Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Forty years ago, David Whitcomb on Beekman Place

"Everything that goes into a room should be meaningful to the owner – status decorating is over." So declared David Whitcomb in 1974 when interviewed for Architectural Digest. Would that his claim had carried weight with more people in the following decades – it's quite clear that status decorating has never left us and probably never shall.

The interviewer is nowhere recorded, surprisingly, but I intend to quote both him and Mr Whitcomb himself to describe the decorator and the decorator's own home – a place clearly full of things meaningful to the owner – they both will do a better job than I. If there's any emphasis on status in this house, and I'm sure there is, it is not crude. I have written about Mr Whitcomb before  and should you wish to see more of his talent and his, to me, timeless decorating please click here or look for his name in the sidebar "Labels."

"Just in from his second home, in upstate apple/dairy country, David Whitcomb, in well-broken-in walking shoes and a cozy, stretched-out sweater, settles himself down on a u-shaped bench in the duplex where he's lived since 1959, the same year he purchased the five-story graystone townhouse. A seemingly relaxed man, with nice blue eyes, graying hair and a quiet sensibleness about him, he admits:

" 'It's difficult for me to talk about myself and my design work, especially something that is so basically visual. Words, somehow, aren't right in this case. And you see, I'm not one of those designers on an ego trip. It's very important to me that the results I try to achieve do not come out looking like Joe Whosit or Jane Whatsit did them. I've seen so many designers only interested in themselves, it's made me turn around and get more into my clients' point of view. Frequently clients don't have the time or interest or knowledge, but they always have a point of view.

" ' I don't know if I have a word for my style. I don't like that word 'eclectic.' Let's say it's a collection of dissimilar pieces, both in county of origin and period of time, from this bench to that highly carved Chippendale armchair in flame-stitch fabric.

 " ' As a designer I see so many objects that turn me off. I'm very particular about what I want around me, even to the simplest things. I feel that everything that goes into a room should be meaningful to the owner – objects one loves, not just things that represent money. Status decorating is over. After all, really incredible beauty is often something you cannot bring into a room. Like a tree branch coated with ice. There's transitory beauty!

" ' The act of design is a creative one, which makes for a certain amount of ego, I guess. I'm proud of what I do but I don't think it need to develop into egotism ..... I have never had a client who didn't have taste. That's why they come to me.' "

As I wrote above, I've let David Whitcomb speak for himself and as far as I am concerned his house needs no description of contents and finishes for it, too, speaks for itself. This is a house, as have all of Whitcomb's been, a place I would have like to have spent time, talking, reading and listening to music. It is a subtle and sophisticated room, long-gone, I'm sure, and to my eye quite undated.

That "Kentian" table in the second photograph reminds me that I'm catching a plane in a few hours, first to New York, thence to London where we'll visit the William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum – an exhibition I'm looking forward to immensely and one I missed when it was at the Bard Graduate Center before the end of last year.

We are going to New York, London, Edinburgh and Dundee for theatre, exhibitions, a birthday party, a family reunion, reunions with old friends, and to spend time with two very excited nieces, eleven and thirteen years old. The twenty-four-year-old nephew is being very cool about it all – as is only to be expected. I, on the other hand .... well, more about that from over there.

Photographs by Daniel Eifert to accompany text written (anonymously, as far as I can see) for Architectural Digest, May/June 1974.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A very happy Independence Day

 Seventy degrees with low humidity – perfect for the annual Peachtree Road Race. 

Yesterday, a walk by the Chattahoochee 

Fred, who likes nothing better than lying in shallow pools – if there aren't any snapping turtles

After dinner, on the way home by the Swan House

Next week we go to New York, thence to London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Dundee. I shall be posting from there. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Who knew?

Happy birthday to me from Google. 
I'm touched that the folks at Google would take time out of their busy schedules on a Sunday to wish me a happy birthday. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

With a song in my heart

With a song in my heart
I behold your adorable face.
Just a song at the start
but it soon is a hymn to your grace.
When the music swells
I'm touching your hand
It tells that you're standing near, and
At the sound of your voice 
heaven opens its portals to me.
Can I help but rejoice
that a song such as ours came to be?
But I always knew
I would live life through
with a song in my heart for you.

A year ago today, in the Supreme Court of New York building, on my brother's birthday, the day before my own, thirty-five years after we met, Rory and I were married

With a song in my heart, indeed

Lyrics by Lorenz Hart, 1929

Monday, June 23, 2014


Asked my old prof when I told her we were considering remodeling the kitchen. "I've lived with mine for more than forty years despite it being small and having three doorways in it." "You just make do," she said, "but nowadays you might as well tell that to the Marines." "All that good stuff going into the landfill just because some dolly desecrator says so." Warming to her theme and sipping her wine "It's not that I'm advocating waiting for the tinker to come by and have him repair a pan as my great-grandparents had to do – not that these gals nowadays would know how to wear out a pan; they don't cook! Can't cook, in most cases. Didn't you once tell me about a neighbor who threw out all her old pans because they didn't go with her new kitchen and bought a matching set of fashionable, so-called professional pans? Who do these people think they are – chefs? Can you imagine Piero throwing away a pot because it doesn't look good? It should be about function not fashion." 

"Is there a problem with the new menu?" said Piero (whose grandfather, as a boy, saw Buffalo Bill in Piacenza) walking over from his kitchen – we were having our usual Friday lunch and I guess we'd got bit excited and enthusiastic. There's never a problem with the food that comes out of your kitchen except, perhaps, my waistline, I assured him. 

Our kitchen, as you see from these photographs, is a galley and its layout was designed in 1969 by the architect of the buildings. It was designed as a "work center" – a place where the help could enter by the back door (there's a doorbell on the door frame) and begin her work without entering the main door. The room functions as both kitchen and laundry. Not an entirely satisfactory situation by modern standards, but as a good instance of 1960s thinking and planning it cannot be beat. Ted Levy, the architect, had provided a laundry room for tenants in one of the buildings yet I have come to appreciate the combination of kitchen and laundry – perhaps because I grew up with such an arrangement, and being able to keep an eye on more than one task is of great use to me. 

The kitchen was fitted with new cabinetry and appliances in the 1970s and when we bought the place it was in a terrible state and only one appliance worked – the oven, and it died halfway through  baking a cake on my birthday. Given that the building/selling boom in Atlanta was then at its peak we couldn't get a contractor because we lived in a high-rise – they were too busy with building the suburbs. Nowadays, of course, they're fighting to get in the buildings so, perhaps, this time it will be easier to remodel. 

We painted the dark cherry cabinets a soft grey-blue, built a cabinet for the stacked washer/dryer, replaced the peeling counters with Silestone, backslashes with subway tile, and used Miele and Sub-Zero appliances. You see the results – on a summer morning, facing the rising sun, the kitchen is a joy to walk into. On a winter's night, orange curtains closed against the cold, it's delectable having the Celt sit at the table telling me about his day whilst I futz at the cooktop and then join him in one of the Provençal chairs we bought more than thirty years ago. 

Now, nearly ten years later we both want a new kitchen – one without oddly projecting cabinets with more work surface, no stainless steel (a misnomer if ever I heard one), no visible hinges and without paneled doors. In other words we want a contemporary, streamlined, easy-to-care-for and to cook-in kitchen that is beautiful and suits someone with back problems. 

Inevitably, fashion plays a role in decorating and remodeling decisions. Neither of us wants the kind of curlicued cabinetry that refers to a mythical Victorian past – kitchens until the late 20th-century were hellish and from our first-world perspective created more labor than they saved. The modern kitchen is one of the wonders of the modern age and also of modern marketing – as much a product of suburbanization as was the creation of the family room/great room/keeping room/kitchen combination with attendant butler's pantry and wine cellar. 

What exercises us is not when to remodel, but whether or not we remove the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. In essence, the kitchen would not get any bigger except than an island or peninsula would supplant the dining table, yet I see the attraction of taking away the wall – the undertow of fashion and marketing is strong. We are divided about it – not acrimoniously but certainly typically.

It's likely that making do as my old prof advocates is not a choice – the concept of "aging in place" and the adaptability of the environment to the needs of the user already require that changes be made to the room.  Also, perhaps, what should exercise us more than the possible removal of a wall is what happens to the old cabinets and counters. Do they go into the landfill? Would anyone even want them? 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Remembrances of Things Past

I sometimes forget the wealth of personal history there is in The Blue Remembered Hills – letters written about personal experiences of Roderick Cameron, for example, comments from relatives and friends of the Lost Generation of decorators, or simply people who have had their memories awoken. One such comment, as personal as can be and, as the writer himself states, "worthy of Remembrances of Things Past" was in my mailbox this morning. And what a privilege it was to receive it.

About the "Conversation Piece" .....a house I know well because "Villa Sylvia" was named after my Mother, Sylvia Curtis Steinert, who was born on May 5, 1999 in Paris. I therefore remember well my Mother, Sylvia, recalling how she and my maternal grandparents, Ralph and Lisa Curtis, named that house after her at the turn of the last century. And because the "Villa Sylvia" was built on such a huge tract of land, it overlooked - from its location in St Jean Cap Ferrat - the entire bay of Villefranche....and the U.S. flagships which were moored in that Bay in 1917. This enabled Navy U.S. Officers and sailors to come ashore on that part of the property which was at water's edge, to come up and be the guests of my mother and grandparents at that famous house, and to be entertained there. There were so many hectares, Bernardo and the other gardners had their hands full in an attempt to keep the grounds and the flowers in full bloom at all times. The mimosa from the Villa Sylvia continued to proliferate even during WWII because I still remember how some of those sweet smelling flowers were brought to us in Paris, even during WWII, and the Nazi occupation of France, which my mother, my brother and I lived through. Glorious past and worthy of Remembrances of Things Past. And of course, a word of thanks to the Author of The Blue Remembered Hills who was able to find and revive those memorable paintings and photos of my mother, maternal grandparents and great-grandparents who left Boston in order to settle in Europe in the mid-1800's. Anyone interested in why they left can read "The Proper Bostonians" and find out! No wonder I was born in Europe too more than 80 years ago, the same year as Hitler came to power...Oh my God...Help me!

Theo, thank you. I hope you do not mind me letting your comment on "Conversation Piece" be my post for today. I feel privileged to have received your comment and will reply.