize with - socks, shoes, coat hangers, and me.

On any given day our living room floor, now bare of its carpet, is strewn with Barny's things. I won't call them accessories (even though they are temporary) because they are necessary to his mental survival, the continued health of his new teeth and the delicacy of my toes. The latter, because he announces his desire to play by nibbling my toes and if I'm not quick enough off the sofa … you get the picture. The piece of antler apparently is kinder to teeth than rawhide yet to me it feels like stone and is often to be found in one of the Indian marble bowls we bought thirty-odd years ago in Amsterdam. The green velvet dinosaur is used (Barny marches it around in his mouth rhythmically hitting the floor with the squeaker) to announce we've spent too long at dinner and evening playtime should commence. Tennis balls, for my sanity and for the sake of the objects which are personal and, perhaps in more ways than one, valuable, are now inaccessible under cabinets – the image of a whippet flinging itself into the air to catch a ball but inches from candlesticks was not to be borne.

I see, dad, I get, I see, I want, I want, I want,  

It was William Morris who said "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful" – a piece of advice much quoted in Blurbville and as little honored as that quoted earlier from Coco Chanel. The concept of beauty is too diffuse to contend with, and utility is but a matter of fad and poor manufacture (or built-in obsolescence, if you will) so, really, all one is left with is Morris's weasel word "believe." I would only add "believe to have some real meaning for you."

Beautiful, probably not, but significant, certainly, to us. They stood on the cake at the party our friends gave us after we got married.  

The red pot we bought impulsively. Inexpensive and perfectly placed, to my eye, lighting up an alcove – complementary color highlighted with gold, mirror and lucite, glowing most days in the full light of the rising sun.  I notice, as I look at the photograph, its lines echo those of the table beneath it, whilst the legs of the table mirror the legs of the Meiji bronze crab (my zodiac is Cancer) in the foreground, which in their turn referred to in the cabriole legs of the chair – the whole summarized by the exuberant 1940s rococo framed mural. But it would be altogether too designerish to point out that completely fortuitous juxtaposition, don't you think?  

This is about as near as I've come to creating a "tablescape." On the drinks table in the dining room, it was short-lived for once Barny took to investigating it all had to be put away. Lovely idea, tablescaping, if you have time, money and fatuity for it but it does rather beg the question of why you would do it. (I'm still working on that one with Macbeth's "…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" hovering over my shoulder).  The Royal Copenhagen leaping frog, "found" one day in a closet with a "Oh, I'd forgotten about this" is a delight  (the Celt has always loved frogs).

The best accessories for a room are temporary, should have a scent and likely do not come from a supermarket. Grow your own, or steal from a churchyard, if you have to. 

After ten years of compromise and a lot of use, the room is in need of rethinking, reupholstering, repainting, etc. It's tired and all three of us finally accept it. The significant objects will be included –  the bronze Thai pilgrim will probably stand on a plinth somewhere but the framed map (a copy) in the hall is likely to go.

Friday, September 11, 2015

A dog's life

A surprising (to me) forty seven days ago, I wrote "back soon" at the head of the blog and here I am at the end of summer, after a four-week bout of bronchitis and an outbreak of shingles that I, at first, thought were multiple spider bites from walking Barny in the trees surrounding the duckpond. There's been a lot of time to give thought to … well, just stuff like a new bathroom, redecorating the living room, sending the carpet to be cleaned of whippet tracks, life, love and happiness, and what seems to be the senescence of blogging and the success of its peregrinating and bewitching kin, Instagram.

As I coughed my way through the awful humidity and the noise of construction seemingly as endemic and unceasing as that of insects and traffic, Barny chomped on dried duck poop (not eaten in this family, as I reminded him, for generations), and held relentlessly, if variably, to his food-in-food-out regime every couple of hours, drivers halted for ducks at crossings, some lowering their windows to remark "what a pretty pup," or "what kind of dog is that?" joggers ran, friends died or got sick, dogs and their owners said hello, and, one day, the heron, often to be seen at the pond, took magnificent flight, circled and landed high atop the trees over the crossroads.

Out of sorts and worn out during those weeks, I had plenty of time to read and it quickly became clear I was wasting my time with most interior decorating blogs – unless, that is, I was looking for the same sort of information available to me more quickly and interestingly elsewhere. Magazines advertorial does a better job than ever a blog could, whatever the aspirations the blogger may have. 

Whereas the overriding tenor of interior design blogland is breathlessly sycophantic, in my opinion, the aesthetic is even worse. Who any longer has any taste other than to endorse  a celebrity "design" collaboration? Frankly, if I were to judge by many of the blogs I read, I would say that fashion plays an exclusionary role and conformity rules the day. Some of us rue the day because the implications of this for design, decoration and the environment are appalling.  

I'm so bored with what is happening in American interior decoration as portrayed in the magazines and decorator monographs. As I've said before, it is always the same two variations on themes –  traditional and modern – with one swinging in color between allowed and not allowed and the other never budging from neutrals with a primary color and black.

We do not own any mid-century-modern furniture except a Paul Dunbar bench in the hall and, given the ridiculous prices ($65,000 to-the-trade for a high-backed winged-chair, 1939), its fashionability and copious quantity, it is unlikely we shall have any more of it. It is not just mid-century-modern's popularity that puts me off it – so contrary I'm not – but the rage for it makes me think of a bubble, given that there must have been so much of it manufactured.

Haute couture has its original designers but American (perhaps also European) interior decoration design has been usurped by salesmen and the auction houses. I am of the opinion that whatever the PR people might like us to believe haute décoration, or the knowledge of what residential interior design actually is, has been reduced to nothing more than the marketing of personalities and their wares. Never mind the quality, feel the width.

With all that in mind, I'm turning for a while to Europe to see what is going on there. I have a feeling, and it might be nothing more than bias, that the situation there is a little more loose, more original, less hidebound. As I say, I might be biased but, either way, I could learn a lot – I'm so over being bored.

I've already mentioned architect/interior designer Chester Jones five times and he remains my favorite of the designers working in Britain today, thus I do not intend to exclude him in future. Geoffrey Bennison, though long-dead, is also a firm favorite and his work remains utterly up-to-date and is for all to see in Gillian Newberry's excellent book Geoffrey Bennison: Master Decorator (in its second printing). The work of Mlinaric Henry & Zervudachi is pretty terrific as is the work of Tino Zervudachi in his own right. Jean-Louis Denoit, Alberto Pinto, Christian Liagre come to mind but they are all the subject of monographs – it may be that I'm limited to those books alone. We'll see.

You may wonder why these other photographs are here. The display of blue-and-white is composed of gifts: the tulip pot from employees, the rest from family. Placed on our drinks table, for a while the ensemble cheered the dining room until it became clear Barny (Sleeping Beauty, below), started taking notice and it had to be cleared away. The point of it really is to remind me to write about one day about accessories, memorably compared by one blogger/decorator to the finishing touches to an outfit – in her case an exhortation to buy her trinkets – but, in my opinion, accessories are simply those things which have some meaning to one's life and are not there to glamorize an empty space. But, that is for another day – maybe next time.

The photograph of Barnaby Warboys asleep against my leg as I rest my back on the sofa is about the way a four-month-old whippet pup erupted into my life our lives bringing a complete change. I've had to send the living-room carpet to be washed and stored; the floor is littered with his toys; whoever said whippets don't shed, lied, because the floor … OMG, the floor; I cover the sofa with an old quilt that matches nothing else; Barny's hand-crocheted acrylic yellow-and-white afghan lies in a sunny spot waiting for him to rearrange and snooze on it; we take off our shoes, Barny triumphantly runs with one daring us to come and get it; odd socks are usually found in his bed; my almost-as-expensive-as-my-replacement-MacBook-Air distance glasses made a lovely crunching sound when they were the only thing he found to chew when teething (oh, did I mention the watering can spout?); the maid is staying a lot longer (she'll be coming daily if I get my way. None of this matters for, in the loving, funny, nibbling, happy, bellyrub-loving dog's life that I lead, I would not have it any other way. A dog's life, indeed.

This photograph and accessories are the subject of the next post – unless the creek rises, that is.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Back soon

This little devil - here shown sleeping the sleep of the just - and also known as Barny, tipped a glass of almond milk over my laptop which has died and is in the repair shop. Blogging on an iPad isn't quite as easy nor, for that matter, is blogging with a whippet pup attached at the hip. Love him to death as does the Celt.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Should I laugh or cry? The answer.

On Monday morning the Celt woke me with a kiss, a card and the news that I'd have to get out of bed pretty smartish because my birthday present was arriving at La Guardia within two hours.  A little too bleary-eyed to laugh then, I've been laughing at his antics ever since I saw his serious grey eyes at Delta Cargo.

A fourteen-week-old, pedigreed, fawn-coloured whippet who I named after a favourite, beautifully drawn, yet minor character in Georgette Heyer's A Quiet Gentleman, Mr Barny Warboys. I have no idea what his official name is (I could read his documents, of course) but dear readers please meet the second member of my family that so far has not bored me silly. The Celt, the other, has never bored me once in almost thirty-seven years. (I hope he can say the same.)

His first walk in Central Park NYC did not last long
I carried him till we sat and he fell asleep in my lap

Barny and the Celt
In Central Park NYC

The answer then, to the question "should I laugh or cry" is obvious I hope – I'm laughing all the way

What a glorious feelin'
I'm happy again.
I'm laughing at clouds
So dark up above
The sun's in my heart
And I'm ready for love

Friday, June 26, 2015

I wonder, should I laugh or cry?

When I came to live in Atlanta twenty-two years ago whimsey, at least in the houses that knew anything of mural painting, was the rage. Also, twenty-two years ago, it was noticeable the apostrophe led a wandering and confused existence and as to the adverb … well, then as now, the least said about the adverb, the better. Whimsey is long gone from conversations, as are murals from walls, and the apostrophe has settled down to an erratic role of grammatical provocateur beloved of supermarket jokers signwriters who also wouldn't know an uppercase letter from a lowercase …

… but that's being so horribly sour and I've had enough of that the last three weeks. It seems the run-up to a big birthday can be onerous and debilitating even – so I ask for your indulgence as I head to New York to celebrate with the Celt's genomic sister and her scientist/rock band drummer husband, my sister and brother-in-law from Lancashire and old friends from England long settled in New Jersey. Sunday, besides the Gay Pride Parade, is our second wedding anniversary (still strange to write after nearly thirty-seven years together) for which Atlanta friends are hosting a cocktail party in their newly redecorated New York apartment, and Monday, actually my birthday, we will have dinner at my favourite restaurant. In there somewhere also is a Broadway show and lunches galore. My waistline?

The post began differently but ended where it needed to be. Seemingly I'm stymied by what the Ancients called Melancholia, yet such is the stigma attached to it, especially for men, it's almost comical to me to think about my birthday weekend in terms of convalescence but that is what I hope. 

I wonder, should I laugh or cry?