Sunday, August 31, 2014

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Vignettes in decorating

The first time I was confronted by vignetting in decorating was thirty years ago with an article in The World of Interiors and I did not react well. Living in Amsterdam at the time, these photographs reminded me of nothing more than the Metz & Co furniture showrooms diagonally across the Keizersgracht from our house and, still, all these years later, I find it hard to let go the idea of showroom vignetting – ironic, perhaps, given what I quote below from the original magazine text. I still wonder where those people actually lived.

"With all the architectural details, including the floor, painted white, the drawing-room becomes an intriguing limbo for a graphic collection of furniture. The colours are limited to black, bright red and a small amount of pale grey, so with this visual discipline the choice of objects in the room has to be precise and unerring. Some people might imagine that this is a very elemental solution to the problem of decoration and against the drama of a plain white background almost any object will be enhanced. In fact the reverse is true. Any flaw in design or proportion will show up immediately. The great pitfall to be avoided when placing things in a space like this is temptation to make small 'groups'. Although charming in themselves, if unrelated they give that restless showroom-like atmosphere, with every precious object pleading to be looked at. It is far more difficult to compose a balanced room so that the gaze can move about unmolested, taking in everything. Selecting the right pieces and putting them in just the right place to achieve this takes a great deal of skill." 

Undeniably beautiful, and equally beyond doubt designed to be photographed, these rooms have such an intense cerebral quality that makes one think they may well be haunted by the ghosts of brainstorms past.  Indeed, it is precisely that cerebral vignetted quality that pervades the rest of the oevre of the husband and wife team René and Barbara Stoeltie – where their own residences are concerned, that is. Shortly after this article was published the Stoelties took control of their own image, as it were, and she wrote the text to his photographs. For years I have disliked everything they have done even to the point of not buying books on which they have collaborated – so strong has been my prejudice (I can call it nothing else).

Having said that, yesterday afternoon I watched a video on youtube in which Barbara and René Stoeltie were interviewed and I began to understand not only their point of view but something I thought I already knew – the quicksands lying in wait for us all within our own language.  The video is in Dutch but for those you who might be able to understand the link is below. The Stoelties are not unsympathetic people and I was both glad and nonplussed to find that.

I'm not beyond appreciating a decent vignette or two but, nonetheless, given what I see in the blogs et al, I feel we are on a downward slope – like once-chic macarons on sale in a cart at the mall,  vignetting has become a tool for anyone with a rainy afternoon, a pile of junk, some books, an iPhone and internet access to hand.

Previous generations deforested whole continents, captured Sabines, established cities on hills, conquered a colony or two, swaggered across oceans and planted vines in new lands ... but what do we do? We arrange our books according to color, we style our shelves, arrange pretty objects on tabletops, and then, not knowing our arses from our elbows meanders from our Chinese frets, we write whole blogs about them. There's civilization for you!

More of that next week.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, democracy is a good thing but it ain't for everyone.

Quotation from text by John Vaughan and photographs by same, The World of Interiors, June 1984.

Friday, August 22, 2014

There's probably a reason why Friedrich Nietzsche didn't build houses

After a visit to the supermarket where, in one of those futile greetings exchanges, the manager informed me he was "blessed" I, humbled as I was to have been in the presence of one of the chosen and wondering if there was a national dress code for supermarket managers – pleated trousers, heavily starched shirt, co-ordinating tie, and Italian loafers – I set off for the bookstore.

I could say I'm not sure what I saw there says about interior design publishing but, frankly, I am sure – it's mostly dross and, in my local Barnes and Noble (the only bookstore within the perimeter as far as I know) there is shelf after shelf and table after table to prove it.

There's probably a reason why philosophers don't, generally speaking, build houses and there is likely a good reason why decorators shouldn't philosophize. Architects, on the other hand, are almost impossible to prevent from doing so, such is their training. Gobbledygook rules, etc. 

The following quotations from one of the books above, each a sentence a page, suggest tenets brought down from the mountain top yet the suspicion that the burning bush was merely a hollowgram cannot be dismissed. 

We want to be released from the invisible barriers that separate us from the natural world, but we also crave a comfortable place from which to do this – a pillow of moss or a warm rock behind our backs.

Returning home from expeditions, we bring back souvenirs – talismans endowed with nature's power to ground us with the knowledge that wealth comes not from wares, but from what lies around us.

Worldly goods have found their way to this house in the woods where they rub shoulders with finds from nature.

This house has no wanderlust. It knows where it is and is satisfied to be there.

Sentiments, to my mind, worthy of Pseuds Corner. However, the quotations above do fall into a major design category – vignettes. They are typographical vignettes in a book filled with photographic vignettes. 

Are vignettes a major design category? From the point of view that vignettes are heavily used in book publishing and on decorator sites – as if every vase, chair or table, Mr DeMille, is finally ready for its closeup – then vignettes are a category. They are, in my opinion, something more than filler, for in the blogging world vignettes allow enthusiasts to appear as professionals – so common have they become in the visual language of design. I wonder sometimes if by focussing this way the big picture is lost. 

Vignette as design is a theme I want to explore in the coming weeks. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A piece of priceless piffle

The other day I found the photograph you see below in my inbox. From Germany, it was a short email containing the photograph you see below, a subject line "What can I say?" followed by "The irreverence for books...turned around to "neutralize the color statement.."

I have no indication of who took the photograph or where it first appeared or even why it was published though it's easy guess all three. Generally speaking, bloggers are not photographers of note – pressing a button on a phone does not make one a photographer – yet this unregarded fact does not stop any of us from showing our pix in a blog, this modern version of the post-vacation slideshow.

Anyway, my point is this: if you are going to make a statement such as this piece of priceless piffle – neutralizing the color statement, indeed – then make sure your photograph has the authority of professionalism. A well-photographed and styled vignette could enhance or, at best, detract from the fact that all the books and magazines are facing the back of the shelves, as if in shame. (It makes one wonder what goes on in that bed between the two Ikea lamps, the matching tables, and the serving dish used as a vase.)

Books have been treated prettily shabbily this last few years: as plinths; as pillows; as incidentals on objet-laden shelves; as trophies; as color-stories; as bundles, stripped of their boards and tied with string – in fact, as anything other than what they are. 

As an attempt at originality, turning book spines to the wall, is silly. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Four book reviews

From its foil-stamped jacket, embossed and gilded buckram cover boards, its moving tribute by his friend Muriel, the book about David Collins, ABDCS: David Collins Studio, is, as Muriel might say in one of her more Brit moments, "Brill!" The publisher, Assouline, as befits the work of this uncommonly talented architect and designer who died last year at the age of 58, has done a handsome  job with this book  by allowing the work to speak for itself across full-page and double-page spreads with little text – short paragraphs by Collins that have none of the usual philosophizing guff that all-too frequently gets spouted these days.

The book will look quietly glamorous on the coffee table, especially if left open at the double-page photograph of the Delaire Graff Estate, Stellenbosch, or even better on the knees as one looks with increasing astonishment at the beauty on every page.

The William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum is now closed but the catalogue, a hefty book, intellectually and physically, is still available. At over eight pounds in weight this book should be placed on a table of dining height to be dipped into time and time again.  

The third book, House Proud: A Social History of Atlanta Interiors, 1880-1919, loaned to me by my old prof, is something of an exception for me, for, generally speaking, I'm uninterested in anything that happens locally. The book reads like an academic thesis – no bad thing – and one written by someone who enjoyed herself writing it. It also has a curiously old-fashioned feel due to the book designer's use of coated papers and a curly, turn of the twentieth century display font. Atlanta decorating at the end of the nineteenth-century and the early years of the twentieth-century was no different from that in the rest of the country and, judging by the plentiful black-and-white photographs of overstuffed interiors, as suffocating as it must have been in the years before air-conditioning was invented. This book, though, is more than a book about decorating (it's a social history, after all) because it places these houses and rooms in the period after Reconstruction when Atlanta began its long journey to enter the modern world. 

Book four is actually book three of Deborah Harkness's The All Souls TrilogyThe Book of Life, a long-awaited work about magic, vampires, witches and daemons, time travel and all those other things that unite us, that has given me many an hour's enjoyment since I read the first book, A Discovery of Witches, three years ago. I'm one for re-reading and typical male, I suppose, I like a proper beginning, middle and ending, and lots of action within a credible, thus well-constructed universe. This trilogy has a proper ending that feels also like a new beginning in the sense of there could well be sequels. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

A singing ringing tree and a country house

Friends have bought a country house which, at the moment, is in the hands of their decorator. The big reveal will take place around Labor Day and knowing them and their decorator as I do, I am sanguine there'll be none of that country twaddle – twiggy furniture, antlers, plaid throws, taxidermy, botanical prints, gingham doodads, reedy wreaths hung with berries and bows, colonial-style hope chests, doggy or horsey anything, patchwork quilts, iron chandeliers, duck decoys, baskets, pinecone candlesticks, rag dolls, doilies, hutches – in fact, none of the foolishness that afflicts some decorators and their clients when faced with living in what, in reality, are suburban subdivisions on mountainsides, in former horse country, or in just-graded, tree-free, erstwhile wilderness. Living in the country, be it ersatz or real, need not stupefy a sense of proportion and send one headlong towards the land of cute and dainty.

Not that the picture is any better on the other side of the pond. Looking at real-estate photos of interiors near my home town was horrifying – so many dark-stained big-box store fittings and fixtures, staircases and balustrades, "hand-adzed" beams and rafters, "medieval" smoke hoods above electric "living-flame effect" fireboxes. And the bathrooms, without exception megastore "contemporary," left me not knowing whether to swear or laugh, as also did some of the most ludicrous window mistreatments I've ever seen. I don't think my home town or the valley where it's located is a bastion of bad-taste, though, judging by what I saw, it could well be – I have never seen so many pub-like residential interiors in my life. There the pub has an influence on some demographics and here it's the country club.

I've always had a hankering after a country house but the Celt, having lived in at least one in his youth, is resolute about not wanting to leave the city. Having heard tales of his long walk home from the bus stop through woods and by fields to the family house, often in the dark and wet, I cannot blame him. Nowadays, of course, it is unimaginable that a boy would be allowed to hike a mile or two at any time of year without accompaniment. Those days – not that long ago, as I'm sure he'd remind me – were very different. 

At the time I left home, in my early twenties, I had never gone further than the woods and farms surrounding our house and the villages around my home town I knew by name only. Pendle Hill was visible from our garden, as were the valley sides, with their sheep-grazed fields and stone walls – but I had no real appreciation of it. I was too busy hiding to look outwards. 

The last few years, we have visited the area, but only in winter – which isn't the best season, given the short, grey and wet days, for being a tourist. On this trip, the long, warm summer days made true tourists of us, drawing us out onto the moors and into the smaller towns and villages. 

I realize now how much influence the architecture of my youth, however unappreciated then, has had on my aesthetic. The long, sooty rows of stone-built  houses, the Gothic Revival stone-built churches and the simpler non-concormist chapels, the churchyards with gravestones listing family histories well into the the 17th and 18th centuries and occasionally, if I wandered into church, the wonderful stained-glass windows. 

The reredos in my primary school's church has stayed in my memory as one of the most magical things I had ever seen, but of dark carved wood rather than the gilded and painted object it now is. The school building is long gone. I'm not really sure why "improvement" means pulling down perfectly good buildings or, for that matter, why Spanish patio-compatible terracotta tile replaces flagstone in a medieval church but ... who am I? I no longer live there. 

So, with rain threatening we walked through the lychgate – I noticed that the arriving funeral did not pause there as it once would have for the first part of the ceremony to take place – to take a few photographs of the church and its yard. Lych is old English for corpse; lychgate is not the romantic destination brides of today and their photographers find it to be. Beautiful, though, with its late 19th-century carved detailing and slate roof. 

I walked and walked, amazed with the beauty of it all – an historic beauty I was only just seeing for myself – snapping photograph after photograph until, as I've done before, I realized I was missing so much by putting the lens between me and the buildings I saw.

It rained eventually. Pendle Hill (see above) disappeared under clouds,  almost as we reached the Singing Ringing Tree. A man, just leaving as we and the rain arrived, remarked it was in fine fettle that day and so it was – humming, singing and sighing with the wind that passed over and through it. An intangible song of weather befitting a landscape of hills, moor, rock, running water and, if legends are to be believed, witches.

My brother-in-law and I were too cold and wet even to be amused at the spectacle of my 5' 10" husband sharing a small, packable umbrella with my sister who is 10 inches shorter. 

Photograph of St Andrew's reredos is from here

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A thousand-year-old Book, Paolozzi's Newton, and Mellow Yellow Brick

The British Library courtyard with St Pancras Station beyond

I'd never thought that the King's Cross area of London as being anywhere other than a place to avoid – very run-down with tarts galore – but this visit, my first, proved how long-established my ignorance has been. During the last twenty years or more, the area and the railway station have been regenerated (the area, beginning with The British Library and the station with a marvelous canopy above the new Western Concourse) with hotels like the resurrected Great Northern Hotel and George Gilbert Scott's St Pancras Hotel, restaurants, residential and commercial buildings being built, and older structures made sound and adapted for reuse.

Newton after Blake
Eduardo Paolozzi

The British Library, architecturally speaking, is underwhelming, but, in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery with an exhibition of more than two-hundred items, overwhelmingly reveals itself as the treasure house of world culture and knowledge that it is. As the web page for the exhibition states, half of the exhibits have not been in public view for many years and, believe me, the list of those exhibits is formidable. With exhibits such the earliest dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra, Handel's Messiah, the Gutenberg Bible, Laurence Olivier's script for Macbeth, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a thousand-year-old book, give or take a minute or two), a First Folio of Shakespeare, and Magna Carta, this British Library gallery is well-worth a taxi-ride across London. In fact, it's downright awesome!

For over forty years the front of King's Cross Station was obscured by a "temporary" structure and it is only recently that structure has been removed and replaced with a relatively new (in modern times) phenomenon – the piazza. Not yet finished, but very well-used by travelers and those who meet them, this new piazza is a place to keep wallets safe and to wonder at the variety of the human face. 

King's Cross railway station is fronted with mellow-yellow brick arches that trace the shapes of the massive iron-arched train sheds behind. Easy as it is to forget that for the Victorians (King's Cross was built in 1851) structures such as these were the acme of contemporary technology in architecture – a point that is immediately evident when one walks from the old structure to the new Western Concourse with its soaring fountain of a canopy – a covering suggesting the springing of the gothic arch of St George's Chapel, Windsor, rather than the Gothic of the nearby St Pancras railway station.

King's Cross Western Concourse 

Lewis Cubitt, the designer of King's Cross railway station was also responsible for the design of the Great Northern Hotel seen in the photograph below to the left of the station. The hotel has gone from being drab and basic to contemporary "boutique" hotel with a redesign and renovation reputedly costing £45,000,000 ($76,687,117). This is where we stayed for the first of the family parties before we headed north to Lancashire and Scotland. 

Photographs of Newton after Blake by Eduardo Paolozzi and the King's Cross Western Concourse are from Wikipedia Commons. All the other photographs are mine.