Friday, November 27, 2015

Our Own Snug Fireside

It is fitting, I think, to begin a series about American interior decorating on Thanksgiving, the most characteristic American holiday. Fitting, also, to begin in the New England of the Colonies and the Early Republic by mentioning the fact that I have coopted the tile for this post from a most excellent book – on my shelves since I read it as a graduate student and even more treasured after rereading it since meeting the author when Rory and I toured with the Decorative Arts Trust in Maine earlier this year.

 Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home 1760 - 1860 by Jane C Nylander is one the best books ever about early American life. There's a lot to learn about what went into the colonial houses of this period – in fact how little actually furnished a room.  The reasons choices were made certainly prefigure the choices we still make and attitudes to conspicuous consumption were more pronounced then perhaps than today.  Ms Nylander is far better than I at explaining the early American attitudes and achievements in furnishing and decoration and I shall leave her to it.

There is a sofa in the High Museum, that, if anyone mistaking morality for aesthetics and believing in Adolf Loos's stricture "No ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level ... Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength" could bring a person to a developmental rubicon. The High, a museum in aesthetic crisis when, thanks to indifferent architectural grafting by Renzo Piano, it turned its back on the decorative and ceremonial entrance to Richard Meier's museum, an act, it seems to me, symbolic of turning its back on the city … but I digress … and back to the sofa which actually is one of my all-time favorites.

By John Henry Belter, this sofa, in what we know as the the Rococo Revival Style (at the time Modern French) is made of "laminated and carved rosewood, white pine, and ash with original appliqué designs on modern silk upholstery." The most astonishing aspect of this sofa is that the back,  made of plywood and curved, is completely smooth. The front is three-dimensional, carved exquisitely and pierced. It is a terrific piece of work – the crests resembling nothing less than the peineta worn under a mantilla in Spain – and now covered in beige silk velvet.

The creator of the Rococo Revival sofa was born in Germany, and like any number of well-known American designers/makers/artists/writers/creators contributed to what we think of as American Interior Decoration and Architecture. Duncan Phyfe, Charles-Honoré Lannuier, John Henry Belter, Calvert Vaux, and up to modern times with Mies van der Rohe, Richard Neutra and Eero Saarinen et al – immigrants all – the point is not to belittle home-grown talent and, believe me, there is more than Frank Lloyd Wright, but, rather to introduce the universality of interior design a hundred or so years ago even if universal meant two sides of the Atlantic rather than a broad world view.

American Empire Style Card Table circa 1803
Charles-Honoré Lannuier

The American Empire Style is a version of the Napoleonic Empire Style but made by French immigrants like Charles-Honoré Lannuier, Scotch immigrants like Duncan Phyfe, and local craftsman and furniture makers in America – the point being these people worked in that style in American cities. The Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, Renaissance Revival, Modern French, Second Empire, Queen Anne Revival, Arts and Crafts, Beaux Arts, etc. all began in Europe and Britain and it wasn't until the beginning of the 20th-century that the tide of stylistic immigration turned and Europe began to look to America to see what Mr Lloyd Wright especially was up to. In that turning of the tide Wright's ideas met the English Arts and Crafts in Germany and the ideas behind Modernism were born. When that tide turned … and so on.

Frank Lloyd Wright
Darwin D Martin House
 Jack E. Boucher, Photographer - Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division 
Historic American Buildings Survey

It's about this time, loosely speaking, that Elsie Mendl appeared to leave her Boston marriage and, being no better than she should have been, Introduced Wicker and Treillage into the Colony Club after which she took credit for everything there ever was, wore pearls with Red Cross outfits and eventually died at Versailles (which is more than Marie Antoinette was allowed to do). Everyone who should have known better took Mendl at her word and consigned Candace Wheeler, a far better designer, to the pages of dull biography almost unread except by the likes of me.

Immigration and importation have been themes throughout American interior design and architecture – even though General Washington may in a moment of madness have been offered a crown after the revolution, this country has never more had a king. Yet the forms of chairs, sofas and settees that have never been bettered for grace and beauty, and still sit at the apogee of style in the world's largest democracy, were developed under the French monarchs – imports of style that go back to before the founding of the republic.

I took these photographs of a house in Maine, closed for more than twenty years, except for the rare summer visit. They show how much hard work went into keeping house. The reception rooms were not worth photographing - not that we could, corralled as we were behind a rope. Docents .... !

Soap was kept in the icebox to protect it from mice 

Just before Thanksgiving, this country (or many in it) turned its face against immigration, denying those who've fled their fireside a chance at another. America has done so before and stylistically, also, it has done so. The Tudor Revival, for example, in many ways thought of as a characteristic East Coast architectural style that developed after the Bicentennial when - to be simplistic – immigration of Jews and Irish was at an all-time high and the WASP establishment felt threatened and, as it were, drew up the stylistic portcullis, emphasized its Anglo origins and withdrew behind its Locust Valley vowels.

At the end of the 19th-century, when the wholesale importation of paneled rooms and, indeed, complete houses from Britain and Europe for American millionaires began, so did the supply of European art and furniture by the likes of Berenson and Duveen – a supply that continues today through decorators, auction houses and galleries – it all does rather beg the question of wherein lies the Americanness of American interior design. Bu that's for another day when Barny is less tired.

I'm not sure who needs time out the most

Monday, November 9, 2015

I sent him packing

The famous British magazine Private Eye used to carry a regular feature called Pseuds Corner in which they pilloried purple poetical prose or, piffle as the Brits call it. I have no idea whether the Corner or the magazine are extant but they would have had a field day with the inanities contained in this book.

"It's easy to get white wrong – it takes talent to get it right
This is possibly the most risible of the pieces of fustian I could fill this post with but I shall desist. Talent, my ass my eye – it takes lots of observation and a bit of hard work, more like!  

"In so much as I am living and breathing, I am a barometer of change. That's my job. Keeping current and being in fashion means to be in your time."  
This second quotation came pretty close to winning the prize but … I shall not dwell on it. 

"Rooms should reveal themselves gradually over time." 
Oh, riiiight! Oh, tautologous! 

It's the hokum of these platitudes that is so absurd to me because, after all, it's only furniture, fabric and a drop of paint. It ain't art or even religion with all its attendant gobbledygook and superstition – it's decorating, not magic! I've said it before and undoubtedly I'll say it again: decorators should stick to decorating and leave philosophy to philosophers (or that bloke down the pub). 

If one were to take the book and its contents at face value, one might suspect late-nineteenth-century mitten-Europa, with its middle-class Ringstrasse aesthetic and emphasis on blood-lines and family-trees, is popular in parts of the so-called upper-echelons or, rather, the monied sections, of American society. To some of us, the so-called non-worshipping classes, bullion-fringe tacked to mantlepieces – only one instance of a desperately Victorian-revival tone to the interiors, is a little too redolent of Franz-Josef and the mess he created and left behind. 

It isn't often I return a gift but, frankly, Jeffrey Bilhuber, American Master though subtitled notes on style and substance contained so little of either, in my opinion, I promptly had this gasbag of a book sent whence it came. 

So, I come to Sunday and a time when Barnaby Warboys allows me some time to write. The Celt is home and carries some of the burden task of being trained by a whippet pup, eight-months old, who continues to be be both delight and scourge. The wool and silk carpet for the living room came home after being cleaned, restored and guess what? Yup …you got it. As did the carpet in full force.    

There Barny sat, Saturday night, as we had guests in for a nightcap, sorry for himself a little because he is ill, excited a little because we had guests and he likes company. After a while, first opening the bedroom door, he took himself off to bed then, curiosity getting the best of him, came back to say goodnight at the end of the evening.  

Our continuing search for a suitable country place – two bedroom, two bathrooms, with enough land for Barny to run free – has only brought the realization that what we envisage will have to be built. We began to lean towards a cabin combined with the contemporary. The one cabin we found had, after a long time for sale, been sold only two days before. Charming as it was – and it was – old as it was – and it was (1840) – really wouldn't have been the most felicitous for Barny or me. 

We both (The Celt and I, for Barny is silent on the matter) reached the conclusion that at any price-point (as the jargon goes) what is available, for our taste, is too traditional and evocative of a mountain setting. And why not? you may ask. Well, evocation of any place is not quite what we have in mind – The Celt is Scottish by birth and I am from Lancashire but neither of these facts should suggest a leaning towards tartans, antlers, cairngorm or macramed oatmeal or, in fact, anything else considered ethnic to either of our backgrounds. Heritage has no need of touristic flourishes the equivalent of monogrammed shirt cuffs. 

Perhaps these two views of a sitting room from a chalet in the French Alps designed by Mlinaric, Henry and Zervudachi visually explains my meaning. There is a lack of obvious references to place or function: no crossed snow-shoes above the fireplace; no antler furniture; no pinecone lampbases; no rawhide lampshades; in fact, none of the decorative cliches one has come to expect of decoration of a certain ilk. It is that lack of reference to locality that is particularly refreshing in comparison to the interiors we saw as we viewed houses in the mountains and online. 

If our country sitting room is to reflect anything it is our family – the three of us – not the mountains, not Scotland, not Lancashire and certainly not some spurious idea of what English decoration is or even what American decoration is. 

Which brings me to a subject I want to discuss in the coming post. American decorating. We read a lot about it, and how special it is. Is it just American exceptionalism and isolationism or is American decorating special?  

Sunday, October 25, 2015

My old prof

I have a confession to make and I might as well make it on a Sunday morning as another time: I really like plain white Corian. Unmentionable today by the salesmen of honed stones that resemble nothing more than textured Formica, and still unfashionable enough to create an eye-roll when mentioned, Corian remains my favorite kitchen surface. 

You might think that if that's all I have to confess on a Sunday morning, I lead a pretty blameless or boring life. That's not for me to judge but I am at my own dining table – our "home office" having temporarily reverted to the hall closet it once was – thinking about the instability of taste and the derisory attitudes there are towards certain materials. I suppose I'm thinking about fashion and the uncritical way in which much of the interiors industry accepts what is served up. 

Kate, my old prof, and l were having our usual Friday lunch at Pricci, an Italian restaurant now so 1990s in style that we both fear it is in danger of being renovated and "modernized" and fervently hope it will be left to mellow and grow old, when we got on to the books she had either given or loaned me recently, and  by extension to materials and finishes no longer fashionable. 

In one, The Pahlmann Book of Interior Design, first published in 1955, there is a photograph of a flooring no longer fashionable – at least amongst the cognoscenti in our field – vinyl. Once new and fashionable enough to be used by the most fashionable decorators of their day (William Baldwin and Albert Hadley as wall-covering, for example), it is now still known to the contract side of the industry but appears in the residential or gift and accessory trades primarily as faux shagreen and ostrich hide, et al. If I were to choose an alternative to vinyl flooring – which would be an ironic choice, for vinyl was marketed in in the early days as a modern surrogate for this – it would be linoleum – an interesting, biodegradable, durable and beautiful flooring – around since about the time of the American Civil War. 

"You know I once sat in Dior's salon for a showing? And Jacques Fath's, too? My friend Marion and I got tickets somehow … so long ago … 1957, I think … but could have been 1954. We spent weeks touring the continent. It was not like it is today, the big productions – it was very reverential, like being in church. Fath had died by that time time, if it was '57, but his wife continued the business for a while, and Dior died in '57 also. Ah, those dresses … oh, excuse me! Those gowns! They were beautiful. 

"I think that was the second time on the ship, crossing the Atlantic, when the bartender came to the table and took an order for a round of drinks. Asked everyone what they would like, but did not ask me. I recognized him from my trip the previous year and said 'Reggie, you forgot me.' He replied, 'That would be a gin and tonic, madame, if I remember correctly.' Cunard line, of course. Always had the best employees."

"Have you seen this?" She asked, handing me the brochure you see below. "I've been sorting out old files and boxes and I wondered if you might like to see this before it goes in the trash. Cute little drawings, too, of their time so when you're done keep it or trash it. Up to you." 

I haven't trashed it – this useful little circular from the Small Homes Council of the University of Illinois, Urbana. printed in 1950 and still, I think, of more practical use to the to the modern young man or woman looking to decorate a house than any of today's how-to manuals. 

Before I go on let me just say that just in case you think that residential interior design is nothing more than celebrities creating vignettes for magazine and monograph and fabric and furniture collections for fabric houses and furniture makers, you might take a look at the first quotation from this sixty-five-year-old eight-page circular: 

The purpose of interior design or decoration is to make the home more livable and attractive.

Interior design must (1) serve the living habits of you and your family; (2) satisfy your ideas of comfort, beauty, economy, ease of maintenance or "housekeeping"; and (3) satisfy the broader standards of good design.  [My italics]

Interior design involves personal likes and dislikes; it involves habits and hobbies. Unless it fulfills individual needs, it can never be called successful, regardless of how well it meets the rules of good design. On the other hand, it is not successful if it violates all rules of good design even though it satisfies a fad or whim of an individual. 

The lowest cost house should be as livable, and therefore, as successfully decorated as the larger home. Every budget, no matter how small, provides for certain furnishings. These influence the design of the rooms. 

I wonder if the broader standards of good design are as well-known as they once were – so surely have they been subsumed in the fustian of the desecrators and the concept-laden verbiage of the design school curricula … but, I'm a long way from the happy lunch Kate and I shared last week. We had split a pizza between the two of us. I'd had a bourbon, she her once-weekly glass of white wine, and we'd chatted and … well, the illustration above shows the good sense that pervades the circular. 

I wish I'd noticed this piece of nonsense puffery before collecting my old prof because we would have had a riotous time going over it. Quite how anyone believes this beats me, but it seems it is big business. Here are three of the ten from the link above. I leave you to judge but you may imagine my reactions to the deathless prose persuading the buyers in the garment and interiors industries to use the colors. 

Rose Quartz
 “A persuasive yet gentle tone that conveys compassion and a sense of composure.” 

“Like the expanse of the blue sky above us, Serenity, [a transcendent blue], comforts with a calming effect, bringing a feeling of respite even in turbulent times."

Snorkel Blue
“Playing in the navy family, but with a happier, more energetic context, the maritime inspired, Snorkel Blue implies a relaxing vacation and encourages escape.”

Now were all told not what good design is, but what the design du jour is to which we must all subscribe. Back in the days of Mr Pahlmann and the writers of the circular from The Small Homes Council of the University of Illinois, Urbana, they simply led by example. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

How can it be …

… with all the time in the world, I cannot write as often as I would like? –  is a question I often asked myself and until a couple of days ago had few ideas about how to solve my problem. It then occurred to me to ask another question: if I can Instagram as often I do, could I write shorter posts for the blog with similar frequency as I post on Instagram. Not that the two media are comparable, really, but … why not give it a go?

As the parent of any eight-month-old whippet will attest "time for oneself" is a much-cherished delusion – a fantasy as hard to relinquish as is the idea that living rooms are anything other than canine playrooms  …

… that whippets allow one time for breakfast 

… do not sulk if you tidy away their toys and do not complain vociferously if one looks at them 

…or even that privacy any longer is an option. My clever, beloved Barnaby Warboys has learned to open doors and I have photographs to prove it. Publish and be damned, he says. 

Barny is the reason I have little time and there is no-one more amazed at it than I: to a great degree our life is changing in ways we hadn't thought of before he became our family. For example, neither of us want to leave him for weeks on end whilst we go to Europe so we have decided that vacations in this country are going to be more the norm and we are looking either to build or buy a second place where he can run and explore like the whippet he is and we can spend weekends as a family together and with friends.

Our taste runs more to the contemporary and something as starkly rectilinear as above and below from Rocio Romero in a wooded setting seems perfection to both of us, especially if more softly nestled in grasses and shrubs. 

Inside, I would like to see something as comfortable and contemporary as the room below by Thomas Hamel. There would be nothing by Eames, nothing mid-century-modern, none of the so-called "design classics" and certainly nothing from IKEA (how the hell it became so popular in blogland beats me). In other words, the formulaic way of furnishing modern architecture as boring as a trawl through a DWR showroom, is not for us. 

A cabin in the woods? Possible, but without any rural references in the decor – neither of us are farmers, cowpokes, or blacksmiths and take the lead from Henrietta-Lucy Dillon de la Tour du Pin Governed who, in her Memoirs of Madame de la Tour du Pin: Laughing and Dancing Our Way to the Precipice I am sure does not mention furnishing her log cabin during her exile in America with any reference to the forest or its denizens surrounding her.  I know, I know, a complete non sequitur.

I want to mention again how we both feel that after all these our living room – in fact, the whole place – needs refreshing and seeing how our floors look without the carpets and rugs which are at the cleaners having whippet tracks removed, I'm leaning very strongly towards the idea of having our wooden floor stenciled. The one advantage of bare floors in warm months is that they are cool to bare feet but, if plain wood, they are visually boring. The stenciled floors in The Parish-Hadley Tree of Life: An Intimate History of the Legendary Design Firm have examples that awoke my interest anew. 

So, my attempt at writing quickly was interrupted by nibbled toes, nibbled fingers, outraged barking when I refused to play, but as persistent as my pup is, I have my Instagram-ish post for the day. 

Maybe, till tomorrow? 

Photograph of Thomas Hamel's room by Matt Lowden 
Photograph of Bunny Williams's room by Scott Frances
Both photographs from The Parish-Hadley Tree of Life: An Intimate History of the Legendary Design Firm 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sunday morning, a butler's pantry, and scenes from family life

"We can’t all live a life that affords us the luxury of having a butler, but a luxury you CAN afford is a butler’s pantry. Historically, a butler’s pantry is where a butler made quick meals and sandwiches, cleaned silver, and sometimes even slept .... "  

I'm not given to criticizing other bloggers but when I come across such a piece of fatuity as this I really do wonder … well, I didn't have to watch and listen but I couldn't resist, especially when I saw that the author had no idea of what a butler actually did and its so wrong on many levels – not just historically but also about the utter meaningless of the term "butler" in the modern world outside of the houses of the rich, aristocratic or TV soap opera. 

Before Barny was awake I read chewable paper

What the blog author describes, of course, is an aspirational daydream and begins " … even in homes without a butler … " and explains that a butler's pantry is a transitional space between kitchen and dining room which must mean, I suppose, she's talking to people who don't have one, and would like one – look for yourselves, if you have the time. As Dorothy Draper said Decorating is Fun! and the complete antithesis of the book I mention below. 

This morning's tablescape

Can anyone who has watched Downton Abbey imagine Carson making sandwiches and Mrs Patmore allowing him to do it? "What's a sandwich?" I can hear it now in Lady Violet's best Maggie Smith imitation. In the end, it all became clearer as I watched the video and my sense of equilibrium began to recover – shocked as I had been to discover that there are people in the provinces, still, living lives without the luxury of butlers and are wise enough to take advice – and sage counsel is rare –  to build a cabinet and shelf or two in tiny corners of their kitchens and feign the presence of such a servant in their lives by characterizing those moving little works of carpentry as butler's pantries. Oh, plucky people! 

"Are we creating a stage set? Or are we creating a home? To this day, I am creating homes for families to live in. I want dogs and children and all the family stuff in them." The second quotation of the day, I came across as I sat reading Bunny Williams's chapter in what is, so far, the best book of the year. I say "best book" in the sense that I exclude so-called decorator monographs because Parish-Hadley Tree of Life: An Intimate History of the Legendary Design Firm does not fit within the category of monograph.

Though, inevitably, there is some repetition where one has so many designers and decorators contributing to a book about a firm, perhaps the premier American interior design firm of the twentieth-century, where they began their careers, the text alone is a lesson in how to design rooms and houses and how to provide the means by which the houses can be turned into homes by the families or individuals who inhabit them – they are designed for them from the lifestyle outwards, as it were, and not just by the application of a decorative theory or fad. 

The photographs are terrific, some already known from previous publications, some not, and the most striking thing to me is how important the floors were to Parish-Hadley, its designers and clients. There are some beautiful floors, stenciled, carpeted and be-rugged, throughout the book and what I see makes me wish to have my basic wood floors stenciled as the basis of the beautiful room I have in my head and, I hope, in my designer's too. Anyone with an eye to design can learn a lot from the photographs but the text alone is worth the price of the book. 

Watering the trees

I think why I react so badly to counterfeit names such as that with which I begin, and why much of what I see in magazines and "monographs" is that, as Bunny Williams alludes to, it is the creation of a stage set and has nothing to do with real life. Building some extra cabinets and shelves at the end of the dining room or in the kitchen is not a romantic or easy fun project as the blogger implies. It's hard work and costly. The whole concept of a "butler's pantry" in a suburban house is so out of sync with modern times – it came along with the bonus spaces that developers attached to the MacMansions of the 1980s and 1990s and which now are as devalued as the structures and prices they helped to bloat. 

Barny snuggling

If there ain't a butler there cain't be a butler's pantry – simple as that.  I wonder if anyone knows what a pantry is. Oh, if I not being too dogmatic, it's not a library without at least one wall of books in the language of the people living in the house, with all book spines facing the viewer without too many vahzes or pieces of fruit stuck in between. And a neighborhood does not consist of homes; rather it consists of houses because a home is what the inhabitants make of a house by living in it. AND … oh, don't get me started!

My old prof and Rory at brunch 

So … deep breath … and now, to family matters: every week we lunch at the same Italian restaurant, my old prof and I, sharing food, dire warnings about the fall of civilization, reminiscences about riding to school on a horse, history (this week, the time she and a friend had tickets to Dior and Fath), the Colosseum in a time of few tourists, the differences between American and English pronunciation (one word per Friday)  – really, just the two of us rabbiting on enjoying ourselves over a glass of wine, a glass of bourbon and food we can share. In many ways an unvarying routine that is a pleasure to both of us and one that has been minimally impacted by Barny.

Barny after breakfast on the sofa 

A little later

Until two days, that is, when I arrived home to find our front door wide open, debris in the foyer and living room, and Barny gone. My clever whippet, almost eight-months old, has learned how to open doors with lever handles. I was late coming home and, I think, grabbing his harness, which is missing, Barny went looking for me. He got to the floor below, with no access other than elevator (our elevators do, at times, have a life of their own so may've invited him in) where seemingly a neighbor found him, took him to the lobby from where, on receiving my panicked phone call, the office manager took him to her office. 

Barny and Rory

I won't go into the state I was in … had I a butler and he a pantry I'm sure Barny this evening would be securely locked up behind a door with a knob handle and I would be out with my husband eating dinner instead of watching my whippet sleep the sleep of the innocent by my side on the sofa as if he hadn't a care in the world, which I hope he hasn't. 

The Tale of Two Men and Their Whippet – this is family life, indeed.

By the way, I bought my copy of this book here. I make book recommendations because I like to and for no other reason.