Thursday, April 17, 2014

A fine room

It occurred to me this weekend as I looked again at The Finest Rooms by America's Great Decorators as I tidied away piles of books littering the place (a sisyphean task, if ever there was one) that I have my favorite rooms and that to me they are very fine rooms indeed. None perhaps with the grandeur of those illustrated in The Finest Rooms but all with four things in common: space, simplicity, suitability, and atmosphere.

As I look around me now it seems again I'm still surrounded by books. On the coffee table, the weekends essential reading in order of stacking: Les réussites de la décoration française 1950 - 1960; Maureen Footer's brilliant George Stacey and the Creation of American Chic; an Italian easy-reader mystery La casa sulla scogliera; Mary Gilliatt's A House in the Country: the Second Home from Cottages to Castles; David Hicks's Living with Design; Mario Praz's Interior Decoration; and Brian J McCarthy's beautiful Luminous Interiors. As to the side tables .... well, I had probably better stop right there and return to my actual theme which is a new and not infrequent series about rooms I consider to be particularly fine. 

I have written about some of these rooms before and feel it will do no harm to give them another look. The rooms by Kalef Alaton, for example, still figure large in my mind as some of the finest of 20th-century decorating, as also do rooms by Antony Childs, Arthur Smith and Roderick Cameron. Rooms in palaces or rooms overflowing with preciousness probably won't get a mention but I could change my mind given I've just remembered a room in a Japanese palace filled with preciousness of a different kind.

The first in the series, then, are two photographs I found on Tumblr. A greenhouse, a pavilion, a bedroom, a retreat – it's all of these but to me, romantic that I am, it's the finest bedroom in the world. I can imagine nothing finer than to be in this room – presupposing a hundred acres of privacy surround it – when fireflies flicker and starlight gleams; when birds sing and sun rises; when snow falls or rain pours; when the northern lights stream, or nights, most magical of all, when the Milky Way shines across the sky.  The screams of massacred animals, the shrill of insects and the slither of snakes? Meh. As I say, I'm a romantic.

Friday, April 11, 2014

New neighbors

Ducklings as yellow as the pollen that blankets everything in Atlanta in Spring. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Joseph Braswell

Of all my acquaintance, I know only one person who has houseplants. I'm not talking about white phalaenopsis – though perhaps I should be, given their omnipresence – rather about large plants like palms and figs used as decoration in interiors. They come and go, as it were, and last year, seemingly, the plant to have was the fiddle-leaved fig. Not, I think, as living sculpture as they might have been in 1960s modernist interiors, but more as an addition to the stylish bric-a-brac that today is dignified under the name of accessories. This isn't a rant against house plants for I don't care about them one way or the other – I like the occasional visit by a geranium but that's about it – but because I've been looking through 1970s magazines again I have noticed how they were used as foreground in photographs. Never seen nowadays, this peering through foliage (see the first photograph below and the lilies in the first photograph of the library) but so popular was this conceit in the 1970s it appeared even in the hand-drawn renderings of the time. 

I don't want to overstate this but, to my eye, large plants and their location both in a room and in relationship to the camera lens help date a room – much as white phalaenopsis date rooms to the first decade and a half of this century and, perhaps, fiddle-leaved figs will date rooms to the second decade. 

Not that these rooms at 740 Park Avenue, the erstwhile home of "international tastemaker Mrs Byron C Foy," decorated anew by Joseph Braswell for Mr and Mrs Homer Langdon, are dated; they all, including the library, have stood the test of time. The drawing room with its ivory, cream and yellow scheme, FFF (Fine French Furniture), could have been decorated recently, and the library, with its grey flannel and stainless steel, a superbly beautiful room, could well have been put together a decade later in France and only need refreshing today. 

White marble floor, Louis XVI-style friezes, marble-topped console, 
eighteenth-century Coromandel screen hidden behind potted palm.

Drawing Room
Régence boiserie,18th-century Aubusson, yellow and cream striped sofas,
buttercup-yellow Louis XV chairs,  Régence-style ivory moiré armless sofas. Régence marble mantel, parquet-de-Versailles floors.

Drawing Room
"The walls were scraped and restored to the original woodwork, then finished with an eighteenth-century type water paint. Moreover, all the baseboards are the original marbleized wood." 

The Library
Matching bibliothèques flank the door, and a Flemish chandelier hangs above gray flannel sofa. Separated by a table supporting a treasured collection of Italian marble obelisks, a matching sofa faces the color television hidden behind a bank of false book bindings. 

The Library
In contrast with the oft-reiterated bronze and brass in the rest of the apartment, Joseph Braswell used stainless steel as the accent metal. The wall covering is a rusty-brown suede-cloth. The Italian marble fireplace is mounted on a sheet of stainless steel, stretching from floor to ceiling. 

Dining Room
Walls of aubergine cotton twill, red and gold Brunschwig & Fils water-taffeta curtains, 
silver and brass Louis XVI chandelier above 19th-century Directoire dining table

Daughter's Bedroom
Lit à la Polonaise draped in Colefax and Fowler's Berkeley Sprig

Master Bedroom

Joseph Braswell, despite being able with equal ease to step between residential and contract design, bringing to both the same erudition, color sense, and accord between style and purpose, was – as these photographs attest – one of the most underrated designers of the twentieth century. Click here for more about him. Braswell's design of the Helena Rubinstein corporate offices first caught my eye and it remains the supreme example of his work.

Photographs by Norman McGrath to accompany unattributed text (whence quotations) for Architectural Digest, March/April 1974.

Two photographs illustrating my point about peering through foliage. Both are by Jeremiah O Bragstad and are from an article entitled In San Francisco: International Design Show in the same issue of Architectural Digest as above.

By Billy Gaylord

By Larry Peabody

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The best known decorator of his time

On looking through my piles of old, often mildew-perfumed, magazines I came across a room designed for a New York charity benefit in 1961 by William Pahlmann. I'd passed over it a few times in my trawling but it was only now, nearly fifty years after it was created, that it struck me as classic as it gets but, as one might expect, with certain dated elements.

Mark Hampton, in his book Legendary Decorators of the Twentieth Century, wrote:

"If one were to come up with just the right phrase to describe the late Bill Pahlmann, it would probably be 'the best known decorator of his time.' " He became a household word, as well as an enormous influence on the design world, both commercial and private. He was also the first man to do so – not that one wishes to sound sexist. Before Pahlmann, there had been some very famous ladies in the decorating business who dominated nearly every aspect of the field, most notably the publicity that surrounded it ...."

" .... sooner or later a Siegfried figure was bound to arrive upon the scene. His name was William Pahlmann. Thirty five years ago*, anyone in America remotely interested in decorating would have known immediately who he was."

I'm sure William Pahlmann is not as well-known today as he once was and, occasionally, one still comes across photographs of rooms done by him that illuminate what Mark Hampton meant.  On the other hand, there are photographs of rooms that make one wonder how he became as famous as he did. This is not to say Pahlmann was not a good decorator because he was, as this room shows. It is a room that could be extant today and be charming enough to be considered a time-capsule.

However, to my mind, there is a direct correlation between what made him famous and what makes some of the present generation of decorators famous – those elements of novelty and fashion that titillate the national publicity machine to giddy heights of febrility (and, which, inevitably date a room.) Also, to my mind, what gives this room a degree of modernity is the degree of visual clutter.

In her new and excellent book, George Stacey and the Creation of American Chic, Maureen Footer mentions William Pahlmann as a friend of Stacey's and that each influenced the other. George Stacey's influence certainly comes to mind here, not solely in the quality of the antique furniture, but  in the gemstone-hues (that wonderful emerald–green chandelier) used in Mrs Carll Tucker's townhouse in New York City – the venue in 1967 for a decorator's showhouse to benefit the Epilepsy Association of America.

The dark paneled walls, offset by a bright gold painted ceiling, seem to me a beautiful and restrained setting for an effervescent printed linen that, frankly, might well have led the old-guard carpet to wonder about the younger generation, the flower-children of the 1960s.

In comparison with a room by his friend George Stacey, Pahlmann's rooms have, however formal the basis, a definite air of informality – as Mark Hampton wrote: "he could guarantee an atmosphere of lively, unconventional modernity where dinner jackets and finger bowls were less common than television and cashmere cardigans."

I'll write again about William Pahlmann in future posts. He's worth getting to know. I write above that one comes across photographs of rooms done by him that make one wonder why Pahlmann became as famous as he did, but I question now if his diverse (I won't use the word "eclectic") approach to design and modernity is lost to my jaundiced eye. Clearly I need to investigate further.

The fabric on the sofas and the curtains is, I think, "Carmel" by Franciscan Fabrics – a kind of floral sadly missed by those of us regretting the dumbing down of design ..... nope, mustn't say that sort of thing. Sensitivity training, and all that! However much I might wish a 1960s free-wheeling gutsiness were again visible in textile design, it isn't.

The photographs are by Alexandre George for Architectural Digest, Fall 1967.

* Written in 1992.

Friday, March 14, 2014

George Stacey and the Creation of American Chic

A while back I read that a book about George Stacey was soon to be published and I must say I looked forward to learning more about the man I'd first read about in Mark Hampton's Legendary Decorators of the Twentieth Century. Charmed, over twenty years ago, as I was by Hampton's watercolor of Stacey's living room at Le Poulailler in France, and impressed by what he wrote about Stacey, then ninety, I'm even more charmed and impressed by the new book, the first, about George Stacey – George Stacey and the Creation of American Chic. In a time when, generally speaking, indiscipline and ignorance of history holds sway it is good to read a well-illustrated book showing why George Stacey was considered a "legendary" decorator by another of that ilk.

"A short while ago I went to see a house in East Hampton decorated by George Stacey nearly thirty years ago for Mrs. William Lord, a woman who has bee his friend and client for many years and who lives there all year round now. Its rooms still bear the Stacey stamp of boldly stylized chic that, paradoxically, has aged to a mellowness one rarely finds in fashionable statements from the past. One reason we redecorate so often is to erase the trendy flaws that reflect the unconscious mistakes we make trying to be in style. Twenty-five years or so ago, when this lovely East Hampton house was being done up, there were a lot of popular trends now almost impossible to remember, they've been buried so deep. George Stacey, however, never embraced Mylar wallpaper or chrome and plastic tables. He relied on strong color schemes and carefully selected and arranged pieces of furniture, each one beautiful on its own. Because he is a classicist of sorts, as well as the possessor of a fine and highly trained eye, his choices have survived the years, carrying their beauty with them." [Mark Hampton]

"One of the requisites of a competent decorator is real knowledge of period furniture of any country. It is, in general, a fairly complicated study involving research, comparisons, and a liking for both art and history. With this knowledge, and with a knowledge of color, any young decorator is, I feel sure, well on his way." [George Stacey]

"In answer to the questions most often put to me  about decorating, I would say the following. My favorite classic styles are eighteenth-century French, Italian, and English – in that order. I prefer painted French and Italian furniture to plain wood, and simple rather than elaborate design. I definitely believe in mixing different styles of furniture both in a house and in a room. One of the most common errors people make in decorating is trying to make a room perfect in all the details of a single given period, which inevitably results in a stiff and impersonal background." [George Stacey]

George Stacey and the Creation of American Chic, by Maureen Footer, with a foreword by Mario Buatta, is to be released by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. of New York on April 1st. It is a book to read and learn from, is well-designed and though it will add a certain currency to a cocktail table or to a modish stack, it is really – and I repeat – a book to read and learn from.

A brilliant stroke, in my opinion, on the part of the book designer – and it is a well-designed book – was to repeat the bright shiny red of the lampshade in the book jacket photograph as bright shiny red end papers.

If I were you and I lived in New York I'd go to the Rizzoli bookstore on 31 West 57th Street, buy the book and sign the petition to save what is one of New York's finest bookstores from demolition.

Photos of George Stacey rooms taken from the book.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Before and after

My first visit to the Algonquin, in the 1970s, was for a drink in the lobby with my friend Glen, then newly returned from living in Europe. We were there because he wanted to show me where the Vicious Circle had met and, if I remember rightly, he said the lobby which to my eyes looked old and tired, had been recently refurbished and, to the relief of the clientele, few if any visual changes had been made. Years ago, we stayed there a few times, swapping the inconvenience of small rooms for the glamour (to my eyes) of the lobby but, eventually, the purgatorial seating and intrusive waiters sent us seeking a more contemporary setting and larger rooms.  

So it was, the morning after the previous day's vespertine glance at the Algonquin remodel, I couldn't for the life of me recall if the wonderful old nicotine-stained Chinoiserie murals were still there, I headed out across the street, warnings of doom from the doormen notwithstanding. The murals were gone, of course, replaced with what appeared to be honey vinyl. Otherwise, not much had changed excepting for sconces, chandeliers, and textiles, or so it appeared to me. And it perhaps is entirely the point that like a face after photoshopping or or a facelift, it looses looses much of what had been its character and therefore its attraction.

The Royalton, in all of its late 1980s Starckness, attracted me no-end, though we never stayed there. It caught the moment and I wish those interiors had survived despite them probably showcasing the worst of the that time's bullishness – for all, or maybe because of, its in-yer-face icy arrogance it had tremendous style. A high-water mark, I think, in hotel design that was obliterated not twenty years later and replaced with a bronzed woody ponderousness as visually negating as advanced cataracts. In the redesign no reference was made to its past – except that our bathroom vanity stool looked very similar to one of Starck's small tables.

Of the two – the Royalton and the Algonquin – it was the former that was teeming with the after-work crowd. My friend David and I discussed the fact that we both remembered the Philippe Starck remodel but on looking around thought it unlikely, given the age of the majority of the clientele, that many others would. "Begone dull care" said he and hailed the waitress – we needed to be on our way.

Uber fans and grateful customers thereof, we headed in comfort to the Gloria Vanderbilt – Recent Paintings opening at the 1stdibs Gallery later that evening. Look at last Friday's New York Social Diary for an account of the opening – not that you will see me, but the Celt is there.

I do find that the famous underwhelm and such an event, perfect in its way for people-watching, had its complement thereof. No-one resembled their photoshopped images except in passing, which is surreal, really, if you think about it. I'm not referring to the artist who, for a woman just turned ninety, looked pretty amazing. Twice I found myself being filmed for the HBO special reportedly being made about Gloria Vanderbilt, and was amused when the lady with the cameraman called me by a name not my own. Such is fame!

Later that evening as we ate Indian food one of the charming ladies at the next table which whom I'd struck up a conversation asked me if I recognized her uncle in the photo she handed me. I did. There he was, shortly after his wife had died, looking for all the proud family man in his element, arm around a younger version of the lady at my side – George Burns. There was fame!

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Dearth in Venice

"Didn't we eat at Ristorante Antico Martini?" "We did.' replied the Celt. "It's an institution. Mind you, everything in Venice is a fucking institution." Lying on the bed, as I was, reading City of Falling Angels, I'd caught him at a critical moment in his morning decisions about what to wear and his reply,  atypically cynical, made me say that despite leaving Venice in dudgeon and rain, feeling we'd seen all there was to see and there wasn't any need to go back, I would like to return, but not to the same hotel. Answer came there none, as the decision about apricot socks with oxblood brogues was taking precedence.

A few chapters later, a choice of gilet and a broken shoelace notwithstanding, I began to find the book's Vanity Fair-esque tone irritating and ignoring "you've not read Vanity Fair since waddyacaller took it over" I closed City of Falling Angels and picked the next in the piles of books on the bedside table. Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World's Most Coveted Handbag not being entirely to my mood this morning, I rummaged further and found Nancy McClelland's The Practical Book of Decorative Wall Treatments. Before I continue, let me say in explanation that I have literary friends and they lend me books and I've rarely felt it polite to refuse. Consequently, the pile as of today includes the above-mentioned three plus John Lloyd Wright's My Father Who is On Earth; Treasure Hunt and The Age of Doubt by Andrea Camilleri; Lisa Hilton's Athénais; Kate Simon's A Renaissance Tapestry; The Dragon's Trail by Joanna Pitman and, finally, David McCullough's The Greater Journey. I can offer critique of none to them but can say I have, as it were, mental heartburn thinking of the riches yet to be digested.

Old books, a bit like old people if they've lived or been on the shelf long enough have likely seen it all and are prepared to say so – "that's your inner voice, Grumbleweed"– and a book about walls and their treatments, published in 1926, has much to express in ways that, in modern times, are not untainted by trend-spotters and tastemakers.

A plaster wall treated with orange shellac and panelled with lacquer red moldings. Old Chinese wall-paper is set in red frames to complete the scheme.

The blue dining-room decorated by Basil Ionides

In the introduction to The Practical Book of Decorative Wall-Treatments, Nancy McClelland writes:

"By the canons of art a wall is required to be either a background or a decoration. At the outset it must make its choice. It must be one or the other – it can rarely be a successful combination of the two ....

".... Unquestionably the decorated wall creates problems that do not exist in the presence of the plain background. Where there is colour and design or architectural relief on the wall, a room is largely furnished before any movable pieces are placed in it. Whatever else is added must be a foil and a complement to the mural decoration. This is exactly the reverse of the treatment employed with a background wall, where the movable things in the room are the objects of chief importance.

"Colour and pattern, however, are by no means barred from the adjuncts of the room that contains a decorated wall. On the contrary, such a wall usually demands richness of hue and texture in the hangings, the floor coverings, and the upholsteries, to give it proper balance, but these furnishings must be selected discreetly and used intelligently, to be either subordinate notes or complementary accents in the general schemes."

The walls of Venice and Rome  some palatial, some decrepit, all colorful (no dearth there)  have rendered me dissatisfied with our own plain background – whites from gray to cream – and, occasionally, I've wondered what it might be like to live with walls upon which nothing is hung. Risible, I know, such an idea and, certainly, arguing that thirteen 17th-century framed engravings of Rome, a framed 1940s wallpaper mural, a multi-framed copy of a map of Paris, an 8'x4' abstract on metal, and a Gustavian mirror might be stored, would be nigh impossible to justify.  Also, a wall of fuchsia linen in the living room is not so much a pop as a thump of color and it takes a lot of living up to (as does the orange linen in the dining room). But on a cold winter's night, coming home to a jubilance of color is bliss. 


There are two solutions, as far as I can see, to balance the room: de-cream the furniture by introducing a judicious amount of subtle pattern to two chairs, (one of which is visible above); and treat the walls to lotsa shine. One of the more interesting developments of late is an alluring variation on the plain wall – high-gloss lacquer. Mirrored walls are too problematical (of which more in another post) yet reflections in lacquered walls seems to me to be both fascinating and enchanting – enough almost to deny the hanging of any artwork. I see much discussion  mediation, even  in my future.

So, the title. A Dearth in Venice refers to the feeling the Celt and I had as we left the hotel – something had been lacking. That morning, early, had been acqua alta which, combined with a strong wind from the south, had flooded parts of the city including the stretch of the Grand Canal where our hotel stood. Even the novelty of that didn't lessen the conviction – and this is a first for us – that the hotel, five-star, though luxurious, was not somewhere we care to stay again. To be sure, the rooms were beautiful, the bathrooms spaciously functional, the public spaces handsome (if mildly implausible), and the staff from the back office, reception, the bar to the restaurant, attentive.

Not a dearth of service, thus, not even an unwillingness to oblige in any way, but an oddly disconnected demeanor. As if we were just passing through their world – which indeed, we were. Perhaps it was a degree of formality to which we are unaccustomed, but which their jet-set guests expect. In fact, they were aloof, as if their attention was elsewhere. Perhaps I'm being ungenerous – it was after all the time of year when everyone wishes to be with family, a time of year perhaps when guests are few, hours long, and the journey back across the lagoon tiresome. Nevertheless, like the acqua alta, we passed through; but unlike the water, we shall not return.

Acqua Alta, St Stephen's Day

All photos by the Celt and me, except for the fourth which is by Erik Kwalsvik and from Fortuny Interiors by Brian D Coleman. A feast for the eyes.

The photograph the red lacquered room is from Luminous Interiors by Brian J McCarthy. An excellent book illustrating the work of a decorator at his mature best. I cannot recommend it too highly.